We’ll take “increasingly quaint” over “frightening imports” any day

Cover story of the February, 2011 issue of Smithsonian Magazine and letters in response, March issue.

There are so many assumptions–mostly wrong ones–that we’ve run into while trying to excite a potential publisher about this book project. David recently described one person as an “agnostic.”

Her non-belief is revealed in this statement: “Sustainably-grown or organic flowers are not mainstream; it’s a fringe topic.” In other words, she believed our idea lacks the marketing muscle required these days to justify the cost of producing a beautifully-illustrated book about farmers, floral designers and consumers who do care where, how and by whom the flowers are grown.

After many long conversations and sharing all sorts of our work (writing, video interviews and photography) with another person in the publishing industry, and realizing she still didn’t “get it,” we were bemused when later she contacted me to say: “I recently saw a small, hand-written sign at my local Whole Foods store’s floral department that said ‘local flowers’ – and all of a sudden I thought – oh, that’s what Debra and David are talking about!”

She went on to suggest that we are really working on a book about “politically-correct” flowers. So far, we’ve shied away from that term. While focusing our lens and tape recorder on the pioneering voices in sustainable flower farming and eco-floral design, we have tried to be a storytelling vehicle that can “show, not tell” through the authentic narrative of hands tilling the field or gathering and arranging the flowers.

Locally grown tulips at the local market. ©2010, David E. Perry

This conversation of ours got a little louder recently with John McQuaid’s article in the February 2011 issue of Smithsonian magazine, called “The Secrets Behind Your Flowers.” You can click here for a link to the entire story. A revealing web gallery featuring the photos of Ivan Kashinsky accompanies the article. I wish I could reproduce one here, but without his permission I will merely describe it for you. Covered head-to-toe in protective garb and literally wearing a gas mask and gloves, a worker at a Colombian flower farm is portrayed in a greenhouse filled with gerbera daisies, ready to spray them with unspecified chemicals. And these are the flowers many people think nothing of handling, bringing into their homes, displaying on their dinner tables or giving to a loved one.

McQuaid is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who focuses on the geopolitics of environmental issues. He won the Pulitzer for a series of articles that basically predicted what could happen if New Orleans was ever hit with a hurricane. He’s a sage and a people should sit up and listen to whatever McQuaid writes. We applaud his thoughtful work.

The Smithsonian article’s subtitle gives you a good idea of where this story heads: Chances are the bouquet you’re about to buy came from Colombia. What’s behind the blooms?

There is a lot of sobering information in the article, thanks to McQuaid’s incredible reporting that helps me connect the dots as I wrap my mind around the data that Colombia now commands about 70 percent of the U.S. Market. “If you buy a bouquet in a supermarket, big-box store or airport kiosk, it probably came from the Bogota savanna,” he writes.

Why has this happened? Apparently, in 1991, the U.S. government suspended import duties on Colombia flowers, motivated by an anti-cocaine trade policy. “The results were dramatic, though disastrous for U.S. growers,” adds McQuaid.

Indeed they were. And in no fewer than 3,000 words, McQuaid reveals his amazing investigative skills. He peels off the petals of that inexpensive, steroidal Colombian rose that so easily seduces Americans consumers. Here are a few of the statements that jump out:

  • Not so long ago, Americans got their flowers from neighborhood florists, who bought blooms grown on U.S. farms. Florists crafted bouquets and arrangements to order. They still do, of course, but this approach seems increasingly quaint. These days, the bouquets that many Americans buy, typically at supermarkets, are grown, assembled and packaged overseas.
  • It takes about 48 hours for flowers to get from a field in Colombia to a warehouse in the United States, and one or two more days to reach a retailer.
  • One incentive to use pesticides: the U.S. Department of Agriculture checks imported flowers for insects, but not for chemical residues.
  • Producing a single rose bloom requires as much as three gallons of water, according to a study of the Kenyan flower industry by scientists at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. In Bogota, which receives 33 inches of rainfall annually, groundwater levels plunged after flower farms and other users drilled more than 5,000 wells on the savanna.

Thankfully, there are beautiful, earth-friendly alternatives. Buy Local! Please join us in making a conscious choice to support sustainable flower farmers in your community.

You do have a choice. Vote with your dollar and patronize a local grower, a farmer’s market or a floral designer who cares. We’ll take “increasingly quaint” over a frightening import any day!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Janet Davis April 6, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard
Executive Editor
Smithsonian Books
10 East 53rd Street, 19th floor
New York, NY 10022

Why not go to the same people who thought this was a front-page magazine article?

