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With Valentine’s Day closing in, fresh-cut flowers are popping up at shops around town. But how fresh are they, really? Chances are, the flowers you’ll give or receive this holiday (or any day, for that matter) were grown in South America, arrived in the U.S. via airplane, and were transported via truck to Colorado.
That’s a whole lot of miles for a small gesture of love.
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According to the Department of Agriculture, a whopping 80 percent of flowers sold in the U.S. are imported. These blooms often come from Colombia—which boasts 50 percent of the floral imports into the U.S.—and Ecuador, which is known for its roses. The flowers are grown inside large production greenhouses and then harvested, sorted, and dispatched to various destinations around the world. Oftentimes the flowers you find in Denver first landed in Miami before making their way to the Mile High City.
Fresh-cut flowers didn’t always travel this much. According to data from Field to Vase, an online resource that focuses on the local flower movement, more than 58 percent of large U.S. flower growers have gone out of business since 1992. The industry’s reliance on imported blooms was further exasperated by the United States–Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, which was signed in 2006 and went into effect in May 2012, greatly reducing the cost of Colombian flowers flowing into the U.S.
The slow flowers movement is trying to shift the tide. Similar to the slow food movement, this campaign hopes to inform consumers about the local floral industry and how the increased imports affect American flower farmers.
“To me, the whole slow flowers movement is bringing awareness to buying locally,” says floral designer Lisa Weddel of Highlands Ranch’s L. Weddel Design. “It’s supporting a movement like USA made. Why aren’t we supporting our farmers here?”
Weddel, who is the chairperson of the board of the Professional Floral Communicators International (PFCI), a network of professional floral business educators that’s a committee of The Society of American Florists, recalls insisting on using carnations grown here in Colorado, long before growing and buying locally was a conscious national movement. “With the increase in growing in South America, much of the Colorado carnation growing stopped. I always wanted them because they were longer-lasting and stronger,” she says. “I don’t care what they cost. To me, it’s about the value.”
And apparently, consumers agree. According to a 2012 study by The Boston Consulting Group, a management consulting firm, U.S. consumers prefer buying local, even if the goods cost more, because they believe they’ll receive a higher quality product.
Another reason to consider buying local blooms is the effect importing has on the environment. Flowers grown in South America (or elsewhere) are transported under refrigeration around the globe, hemorrhaging energy. Locally grown flowers have fewer middlemen, which can even generate a better deal for both the farmer and consumer. Plus, because the transportation time is drastically reduced, the blooms last longer. The flowers are sold at it their freshest.
“The whole movement is really growing, which is great,” says Arthur Williams, florist and owner of Denver’s Babylon Floral. “But it’s also manipulating people to thinking they are sometimes getting something more local than they actually are.”
Indeed, “local” can mean different things to suppliers and consumers. But for agricultural products, the Consolidated Farm & Rural Development Act defines “local” as any product transported less than 400 miles from its origin or the state in which it is produced. In the U.S., 75 percent of domestically grown flowers come from California, which may not exactly be considered “local” to Coloradans, but it’s a lot closer than South America.
Here in Colorado, consumers can expect to find floral farmers who grow a range of culinary herbs, succulents, and fresh-cut flowers like sweet peas and peonies. (Check out Zephyros Farm & Garden in Paonia or the Fresh Herb Company in Longmont.) Some varieties are grown out in the open air, while others stay protected inside the safety of atmosphere-regulated greenhouses.
“[Colorado] used to be the carnation capital of the world, but now it’s easier to purchase a cheaper product from farther away,” says Williams, noting that the carnation industry dwindled in the 70s due to the rising cost of fuel for heating and air-conditioning greenhouses. “Now I personally source things that can be grown here—like blooming branches.”
If you’re interested in buying American blooms, ask your florist where the cut flowers originated or look for the Certified American-Grown logo, which assures consumers that their blooms are of U.S. origin and assembly. Some grocery stores, like Whole Foods, also place signs indicating distance traveled and the name of the farm where their flowers were harvested.
“Slow flowers is a slow process,” says Weddel. “We let it go—as a floral industry—to move out of the country. It’s going to take a while to get back to the way it was 25 years ago.”
Editor’s Note 2/16/16: This article previously stated that Lisa Weddel is a board member of the Society of American Florists. She’s actually the board chairperson for Professional Floral Communicators International, which is a committee of the SAF. We regret the error.