American Beauties

Butterbee Flower farm in Maryland. Photo by Kate Headley.

Butterbee Flower farm in Maryland. Photo by Kate Headley.

The case for field-to-vase: Cut flowers are latest frontier in buy-local campaign

By Susan Able

That vase of farm-market flowers is more than just beautiful. For flower farmers in the DMV, the rising interest in buying flowers that are grown locally is a market trend that they are happy to see. And “buy local” advocates are waking up and smelling ... well, almost anything except roses.

Still, more than 70% of flowers sold in the U.S. are not grown here. They are imported, especially roses.  “Imagine if every tomato you bought was not grown here,” says Virginia flower farmer Andrea Gagnon. “That’s essentially the situation with flowers in the U.S.”

And like tomatoes, people like purchasing flowers. A lot. In 2016, the U.S. imported well over a billion dollars of cut flowers, a 50% increase over 10 years. Most imported cut flowers (over 90%) come into Miami, and then are shipped all over the country in refrigerated trucks.

Why? Well, it’s both complicated and simple. Over 80% of cut flower imports come from Colombia and Ecuador. The weather in equatorial South America is more favorable to growing flowers year-round, labor costs are low and the transport to Miami is a short distance by jet and less weather-dependent than northern ports of entry.

But what really got the flower business turned upside down for U.S. farmers were trade policies enacted in 1991 meant to curb the cocaine drug trade by offering incentives for legal economic growth in Colombia and other South American countries. Colombia expanded its rose and cut flower business rapidly.

California, Florida and other states that were large flower growers found themselves struggling against imports and the American rose and carnation business took a nose dive. Roses represent the largest percentage of imported flowers, followed by chrysanthemums, carnations, alstroemerias and gypsophilas. Tropical flowers, mainly orchids, make up a smaller share of imports.

But just like commodity-raised meat and produce, large scale has downsides. That picture-perfect bunch of roses and gerbera daisies are flown in on jets, then trucked all over the U.S. On Valentine’s Day alone, over 30 jets loaded with a million flowers land in Miami each year.

“The actual cost for a $14.99 bouquet suddenly becomes very large when you look at the way these flowers were grown,” explains Kasey Cronquist, administrator of American Grown Flowers and CEO of the California Cut Flower Commission. “We as U.S. growers receive rigorous oversight in terms of environmental and labor regulations, which is not the case in other countries. And the market force behind being able to sell inexpensive cut flowers at the major grocers—like Kroger, Safeway, Trader Joe’s—keeps the interest in keeping the costs low on imports, at the cost of employee welfare, the environment and trade balance.”

Kasey Cronquist Profile Picture.jpg

Kasey Cronquist, leader of the American Grown movement and CEO of the California Cut Flower Comission

American Grown Flowers, the organization that Cronquist helms, was spun out of the U.S. Specialty Cut Flower Association to lobby and promote U.S. flower farmers and their cause.

Cronquist and I spoke just after he spent an intense three days in Washington, where he organized flowers for the First Ladies’ Luncheon sponsored by the U.S. Congressional Club. Starting in the last year of the Obama administration, only U.S.–grown flowers are used for this luncheon.

“This kind of exposure is just huge for us,” Cronquist tells me. “It’s more than symbolic; it has real impact. We’ve done market research and know that 85% of U.S. consumers don’t know where flowers come from, yet the same research shows that 60% of consumers show a clear preference for buying American-grown flowers. U.S.–grown flowers are only 20% of the market right now—so you can see we’ve got a substantial market share gap to close.”

Help promoting U.S. flower growers may come from unexpected places. Alaska has a growing floral farming economy with a focus on field-grown peonies and Cronquist tells me that Congressman Don Young (R-AK) is planning to introduce “The American Grown Act,” which would require that the federal government purchase local-grown flowers.

“We’ve been working with Congress on a bipartisan approach in the Senate and the House to support this bill. With Congress’ support, July is now American Grown Flowers Month and we want to continue the momentum from Congress to support economic development opportunities for small and large farms alike.”

Cronquist continues, “So it’s been gratifying to see this kind of leadership support and the momentum in the consumer marketplace to buy American flowers—but are we talking to the right people? How do we encourage the most important people—the flower buyers and retailers—to look at supporting the American flower industry as a way to improve the floral industry? Influencing the large retail buyers’ purchasing behavior is where the battle will be won and lost for consumers. Source and support—that’s the big challenge. For the top floral retailers of inexpensive cut flowers—Kroger, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Wal-Mart—cheap imported flowers will win the day by price point. And the internet florist trade (1-800-Flowers, etc.) from fulfillment centers—again, price point—leads to imports from South America.”

The American Grown movement continues to expand through certification, improving data bases for retailers to find what they need and getting more U.S. flower farmers involved. “We want as many flower farmers to join us as possible,” Cronquist says. “If flower farmers unite across the country with the same message at the same time, we can accomplish so much more together. We can compete with more strength against imports and create better systems and distribution for U.S.–grown flowers that are produced year-round—so that U.S. retailers and floral designers can access flowers all year.”

