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Colombia Flower Growers Recover After Trashing Millions of Roses

Matthew Bristow
·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Strong demand from U.S. consumers ahead of Valentine’s Day is bringing Colombia’s flower industry back from the brink of collapse.

Exports have been picking up since September, boding well for Feb. 14, the biggest day in the calendar for florists. Strong sales this weekend would set the seal on the industry’s comeback.

Colombian growers were getting ready for Mother’s Day when the pandemic tore through the U.S. last spring. With massive markets such as New York and California locked down, Colombia’s flower producers destroyed thousands of tons of roses, carnations and chrysanthemums.

There was more bad news to come. When summer arrived, U.S. couples started canceling their weddings. Even funeral sales weren’t good, due to restrictions on gatherings. Most of the cut flowers sold in the U.S. come from Colombia, and the sector looked set for mass bankruptcies and job losses.

Instead, it saw a major recovery. As the pandemic progressed, people in the U.S. got into the habit of sending each other flowers when they couldn’t meet face to face, and also bought more blooms to brighten up their homes, Kate Penn, chief executive officer of the Society of American Florists, said in a phone interview. And since they couldn’t easily spend their money on vacations, restaurants or concerts, some households found themselves with more disposable income than normal.

“I’ve definitely talked to florists whose event work, which basically was almost nothing, was more than offset by the everyday interest in flowers,” Penn said.

After crashing 25% in June, when the wedding season starts, Colombian flower exports rebounded in late summer, which is normally a slow period. For the whole of 2020, exports fell just 4%, despite the slump earlier in the year.

“Normally, summer is bad, because countries in the northern hemisphere grow their own flowers, but, despite that, exports continued very well, and now they’re doing well, and there’s good demand for Valentine’s day,” said Augusto Solano, head of the Colombian Flower Growers’ Association.

Flowers accounted for $1.4 billion of the nation’s $31 billion in exports last year, ranking behind oil, coal, coffee and gold. About 80% of Colombian flower exports go to the U.S.

Hit Harder

Large flower companies were relatively unscathed by the downturn, while small ones fared much worse. With contracts to supply retailers such as Walmart Inc., big producers typically sell more than 100% of their output, making up the difference with purchases from smaller growers.

Faced with last year’s crisis, they continued to sell their own flowers, but slashed orders from small growers like Carmen Bravo.

Her company, Belen de los Tejares, has 27 employees and grows roses in the heart of Colombia’s flower-producing area in the Andean plain known as the Bogota Savanna. Last year, she saw sales slump by 40%.

“Between March 20 and April 20, we had to throw away more or less 220,000 flowers,” Bravo said. “Mother’s Day is the second Sunday of May, but flower shipments are normally three or four weeks earlier, so that was the time of peak production, and there was no market for them.”

Fortunately, Valentine’s Day in 2020 fell before the mass shutdowns and Colombian flower exports last February were the strongest ever for the month. Bravo said the money she made then allowed her to weather the crisis, and that sales this year have also been strong.

“Valentine’s day is the key to having a good year. We’ve started the year on a sound footing,” she said.

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