Postharvest Solutions Are Not Your Enemy

When it comes to the production of meat, produce, and dairy, the most important aspects of quality are arguably freshness and flavor. Whereas with flowers, “The most important aspects of quality are ‘freshness’ and vase life, and these aspects depend on optimum postharvest handling.” (Dr. Michael Reid, UC Davis 2009). So why does there seem to be a subtle trend away from interest in and use of postharvest solutions? Have you noticed it? Growers, sometimes supermarkets, and often wholesalers and retailers disdain floral chemicals as the best treatment for cuts. They describe water as “clear”, “pure” or “clean”. Huh? The tenacity of bacteria alone is one reason plain water is not an optimal treatment for the vast majority of cut flowers.

How did postharvest solutions become demonized, anyway? In the mid-2000s, organic produce was moving from fringe interest to mainstream and “story” became a trendy marketing strategy as consumers hungered for information supporting various products. Negative comments like this one from Kristine Wong threw a dark light on chemical use on flowers with her bristling alert: “The flowers in your typical supermarket bouquet…(are) likely tended by underpaid laborers exposed to harmful pesticides, preserved with chemicals…”. (Modern Farmer, “A Flower-Farming Renaissance: America’s Slow Flower Movement” 3/28/16).     

Ouch! Stories completely out of sync with the feel-good aura of flowers. Instead of focusing on negative aspects of imports, why not share details about social programs offered by farms including child care, education, and health clinics? Why not pepper the story with information on the use of IPM, worm culture, and composting techniques to reduce chemical use, enrich the soil, and protect the land?

Before I dig my hole any deeper, let me say that I celebrate the uptick in domestic production, and agree 100% with conscientious chemical use. But it is possible that we are missing the point by demonizing flower chemicals and imported blooms rather than focusing on improving the products we offer. Organic and Fair Trade labels on food products motivate me to buy, but when it comes to flowers, bloom performance is my motivator. According to Caitlin Dewey, (Washington Post 2/9/17), Millennials (18-34 year olds) were the driving force behind the 209% sales increase of organic food between 2005 and 2015. Our industry needs to attract the same millennial buying power by offering floral products that not only please, but also last.

Maybe eschewing postharvest solutions is a conscious attempt at distancing domestic from imported blooms. It’s easy to blame imports for the attrition of domestic production. There is no question that flowers went global like so many other U.S. industries. The Andean Free Trade Preference Act (ATPA) in 1991 and the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) in 2001 were enacted as trade preference systems by which the United States granted duty-free access to a wide range of exports (including flowers) from four Andean countries:  Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Enacting the treaties helped these countries fight against drug production and trafficking by expanding their economic alternatives. In the pre-euro years of the 1990s, the exchange rate of the Dutch guilder was rising fast against the U.S. dollar, but the wide array of auction flowers available continued to make purchasing attractive. As import volumes increased to North America and Europe, Colombian and Ecuadorian flower producers realized the globalization of flower production. They responded by embracing proven postharvest practices, adopting uniform grading standards, and renewing and modernizing variety selections, all to provide consistent quality.

Still today, many U.S. growers, wholesalers, and retailers view handling procedures and products as a cost rather than a way of offering quality to stimulate repeated purchases; an insurance policy against the myriad of actions that rob days from consumer vase life. The meteoric rise of event planners is the newest group to have an aversion for using floral products. An oft-mentioned reason is “The blooms have to last only as long as the event.”, but that mentality does not jive with the trend of encouraging guests to take home arrangements, which they gladly do. It is almost certain that flower photos are included as part of Facebook postings as the event is relived online in following days. Flowers that have flopped the next morning give a negative overview of ROI.

Some of us have spent our careers encouraging growers, bouquet-makers, wholesalers, florists, supermarkets, and big box stores to consider and employ best practices. Why? The sheer beauty of flowers may not be enough to capture our savvy consumer’s attention. Longevity is the most compelling yardstick used by consumers to decide if their flower purchase was worth the money spent. Satisfied customers are repeat buyers.

Gay Smith

Technical Consulting Manager

Gay Smith is the Technical Consulting Manager for Chrysal USA. Contact her at [email protected]