You probably know that about two-thirds of the flowers sold in the U.S. today are grown in Colombia. But what do you imagine when you picture a flower farm in Colombia? What qualities do you associate with Colombian flowers?
Alexandra Farms, Bogotá
It’s been 50 years since Colombian carnations first began to arrive in Miami in significant numbers. Kick-started by research and investment from the U.S., over the decades Colombian floriculture has not only grown enormously in volume but also evolved rapidly into a sophisticated, dynamic and diverse industry.
Reasons for the success of Colombian floriculture are not hard to find. With rich soil, cool nights and 12-hour days, near to the equator and at one of the highest points in the Andes, the savannah of Bogotá, where it all began, offers nearly ideal climatic conditions for growing flowers. At the beginning, water, land and labor were all abundant. Colombian growers were able to use greenhouse technology as a way of fine-tuning the natural growing conditions for optimal quality and efficiency but without costly energy inputs.
A second advantage was the proximity of this fertile plateau to the North American market. Access to year-round availability of high-quality flowers at stable prices had been, in fact, a limiting factor for the U.S. floral industry. The early development of a highly efficient distribution infrastructure, fostered by partnerships with one foot in Bogotá and the other in Miami, made all the difference.
Today, Colombian floriculture continues to flourish. Its products are more diverse and of higher quality than ever. Having suffered from bad reports in the early days regarding land use and working conditions, the industry has turned around the worst abuses and has earned a reputation for high standards of sustainability and progressive social policies, thanks to programs that are ongoing and continually aspirational.
Yet Colombian flower farmers cannot rest on their laurels. Dependence on the U.S. economy remains a liability. True, in the first three quarters of 2018, exports to the U.S. grew by 5.8 percent in value and 8.2 percent in volume over the same period in 2017, but this is growth that reflects a healthy market stateside.
And the world market grows ever more competitive. Today U.S. buyers can purchase flowers from Central American countries and other South American countries including Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and others; African countries including Kenya and Ethiopia; Asian countries including Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia; and the Netherlands – not to mention from our own expert and innovative domestic growers. As elsewhere in the world, the Colombians now struggle with shortages of water, labor, land and the impacts of climate change. Shipping, especially air transport, has become costlier and, in some cases, less reliable, leading some to pioneer new strategies with sea freight.
But as it has for five decades in Colombia, success builds on success. Working closely with international breeders and top technology suppliers, Colombia flower producers retain the advantage of their global connections and accumulated expertise. Perhaps their greatest strength lies in the pride they can legitimately take in the prominent role that floriculture has played in Colombia’s economic development and political landscape. Flowers have become a passionate part of the culture in Colombia, “the land of flowers.”
FACTS ABOUT FLOWERS FROM COLOMBIA
• Colombia is the second-largest exporter of flowers in the world, after the Netherlands.
• Colombian flower exports go to more than 90 countries. However, nearly 80 percent are destined for the U.S, where they account for approximately 65 percent of all flowers sold.
• Once known primarily for carnations, roses and Chrysanthemums, today Colombia produces more than 1,400 commercial flower types. The major growing regions are at high elevations in the Andes mountains, especially the Bogotá savannah (known for roses, carnations and Alstroemerias) and the area around Medellín (known for Chrysanthemums and Hydrangeas).
• Flowers from Colombia sold in the U.S. typically are flown from Bogotá to Miami – about three hours away – then trucked to farther locations. They may also fly directly to other cities, including Los Angeles. Generally, the time between harvest and arrival in Miami does not exceed 36 hours. Another 18 hours, or less, may be required for the flowers to reach their next U.S. destination – a maximum of 2.25 days from farm to wholesaler or florist.
The market leader for garden roses.
With three farms totaling 20 hectares (about 50 acres), Alexandra Farms is by far the largest grower of garden roses in the world, with twice the acreage of any other farm. That means it has the capacity to deliver a boutique product in large quantities.