Gary April 6, 2011 at 10:39 pm

I’ve got to ask a question. I follow your blog, mostly understand, and have always bought local. What I don’t understand is the term “sustainable”. Can you expand?


Ann Johnson April 8, 2011 at 1:39 am

Great article wonderful pictures, please keep up the good work!

Jennie April 9, 2011 at 9:11 am

Thanks, Debra and David for continuing the crusade! Great post!

Gary – I’ll take a stab at answering your question though I’m sure Debra will be able to put it more eloquently. I am a small flower farmer in PA who grows organically, but is not certified as organic due to the debilitating high costs of going through the certification process. So I use the words “sustainably grown” to describe my flowers (due to gov’t regulations, if you’re not a certified organic operation, you cannot use the word “organic” in promoting what you produce). What “sustainably grown” means to me is this in a nutshell: being careful to not take more from the land and the community than I am putting back into them.

In my daily farming practices, I am using cover crops, compost, all-natural fertilizers, good watering practices, limited tilling of the land, lots of native plants so the local insect population has food sources, nurturing old antique/heirloom flowers that might not necessarily be money makers but are going to disappear from our world if growers like me don’t keep using them, and generally being very thoughtful about how everything I do in the field is going to impact not just that field but the forest that surrounds the field, the underwater streams that run from the field to the rivers, and the flora and fauna in that field and elsewhere in 5-10 years. And I never use synthetic chemicals to fight bugs or weeds.

In my business practices, I work hard at engaging and educating my immediate community…literally my neighbors…and the city in which I live. I try to always be transparent about what I am doing and what my goals are when people ask about my business. I have recently hired my first employee and I am paying well above minimum wage (more than I can afford, really) and providing flexible work hours that fit into his schedule so his quality of life improves because he is working for me. I make a point to donate lots of flowers to different non-profits and to nursing homes. I also do what many “green” businesses do: use recycled printer paper, recycle everything I can, use LED lights, etc.

Most importantly, to me at least, is that I have a rule: my flowers never go further than 75 miles from where they grew. I want my flowers and my business to enrich the lives of those who live around me in as many ways as possible. To me, that’s giving back more than I take from this world.

In contrast, as you can probably glean from the quotes and points Debra made above, Columbian farmers and much of the industrialized flower world takes far more from the land and surrounding communities than it puts back into them. The water crisis alone is evidence enough that the Columbian rose growers are not producing “sustainably grown” flowers, regardless of what shows up on the sticker on the cellophane bouquet wrapper in the supermarket. Amy Stewart’s book, Flower Confidential, took an in-depth look at South American flower production and I found it sadly fascinating that the communities surrounding these giant savanna flower farms have no use for flowers in their own homes. Everything that’s grown there gets shipped off in jumbo jets, bound for the U.S. or occasionally Russia and western Europe. If you read more about how poorly the workers are treated and paid and the scary amount of chemicals applied to the blooms (I wonder if there are any native bug populations left on the Bogota savanna…would be an interested research project), I think you’ll start to understand the meaning of “sustainable”. And I hope you’ll explain it to others and encourage them to support small local farmers. Thanks for asking such a great question!

David Perry April 9, 2011 at 11:12 am

Dear Jennie,

Thank you, thank you! You are immensely eloquent in your explanation of what ‘sustainably grown’ means to you and we are indebted to you for making the time to craft such a thoughtful reply. Obviously, Debra and I feel immense loyalty to this subject and really do want to be good and true storytellers here, so hearing from you, having you put your passion and rationale so clearly into words feels like a real addition and a gift.

We have been hoping that this blog would help bring different voices and viewpoints together in one place, helping us grow the story into something more of a dialogue and less of a treatise. Your beautiful reply to Gary’s question is definitely a big step in that direction. We hope it will encourage others to weigh in as well.

April April 12, 2011 at 6:21 am

Thank You so much for putting this site together!

Our small community is very proactive for buying local and we hope to see it grow into an even larger circle of dedicated, better-informed citizens. Living next to Lake Superior, the second largest fresh water body of water in the world is magical and demands constant survellience. It also demands we monitor what we put into the ground that eventually finds it way back to the Lake. Lucky for us we have a great group of local Farmers that adhere to protecting our environment while producing fresh local product. Also, our local Co-op is the backbone of education and support for us.

Ethical standards and sustainablity always seem to succumb to the mantra of more money ….it is such a shame that we endanger ourselves and others for a price. Especially, but not limited to, poor war-torn countries.

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