Andrea Gagnon at the Palisades Farm Market. Photo by Jennifer Chase

Andrea Gagnon at the Palisades Farm Market. Photo by Jennifer Chase

Virginia Flower Farmer Andrea Gagnon, LynnVale Studios

When I tell Andrea Gagnon that she is one of the “original gangsters” of the local flower movement, she laughs, but agrees.

Gagnon and her husband made the decision to move back to their family farm in Gainesville, VA, as a way to preserve the farm and as a place to raise their children. An architect by training, Gagnon started selling flowers at farmers markets in 2002 and now has five acres “under flower.”

“As soon as I grew as my first cockscomb plant, I was just hooked. I couldn’t believe that I grew something so exotic looking. And then I sold it. And someone paid me for it. I fell in love with the direct sharing of my work. I started doing more markets, and then in year two I started getting asked to do weddings. That was an exciting expansion and scratched my design itch,” Gagnon tells me. “It’s been incredibly exciting, but like all farming, rain and weather create stress for us. We’ve been investing heavily this past year in new beds and new earlier and later varieties. It’s a large part of the cost of being a flower farmer.”

Shoppers at the FRESHFARM Dupont Sunday market and the Palisades Sunday market are thrilled to see Gagnon’s gorgeous peonies, sweet peas, poppies and anemones in the spring and early summer; she is particularly known for her dahlias.

For a flower farmer like Gagnon, there is barely time to rest in the warm months. She maintains a packed schedule of events and markets—and the work of a farmer: planting, weeding and cutting. She tells me that is excited to see the product of this year’s long-term investment: woody shrubs like lobelia and a new variety of hydrangea.

“Our customers are sophisticated shoppers who look to me for out-of-the-ordinary cut flowers, and I love that. We can plant things that are very different and know there is a market for them—plus, it pushes me to be innovative.”

“So the LynnVale farm has been win-win. To be at market on a Sunday with real people and make a bouquet and hand it to someone is really fulfilling to me; it is connecting them to the joy of growing. And then preservation of open space is paramount—we have 10 acres in the middle of 100. We’ve been approached many years to sell, but farming is like breathing. It is critical to keep land open and in agriculture.”

Gagnon is a member of the American Grown Council. She tells me about her work, “At this point to help weigh in attracting new flower farms and to be an advocate and helping the direction of the program—it is exciting to see the movement have a life of its own and to see it go from just an idea to where it is now. To see the “American Grown” label on flowers in the marketplace it is so gratifying. —this takes down a barrier to so many designers and helped the marketplace overall. Large flowers wholesalers can’t ignore this trend anymore.”

Tobie Whitman holds a Little Acre bouquet sourced from only local flowers. Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Tobie Whitman holds a Little Acre bouquet sourced from only local flowers. Photo by Jennifer Chase.

 Little Acre Flowers, A Flower Designer Sourcing Only Local

Tobie Whitman grew up in Southern California surrounded by flower farms and flowers have been her passion since she was a child.

A consultant at USAID, Whitman had a nagging need to be more creative in her work and to create tangible products. One day nine years ago found herself walking in to one of DC’s top florists, saying “I’m here, I will do whatever you want.” She was put to work immediately and shares a “Tobie Tip” with me: “If you ever want to work at a florist, go the week before Valentine’s Day. You’ll get a job.”

Whitman lived a double life for several years—consultant by day, florist on the weekend—until she made the leap. Five years ago she founded what is DC’s only 100% locally sourced flower design company, Little Acre Flowers.

What inspired her to source locally?

“Well, I knew from my work at the florist that many customers wanted fresh and seasonal flowers, and I knew they weren’t getting that,” she says. “And for myself, working with flowers all day I actually getting a rash from the imported roses. As someone who was starting a family, I didn’t want to be around chemicals. I read Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful, which explained the imported commodity flower business, and at the same time I met Bob Wollam, one of the leading flower growers and experts in the area from Wollam Gardens in Jeffersonton, VA, and understood that he could supply me all year round. It all clicked for me. I was going local.”

The biggest challenge for Whitman was where to get flowers in the winter. Luckily, Bloomia, a large grower in King George, VA, could provide tulips year-round. That was essential to Whitman’s equation, because now she had at least a base of flowers for year-round arrangements and found it could work. She does source flowers from North Carolina, but as she explains, they are “grown, not flown.”

Little Acre Flowers launched with a daily local arrangement—in different sizes. Whitman was worried. Were people going to be OK with that? They were. Now Whitman has a studio and staff. Still, it’s not a high-margin industry after paying for flower costs, staffing and distribution. More people are able to buy local flower bunches from farms who sell direct to grocery stores, particularly local tulip. But as Whitman proudly tells me, “We’ve persisted. What I love most is how moved people are when they open their bouquet. They love getting these arrangements and the connection to nature and the environment. We are giving them an authentic moment with farmers and not a connection to an insecticide-filled refrigerator in Colombia.”

She continues, “At the end of the day, our flowers are really beautiful and real. And then, when customers get what is going on within that arrangement—the localness, the better environment, the contribution to our local economy—then you have something truly amazing.”