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We pay a high price for cut flowers in winter, no matter their price tag, through ecological and social costs. A recent push to treat flowers with the same seasonality as food suggests that consumers are no more entitled to tulips in October than to tomatoes in January. In our quest for more ethical cut flowers, the domestic flower market has begun to echo the slow food movement with a renewed push to buy local, and thus to buy flowers when they grow naturally.
Where Are Cut Flowers Grown?
A distinct mark of globalization is that the rose, a flower synonymous with summer, can be found in nearly every North American gas station and supermarket in the dark days of February, in preparation for Valentine’s Day. How can a summer’s bud flout millennia of natural law with such impunity? Of course, domestically, it doesn’t. Roses don’t bloom outside in February — at least, not in North America. For an American to receive a bouquet of the now-trite dozen roses, those flowers must first be grown in the high fields outside of Bogotá. At 8,500 feet, in 12 heavenly, light-filled hours of equatorial daylight, Colombia’s roses grow prolifically in February.
Massive shipments of cut flowers in all seasons make for a colossal carbon footprint lurking behind every beautiful bouquet.
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In the first six weeks of last year, some 976 million of these summer-loving flowers were shipped from Colombia to the United States. The most ubiquitous of Valentine’s Day symbols wouldn’t exist without Colombian flower farmers, who don’t even celebrate the holiday. Roses fill dozens of cargo jets from Bogotá to Miami in early February, with flights carrying more than 1 million stems per flight.
Florists’ roses used to be grown in the United States, but since the 1990s, some 95 percent of domestic rose production has moved to Colombia. Producers in the continental U.S. used expensive heated greenhouses to force blooms in the dead of winter, which added a sizable carbon footprint to every blossom and drove the price higher than the market was willing to pay. In addition, the Andean Trade Preference Act, passed in 1991, eliminated a 6 percent import tax on Colombian flowers. Producers moved entire operations to Colombia to take advantage of inexpensive contract labor and better winter rose-growing conditions. Such favorable trade deals, and globalization in general, mean buying a dozen cheap red roses on Valentine’s Day is now viewed as a consumer’s right.
The Cost of Cut Flowers
Women make up approximately 65 percent of Colombia’s flower-labor force. On average, flower field workers are paid $280 a month. In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, the biggest flower-laden holidays in the United States, they’re sometimes made to work more than 16 hours a day. The work is punishing and fast-paced, and women report everything from repetitive stress injuries to illness from pesticide exposure and miscarriages.
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The ecological and social toll of imported flowers doesn’t begin and end with roses. The next-most-popular imports, chrysanthemums and carnations, followed by consumer-ready bouquets, make the U.S. the No. 1 importer of cut flowers in the world. The U.S. imports about 70 percent of its cut flowers. That’s 4 billion stems — or 1.74 billion dollars’ worth — every year. About 62 percent of those flowers come from Colombia. Ecuador, the Netherlands, Canada, and Mexico make up the remaining producers. In the early 1990s, flowers joined their more edible vegetable counterparts in a modern agricultural market, where climates and seasons mean little while price and availability reign supreme.
Much like vegetables and fruits, the flowers available in supermarkets and florists’ shops aren’t dictated by the amount of sunlight and warmth they need to grow, nor by the geographic proximity of the consumer and producer, but by the expectation that consumers will pay for them — cheaply, but reliably — year-round. Delphiniums, snapdragons, gerbera daisies, and tulips are all readily available, underwritten by the commercialization of holidays and the social insistence on bouquets for nearly all occasions. Thus, flowers need not be in season for a consumer to hold and enjoy. A consumer can ask for daffodils in January and tulips in November, and they will receive them. For a steep price, Americans need not have bleak, flowerless dinner tables in winter.
Why Buy Local?
But, just like their edible cousins, flowers are gradually experiencing a slow-farmed renaissance and consumer re-education decades or more in the making. Consumers are gaining an understanding of the impact of flowers-on-demand. Domestic flower producers now teach their potential customers that buying cut flowers is a moral, ecological matter, much like buying seasonal produce.
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It isn’t simply an issue of domestic or international production. Domestic producers may rightly point to the ecological and moral issues of buying a Colombian-grown rose. The water-intensive flower is grown at great ecological cost by women who are underpaid and treated poorly, and then flown, by jet, to the U.S. and trucked all over the country. Only then — thousands of miles from its source — is the flower sold at bargain-store prices.
Domestic winter flowers are no better an option. While we can ostensibly control, through legislation, the working conditions and pay of domestic rose producers, we must consider the formidable ecological cost of the heated high tunnels that replicate hot July days in the middle of winter.
Slow, Local Flowers
Flower community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs have now become the add-on item for CSA members nationally, and the array of price tags and offerings are already flourishing. Each farm tends to have similar goals, no matter the nuances of its programs: to underline the seasonality of cut flowers for the consumer, and to provide start-up income for the farm before the growing season begins.
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Floral CSA programs usually offer one bouquet a week for the length of the growing season. Often, they’re available as a bonus for a more traditional edible CSA. Full Belly Farm in California’s Capay Valley offers a $208 bouquet-a-week add-on for its 26-week season. A flower-only CSA program, such as the one offered by Stitchdown Farm in Vermont’s Upper Valley (14 weeks, $200), will tend to be composed of larger, more extravagant bouquets. Either way, members of a flower CSA program will get the pleasure and decadence of cut flowers in their homes while supporting local producers and seasonal growing practices. Some farms have cut-your-own flowers. Others have on-farm pickup, and still others will go so far as to deliver your share to your office or home.
Over the past few decades, U.S. residents have enjoyed the benefits of globalized agriculture with impunity, relying on ignorance to overlook the cost of their consumption, but the damage this system inflicts can’t be ignored. In addition to local food production, thoughtfulness in buying flowers can strengthen local economies. Consider patronizing a flower CSA program to bolster local farms and local community, reduce carbon emissions, and reduce the power of industrial producers whose techniques are harmful to the earth and to their employees. Inquire at your local farmers market about flower CSA options, and keep cut flowers in season just as you do edible produce.
Kate MacLean and her family run an organic, diversified livestock farm in central Vermont, where they raise sheep, cattle, pigs, goats, poultry, bees, and vegetables. Find Kate on Instagram @LongestAcresFarm.