The Flower Industry

When I stepped into The Blossom Shop in downtown Hillsdale, I had no idea that I was entering a war zone in the global economy. It hardly seemed like embattled territory.

I learned that tulips are a dollar a stem. They’re shy in the cold, but once you take them from the refrigerator and set them on your kitchen table, they’ll open right up. They like clean water and the occasional meal of flower food—that little packet that makes a broth of sugar, acid, and bleach.

The Flower Lady, whose name is Jennifer Riggleman, answered my questions as she hustled around the back of the shop, edging around counters stacked high with boxes of roses, carnations, daisies. As I hemmed over the blossoms, pointing now and then at something bright, she added a rose, a fern, and a sprig of berries to my growing bouquet. She misted each stem I had chosen and wrapped the whole thing in tissue paper and cellophane and ribbon. Inspired by her care, I left cradling my bouquet—all prim and bundled—like it was a baby.

In a sector dominated by international flower power, local shops hunker into the corners of American downtowns. The Blossom Shop gets a truckload of flower every day, and they come from wholesalers all around North America—Ohio, Indiana, Florida, and Canada. Places like Kroger or Walmart, on the other hand, get their flower almost exclusively from Colombia.

Together, the two sides of the flower industry illustrate something simple about human priorities: We like pretty things. But it’s worth looking into the source of the pretty things that surround us.

The rise of the Colombian flower empire is relatively recent. In a Smithsonian article titled “The Secret Behind Your Flowers,” John McQuaid provides a detailed history of the growth of the flower industry in Colombia. He writes, “To limit coca [cocaine] farming and expand job opportunities in Colombia, the U.S. government in 1991 suspended import duties on Colombian flowers. The results were dramatic, though disastrous for U.S. growers. In 1971, the United States produced 1.2 billion blooms of the major flowers (roses, carnations, and chrysanthemums) and imported only 100 million. By 2003, the trade balance had reversed: the United States imported two billion major blooms and grew only 200 million.”

This boom did wonders for the Colombian economy, although it came with concerns about child labor and exploitation of the flower-workers, who are mostly women. McQuaid examines the benefit and abuses of an overlooked industry, describing the massive greenhouses and the hardworking Colombian women, some of who have labored among the flowers for 50 years.

Colombia is not the only country to export large quantities of flowers. The Netherlands is the number-one producer of flowers in the world, and hosts the biggest flower-selling event on earth: the daily Aalsmeer Flower Auction. Kenya, Ethiopia, and Colombia are just three of the countries that send flowers to this auction, and for good reason: the auction sells 20 millions flowers a day.

But while these global forces shape the industry, a growing contingent of small flower farmers in the United States tries to compete. An Heirloom Gardener article from 2017 reports, “In just the past three years, there has been a renaissance of new flower farms in the U.S.” According to the same article, these farms often cover only a few acres, because of the inherently hands-on processes involved in planting and harvesting such a delicate crop. It’s hard to mechanize picking flowers.

These locally grown flowers have a number of evangelists looking out for their cause—including Certified American Grown, a coalition of American flower farmers. A 2016 Modern Farmer article, titled “A Flower Farming Renaissance: America’s Slow Flower Movement,” reports the coalition’s work to ensure that blossoms in Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s now carry “American Grown” labels. And according to its website, the coalition also hosts a Field to Vase Dinner Tour with a straightforward mission: “Come learn why the origin of your flowers matters.”

While localist subcultures are not about to shake the mass-importation of Colombian carnations, they do provide a space in the market for small farms to turn a profit. This is evident in the flower shops that manage to stay in business in small towns and big cities alike. Granted, these small businesses don’t always sell exclusively local flowers, but many do, and the rest will be able to tell you where their flowers come from.

Hillsdale alone supports two small flower shops: The Blossom Shop and Smith’s Flower Shop. Last time I was in Ann Arbor, walking through Nickels Arcade, a tiny place called University Flower Shop caught my eye. It reminded me of yet another shop that I know, back home in Portland’s Pearl District, called Sammy’s Flowers.

If you look around your city, I’m sure you’ll find the same thing. There are flowers blooming all around you. Kroger has flowers because of an economy that we don’t even think about; little flower shops exist because entrepreneurs decided to spend their days cultivating loveliness.

That hand-chosen, ribbon-wrapped bunch at The Blossom Shop cost me $12.75. Free of charge were the answers to my questions and the attention to detail that lifted my spirits as I watched the Flower Lady craft my purchase. And while Kroger is cheap, sliding a sleeve of flowers across the self-checkout scanner is way less fun.

Besides, Jennifer would make you a $5 bouquet if you asked her to. And then she would wrap it in ribbon.

Ellen Sweet is a senior studying English.

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