But for all that, the hallmark of this operation is not quantity but quality and innovation. It’s hard to believe that back in 2005, when Alexandra Farms was founded, garden roses were scarce on the cut-flower market – and for good reason. It took the drive, vision and specialized expertise of founder Jose (Joey) Azout and his team to bring garden roses to market successfully for the first time in substantial numbers.
Having kick-started a trend, Joey works hard to stay ahead of the curve. Today, Alexandra Farms produces more than 50 varieties of cut garden roses. New ones are constantly being tested and evaluated. Varieties selected for cultivation must offer the qualities of a true garden rose: fragrance; blended, sophisticated hues; high petal count; and the ability to open wide and hold.
Garden roses are notoriously finicky, but Alexandra Farms will grow none that do not promise a 10-day vase life, even after five days of shipping. The performance has as much to do with growing technique, processing and packaging as with the variety.
Key to success is having a trained work force that understands the particular requirements of these boutique roses. The perfect cut time, for example, differs among varieties. It’s partly to attract and retain skilled workers that Joey offers benefits such as hot lunches and day care. Alexandra Farms has earned the Florverde Sustainable Flowers (FSF) certification, which guarantees social as well as environmental responsibility. Like other FSF-certified growers, Joey takes pride in the label and finds that, in the long term, it makes economic sense.
In Colombia, Proteas thrive year-round.
Famous as the perfect environment for growing roses, carnations and Alstroemerias, the savannah of Bogotá might be the last place you would expect to find a successful Protea farm. As you might guess from the name, Rosamina started out as a rose farm. Then, about 10 years ago, manager Eli Pérez decided to give ‘Safari Sunset’ Leucadendrons a try.
“We had success selling that crop to Holland,” Eli remembers “so we began to think about trying pincushions and Proteas. We got new material from California and started to plant.”
Today Rosamina produces only flowers and foliage in the Proteaceae family, mainly Leucadendrons, pincushions (Leucospermum), and Proteas of the P. compacta species. Production includes a strong bouquet operation, in which flowers grown at Rosamina are supplemented with product from third-party vendors. “That product gets checked for quality, and if it’s not to our standards, it leaves the farm immediately,” says Eli.
The marketing strategy, Eli explains, allows most of Rosamina’s products to be sold even before it is cut: “That way we don’t have products in inventory, waiting to be sold anywhere. Instead, we have a forecasting system, where we count what we see developing in the field two and four weeks out. This means people are able to buy our product in advance, and we’re able to provide the best quality.”
Buyers can find a wider variety of Proteas when purchasing from farms in California, South Africa or Australia – regions with hot, dry climates like those in South Africa, where this diverse flower family evolved. In all those countries, however, the supply is subject to seasonal variability. Growing Proteas in Colombia requires a willingness to experiment and to give extra attention. Frost and even hail pose potential dangers. But the advantage for Rosamina – as for all Colombian flower farmers – is that, with nearly even temperatures and daylight length, it can supply Proteas of consistent quality year-round.
Chrysanthemums grown at the highest heights.
Most Colombian flower farms that specialize in Chrysanthemums are clustered in the department of Antioquia, to the northwest of Bogotá – and for a good reason, historically. Antioquia is lower in elevation than Cundinamarca, where rose and carnation growers first established their farms in the Bogotá savannah. That means Antioquia is warmer and wetter. Mums are better able to tolerate these conditions, and the growing cycle is shorter, which means less time in the greenhouse and lower cost to the producer.
So why would a mum farm like Yasa choose to locate in the savannah of Bogotá? “We prefer the harder way,” jokes Ricardo Otero, project and trade director at Yasa. While it’s true that bringing Chrysanthemums to harvest takes a week or 10 days longer at the higher elevation, there are compensating advantages. As for other crops grown in the savannah, the cooler, dryer weather and longer cycle result in bigger flower heads, stronger stems, darker and healthier foliage, and longer vase life.
