Ailing flower growers air complaints on Capitol Hill

02/27/2014 5:36 PM

02/27/2014 5:58 PM

U.S. flower growers normally consider themselves purveyors of joy, but they’re none too happy with the state of their industry these days.

This month, 97 percent of the roses Americans purchased for Valentine’s Day came from foreign countries such as Colombia and Ecuador. And on New Year’s Day, four of every five flowers used to decorate the floats in the annual Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena, Calif., were imported.

On Thursday, growers from California and Washington – the top two states in cut-flower production – took their complaints to the U.S. Capitol. Irked with a trade policy that they say is quickly driving them out of business, the growers said Congress must help convince Americans to buy more domestic flowers.

“We have the hearts of the American people behind us – we just have to get the word out there,” said Diane Szukovathy of Mount Vernon, Wash., who runs the Jello Mold Farm with her husband in the Skagit River Valley north of Seattle.

Growers said domestic production of cut flowers now accounts for only 25 percent of the U.S. market, compared with 75 percent in 1991.

And they said surveys have pointed to one persistent problem: Most Americans have no clue where the flowers they’ve purchased were grown.

While Colombia now dominates the market, thanks to its lower labor and land costs, some U.S. growers predicted that more Americans would be willing to pay higher prices if given the choice.

“If the consumer starts realizing where those flowers come from, they may take a different approach – and they may prefer a domestically grown flower, even though the price may be slightly higher,” said Lane DeVries, former chairman of the California Cut Flower Commission.

Kasey Cronquist, the commission’s executive director, said he wishes Americans were as passionate about U.S. products as they were while watching the Olympics.

“We love our teams and we love our country. . . . Why then don’t we see more of that passion translate to other things, like the cars, the food and the flowers we buy?” he asked.

Hoping to bring more public attention to their situation, the West Coast growers helped two California House members – Democrat Lois Capps and Republican Duncan Hunter – launch the new Congressional Cut Flower Caucus. While growers from California and Washington state did the talking, the event drew flower farmers from four other states: Alaska, Oregon, Maryland and Virginia.

Capps said U.S. growers scored a big victory earlier this month when the White House highlighted American flowers at a state dinner for French President Francois Hollande, bringing in flowers from California, Mississippi, New Jersey, Virginia and Florida.

“It’s symbolic of what we expect to see happening more and more,” she said, adding that U.S. growers are not looking for a handout, only “a fair chance to compete.”

Hunter told the growers that they’re in the same predicament as U.S. manufacturers, who have watched middle-class jobs leave the country.

“This comes down to bad trade deals … And this isn’t just flowers,” he said.

Hunter said that “it’s going to be really tough to reverse trade policy” and agreed that the best remedy would be to make it easier for consumers to know when they’re buying U.S. products. “You just get it out there, that, ‘Hey, don’t buy the South American flowers, buy the American flowers,’ and I think once people see that then they will. . . . It’s big for California,” he said.

Hunter did not offer any specific remedies for U.S. trade policies, but he said no changes would be necessary if more Americans simply bought more domestic products. “Once you do that, we’re not going to have to pass any laws,” he said.

The foreign flowers, meanwhile, are big in south Florida, with 90 percent of all imported stems coming through Miami.

“If we took out that 90 percent and it just went away tomorrow, 7,000 people would lose their jobs,” said Christine Boldt, executive vice president of the Association of Floral Importers of Florida, based in Miami.

And across the country, she said, the imports are supporting more than 200,000 jobs in transportation, supermarkets and other places. Americans have a price level “that is very low for flowers,” she said, and Colombians can best satisfy the demand, having perfected the art of growing roses.

“If we could overall just try to increase consumption of flowers, we would all benefit _ Colombia and California,” Boldt said. “We don’t need to be throwing stones at each other.”

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