Is the Bloom Off the Rose? : Flower Growers Blame Woes on Imports


California’s recent downpours have sent rivulets coursing through fields of gladioluses, baby’s breath and larkspur. And January’s heavy dose of leaden skies has raised growers’ concern that many shoots will fail to evolve into rose blooms for love-struck Lotharios to send on Valentine’s Day.

But the state’s 500-plus commercial flower growers--many of whose forebears emigrated from Japan, Holland, China and Italy generations ago--say the biggest threat to their livelihood stems not from Mother Nature.

Rather, they blame what they see as intensifying and unfair competition from other nations, particularly Colombia and Ecuador.

Indeed, on Friday, a U.S. Commerce Department agency agreed that those nations have been selling roses at below-market prices in the United States. Whether that ruling leads to permanent tariffs, which ultimately could boost consumer prices, is expected to be decided in the next few weeks.


It’s tough to vie with countries that have fewer regulations and far lower labor costs, said Rene Van Wingerden, a flower grower and shipper in Carpinteria. “We can handle anybody’s imports as long as we’re on a level playing field,” he said.

The tables have, indeed, turned on U.S. growers since the early 1970s, when flowers grown offshore had a tiny toehold. In the last two decades, carnations, chrysanthemums, pompons and roses from Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and other nations have grabbed anywhere from 55% to 90% of the U.S. market.

Meanwhile, thousands of growers nationwide--including scores in California, the most prolific flower-producing state--have gone out of business because of the flood of low-cost blossoms from other lands.

Since 1971, the number of domestic rose growers, for example, has plummeted 34% to 213, according to Roses Inc., a Haslett, Mich., trade group. More than 1,300 carnation growers in 36 states have succumbed.


Last Valentine’s Day, growers from California and elsewhere took their concerns to the U.S. government, accusing Colombian and Ecuadorean rose growers of “dumping” roses on the U.S. market at prices below fair value.


A Commerce Department agency agreed with the complaint and in September imposed temporary duties on those countries’ imports--nearly 34% for Colombian growers (later reduced to 22%) and 50% for Ecuador. On Friday, the department found the culpability to be far less dramatic: 6.4% for Colombia and 6.3% for Ecuador.

The Colombians resent being branded a thorn in the domestic industry’s side and claim that they merely seized a chance to build a huge business in cut flowers in supermarkets and mass merchants that U.S. growers had neglected. The abundance of flowers from overseas, they note, has helped the U.S. market blossom to more than twice its size two decades ago, to an estimated $11.5 billion at retail.


Colombians also bristle at what they believe to be the hypocrisy of U.S. officials, who excoriate Colombia’s drug trafficking yet erect barriers to beneficial industries. The Colombian flower industry directly employs 30,000 people, and cut flowers rank as the tropical nation’s third most important legal crop, after coffee and bananas.

Normally, duties imposed on Colombian and Ecuadorean roses--with names such as Madame Delbard, Diplomat and Obsession--would mean higher prices for consumers. But growers say a worldwide flower glut means that buyers probably won’t see much of an increase.

Flowers, particularly roses, always sell at a premium on Valentine’s Day, generally the industry’s most profitable time. Despite the import duties and the 24 rainy January days Bay Area growers have endured, florists expect an ample supply of roses for Feb. 14.

A dozen long-stemmed roses from Calyx & Corolla, a mail-order firm in San Francisco, will run $67, about the same as last Valentine’s Day, said Ruth Owades, the company’s president. Big-city florists, she said, will probably charge $80 to $110.


Calyx & Corolla tends to order most of its flowers from domestic growers. However, she noted, often “there is very little to distinguish a flower grown in Colombia, Holland, Hawaii or California.”


Jetting flowers from overseas into Miami and trucking them around the country can increase the likelihood of their being less than fresh, florists say, but U.S.-grown flowers can have quality problems, too.

Helen Shih, co-owner of She’s Flowers in Los Angeles, said her experience has been that California growers often ship first-quality flowers to other states. To some degree, she said, domestic growers have themselves to blame.


Van Wingerden, the Carpinteria grower, agrees. When he and his cousins and brothers sailed with their parents in 1967 from Naaldwijk, Holland, they toted the makings of a 100,000-square-foot greenhouse. From that sprouted several flower-growing operations.

Over the years, to compete with imports, Van Wingerden has started growing specialty items such as sunflowers and anthuriums and has cut back on mums, once his sole crop. He has also spent $1 million a year to upgrade greenhouses and install new computer and cultivation systems.

Steve Oku, a Pescadero, Calif., grower whose Japanese grandfather started the business in 1902, visited Colombia and Mexico after recent trade pacts spurred him to think about relocating. But he found conditions so ghastly that he could not think of having employees live there.

The four Oku families’ nurseries support nearly 200 people, Oku said. Already they have had to give up raising carnations because of low-cost imports, and now their rose business is threatened.


Oku predicts that half the remaining U.S. rose growers will throw in the trowel within five years. Will his be among them? “I would say it’s 50-50,” he said, “but I’m an optimist.”


A Rose Is a Rose...

Imported roses, particularly from Colombia, have seized an ever-increasing share of the U.S. market since 1980. Imported roses market share:


1980: 9.5%

1993: 57.6%

Sources: Ornamental Crops National Market Trends, Department of Agriculture, Floral Trade Council