Specializing in top-quality and boutique varieties, Yasa invests in other measures besides location to ensure optimal outcomes. Yasa mums benefit from illumination with sodium lights (more expensive but closer to the spectrum of natural light) and doses of vitamin B9. With a degree in breeding and genetics, Ricardo brings up-to-date expertise to all the farm operations, beginning with propagation of plant material in the farm’s own meristem laboratory.
Helping to balance the cost of these investments, farms in the Bogotá savannah generally have somewhat lower shipping costs and transit times than those in Antioquia for getting flowers to Miami.
With all these challenges and advantages, the management team at Yasa regards the farm employees as its most important resource. The staff of 200 comprises, as on many Colombian flower farms, mostly mothers who are heads of household. “Our flowers,” declares the Yasa website, “are the result of passionate hearts, skillful hands and bright minds in continuous growth.”
FLORES EL CAPIRO
A pioneer in social responsibility and sea freight.
Specializing in Chrysanthemums and Hydrangeas, Flores el Capiro comprises five production centers southeast of Medellín, in the part of Colombia best known for these flowers. It is one of the largest Chrysanthemum growers in the world, with more than 80 varieties of spray and disbud mums, from dainty fillers to intriguing novelties.
Shipping has been an area of increasing challenges of late for Colombian growers who need to get their flowers to market in the U.S. Difficulties arise from the imbalance between northbound and southbound air cargo; rising competition from other industries for the cargo space; and a reduction in the number of flights, thanks, in part, to airline consolidation.
The situation is especially problematic for growers in the Medellín area. It’s possible for flowers to fly direct from Medellín to Miami, but the logistics have failed at times, resulting in product that gets backed up at the airport. Some producers resort to trucking their flowers to Bogotá, to catch flights from there.
Ten years ago, Flores el Capiro became one of the first Colombian growers to experiment with sea freight. Yes, it takes longer to ship flowers by sea. But it turns out that for Chrysanthemums and some other flowers, the pros outweigh the cons, in terms of freshness as well as convenience and cost. Not only is sea freight less expensive and more reliable, with no rate increase or cargo limits during times of highest demand, but flowers that are shipped by sea can be kept at an ideal temperature all the way, resulting in a vase life that is at least equal to air transport.
Flores el Capiro is also known for its proactive environmental and social responsibility. With certifications from Florverde Sustainable Flowers and from Global G.A.P., this grower goes the extra mile to support workers and communities in the region of its farms, sponsoring local schools and after-school programs.
With top varieties, growing and breeding go hand in hand.
esmeraldafarms.com / connectaflor.com
Once Colombia became established as an international hub for cut-flower production, top breeders – many based in the Netherlands – began to establish testing facilities in Colombia and connections with Colombian growers.
In at least one case, however, a Colombian flower farm evolved into one of the world’s most successful and innovative breeders. In 1972, Peter Ullrich became one of the first to explore the global potential of Colombian floriculture when he launched Flores Esmeralda in Medellín. Over the next four decades, his empire expanded to include not only additional farms but also breeding and marketing operations.
Today Peter, who passed away in 2016, is remembered as an industry icon. Esmeralda Breeding BV is now an independent company with its laboratory and testing station in Ecuador. Since 2018, North American marketing operations for Esmeralda products are carried out by a new company, Connectaflor, based in Miami.
Meanwhile, Flores Esmeralda continues to produce world-famous Chrysanthemums, Gerberas and other flowers, aided by ongoing advanced research in tissue culture, cloning and variety development. And the Esmeralda Farms label also applies to production in the Bogotá savannah at Esmeralda Tenjo, established in 1980 and specializing in roses. Both farms are Rainforest Alliance-certified. Esmeralda also harvests from six farms in Ecuador.
In addition to exclusive patented varieties, a distinctive feature of Esmeralda Farms is its bouquet operation, which follows a time-phased delivery-of-goods model: Bouquets are not held in inventory but made on the farm as soon as they are ordered and shipped straight from the farm.
JARDINES DE LOS ANDES
Strategic alliances make the difference for this family-owned farm.
Founded by brothers Bernardo and Camilo Herrera in 1969, Jardines de los Andes can certainly claim its place as one of the pioneers of the Colombian industry. Today it is also one of the best known and trusted, with a second generation of Herreras committed to its success.
More than 40 different products are grown at the farms, located in the savannah of Bogotá, but certain flowers are specialties. With 70 hectares devoted to 46 varieties, Jardines de los Andes is the largest producer of Alstroemerias in the world. Of these varieties, eight are exclusive to this producer. Likewise, out of 81 varieties of Chrysanthemums, 10 have been developed exclusively for Jardines de los Andes customers.
Those market advantages result from on-site hybridizing and from partnerships with breeders Royal Van Zanten (Alstroemerias) and Progeny Breeding (Chrysanthemums). Likewise, Jardines de los Andes works directly with Floralife in the development of new practices and processes that can help growers everywhere produce best-quality flowers as efficiently as possible.
Certified by Rainforest Alliance, Jardines de los Andes has also been a pioneer in social and environmental responsibility. “We were the first company to pay women and men equal salaries – something uncommon back in the 1960s,” says Bernardo Herrera. Other social programs include a fund that gives employees easy access to credit, allowing more than 4,500 employees to buy or improve their homes; free medical and dental services; and a learning program for both employees and their families.
Two Contributors to the Success of Colombia’s Floriculture Industry
Looking at places around the world where floriculture flourishes, it’s clear that cooperative efforts make the industry stronger. More than a century ago, Dutch growers joined forces to create the auction system that made the Netherlands the floriculture power-house that it remains today. In California, flower farmers share resources and speak with a unified voice through both CalFlowers – California Association of Flower Growers & Shippers (cafgs.org) and the California Cut Flower Commission (CCFC) (ccfc.org). These organizations allow growers, traders and shippers to form profitable connections, not only within a given growing area but also with industry colleagues around the world.
Many factors contribute to the success of Colombian floriculture – but without doubt, Asocolflores, the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters (asocolflores.org) has played a key role and continues to do so. It’s true that flower growers in Colombia have received some measure of government support in the past: In the 1970s, state loans and tax benefits helped to get the nascent industry off the ground; today, the government agency ProColombia (procolombia.co/en) helps to promote exports of all kinds. And the industry has profited since 1991 from free-trade agreements with the United States intended, in part, to encourage floriculture as an alternative to coca production.
But no entity has done more to drive the Colombian floriculture industry’s rapid growth than Asocolflores, a bootstraps organization. Created as a nonprofit trade association in 1973, Asocolflores today represents 80 percent of Colombia’s cut flower producers and exporters. As you would expect, it gathers information, negotiates on behalf of members with service providers and represents the industry to the government.
Importantly, Asocolflores hosts the biannual trade fair, Proflora (proflora.org.co). Since its first edition in 1991, Proflora has become a comprehensive, tightly organized, do-not-miss event for the global flower trade, replete with fanfare and a polished presentation. It will take place again this year, Oct. 2-4, as always in Bogotá.
Asocolflores also supports marketing programs designed to promote flower buying in the U.S. – from which, of course, it stands to benefit directly. It has partnered with the Society of American Florists (SAF) (safnow.org) and the American Floral Endowment (AFE) (endowment.org) on numerous projects; it has joined CalFlowers in promoting Women’s Day as a new flower-buying occasion.
But of all Asocolflores’ activities today, the highest profile goes to its certification program designed to guarantee social and environmental responsibility on participating Colombian flower farms: Florverde Sustainable Flowers (FSF). A visitor to the Asocolflores website will find this statement on the landing page: “Our mission: To strengthen sustainable floriculture in Colombia so that our flowers generate well-being and inspiring experiences.”
The incentives for developing a program like FSF are strong. In the past, the reputation of Colombian flowers has suffered from reports of low wages and poor working conditions for farm workers, including exposure to pesticides. And over 50 years, floriculture in Colombia has taken an environmental toll that is now reflected in shrinking aquifers and a history of overreliance on agrochemicals.
CERTIFIED SUSTAINABLE FLOWERS FROM COLOMBIA
Florverde Sustainable Flowers (FSF) (florverde.org) is the certification program created by Asocolflores, the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters. In 2017:
• 92 Colombian flower farms, with a combined total of 2,215 hectares (about 5,473 acres), were certified with the FSF label.
• Today, approximately 38 percent of all flowers exported from Colombia are FSF certified.
• 28,300 flower workers directly benefit from FSF certification. In the past five years, according to Super Flowers by Rogelio Leon:
• Energy consumption has been reduced by 61 percent.
• Use of chemical pesticides was reduced by 43 percent.
• Captured rainwater now accounts for 44 percent of the water used on flower farms.
The response to these issues has been determined and aggressive, spurred by factors in the markets and on the ground. Mass-market retailers have taken the lead in driving demand for certifiably sustainable flowers. The biggest buyers often create their own standards, which can then be verified by third-party auditors.
But labels like Florverde offer a much more efficient way of guaranteeing adherence to commonly accepted criteria – again verified via a third-party audit. Standards for FSF certification are bench-marked to other globally accepted “green” labels, such as Global G.A.P. (globalgap.org). They are included in the “basket” of labels accepted by the Floriculture Sustainability Initiative (FSI) (fsi2020.com), an international organization with the goal of developing shared standards that could make it possible for 90 percent of flowers and plants worldwide to be responsibly produced and traded by the year 2020.
The standards, then, are very high and are continually updated and refined. Growers must invest substantially to meet them, in addition to paying the fees required for audits and certification. In many ways, however, that investment comes back to them, not only in terms of marketing but also with higher yields of consistent quality and energy efficiency.
A good return on investment also applies to high standards for fair treatment of workers. Floriculture has had an outsize impact on the life of workers and communities in the Colombian countryside. More labor-intensive than other types of agriculture, the Colombian floriculture industry is thought to provide at least 120,000 jobs directly and nearly another 90,000 in support sectors. The long years of Colombia’s armed insurgency disrupted families and caused social dislocation that made these jobs particularly welcome, especially in the countryside.
Today, however, the labor market in Colombia is competitive, and it also makes economic sense for employers to offer benefits that entice and retain skilled workers. About 65 percent of Colombian farm workers are women, which makes commercial floriculture the largest employer of women in rural areas. Many of the policies and programs promoted by Florverde Sustainable Flowers are geared to this population, including day care and protection from sexual harassment or discrimination on the basis of gender or pregnancy. Some programs target domestic violence.
By providing employment opportunities to women, Colombia’s flower farms are changing the social dynamic within the culture, says Joey Azout, president of garden-rose grower Alexandra Farms. “A paycheck means power,” he says.
The bar for FSF certification is set so high that fewer than half of Colombian-grown flowers reaching the U.S. bear the label. It’s easy enough, however, for buyers to find out which growers are certified by checking the Florverde website, florverde.org. The website lists certificate holders, who may own multiple certified farms. These tend to be best-established suppliers, with the most reliable quality.
And the impact of Asocolflores and Florverde initatives is felt beyond the farms that are certified, in the spreading of knowledge and the lifting of standards. Lately, Florverde staff have begun to reach out to smaller farms that might find it more challenging to work toward certification, helping them with the first steps. “Two of them are now Florverde-certified,” says FSF director Ximena Franco-Villegas, “and we are very proud of that!”
There’s no doubt that Colombian floriculture is an astonishing economic success. It ranks fourth as a generator of foreign currency for the country, after oil, mining and coffee. Thanks to the efforts of Asocolflores and Florverde, it has also become an agent for social change, improving the quality of life for workers, families and communities, and for environmental awareness in the Colombian countryside. Those efforts are still a work in progress, but for Colombians, they represent progress indeed.
Bruce Wright is a freelance writer and photographer with a passion for the world of flowers and the work of floral artists, steeped in more than 30 years of experience covering that world. To sample stories from grower profiles to a quick summary of flower biology, visit brucewrites.com.