This article was originally published in Et Toile Magazine, August 13, 2020.

Flower are precious. And our current global economy has turned a formerly luxury item,  into global commodity. The race to be the lowest-cost has cheapened the experience of flowers, and turned the allure of a fragrant, fleeting bloom into a mass-produced, artificially-scented deception.

The Realities of the Flower Industry

The vast majority of the U.S. cut flower market is imported, with Colombia and Ecuador being the largest suppliers. The reasons for this come down to a global economy, and the need for mass production. Blooms are grown in optimal year-round conditions where high altitude and cool nights make for a hearty stem and flower head. That bloom then has to makes a long journey: farm to airport, airport to plane, plane to customs, process through customs, customs to wholesaler (or auction), auction to wholesaler, wholesaler to florist, florist to customer, and THEN, still last for an additional 7-10 days for the customer. To achieve this, growers must suspend time, keeping blooms refrigerated at around 36 degrees Fahrenheit.

All of this must be done for mere cents per rose. And that’s just shipping. Countries importing the flowers, such as the US, have strict requirements around plant products. Simply put, flowers MUST be free of containments, like fungus or insects. Anything that does not pass customs cannot be allowed in, and the wholesalers cannot receive it. That means lost income for the farm that sent the flowers. To prevent massive loss on the backend, and create a robust bloom that will survive the trip, spraying with multiple chemicals isn’t a choice for most flower farmers. It’s a necessity.

Chemicals are a reality of our global economy and a topic that desperately needs more in-depth scientific study around the effects of all those who handle the product. A study in Belgium monitored the exposure of florists to chemicals and found the most contaminated bouquet to have chemical residues up to 97 mg/kg. Other studies have found up to 43 different chemical varieties on a single bouquet. Translation: that’s roughly a quarter teaspoon for every 2.2 pounds. Considering most of the chemicals start attacking the human nervous system at 1 teaspoon, with some being fatal at that dosage, imagine a florist handling multiple pounds of flowers A DAY. Now, over a lifetime.The exposure of florists to a high number of toxic chemicals is a unique situation, and one that requires additional education and academic studies to raise awareness around the health and environmental impacts at play.

Chemicals are only part of the picture. In a world of mass-production and the race to make products as cheap as possible, we’ve lost something that goes beyond the chemical impact to the individuals and the environment.

Chemicals: It’s Complicated

The conversation around chemical free is a complicated one. On one side we have dramatic studies indicating that farmers and florists are exposed to residual chemicals in high concentrations that will likely affect health and quality of life (although additional scientific studies must be done in order to corroborate this conclusion).

On the other hand, even buying local or American-grown doesn’t mean that chemicals aren’t present. When it comes to the livelihood of the flower farmer, protecting the crop is necessary to keep food on the table. And this is true of agriculture across the board.

Ackerman explains, “Crop loss is a reality of chemical-free farming, and happens every year. Some of these crops could have been saved with an application of a relatively safe or certified organic pesticide.”

As a florist, things are just as complicated. I primarily work with couples on their wedding day – a day that is a once-in-a-lifetime event. The pressure is on to create something perfect. The reality is, even if I wanted to use only American and locally-grown flowers, sometimes it’s not practical for the client’s budget. Explaining the incomparable beauty of local blooms to someone in the middle of winter is difficult with just a photo. Additionally, because the flowers are seasonal, I do not promise specific flower types, and instead I will select the best blooms for their event based on color and aesthetic. For couples who have their heart set on a specific flower, this can be heartbreaking. Because of this, I’ve adapted a hybrid approach, where I will prioritize the use of local flowers, and add in some imports based on the exact needs and wants of the couple. Cold weather weddings are another reason that I have adapted a hybrid approach. For couples getting married during the off-season, importing fresh is necessary, but I do try and incorporate local blooms that are dried to bring a unique, seasonal touch.

“As florists, we have a unique and powerful role in change.”

Next Steps

As a type A personality, leaving things in grey areas is hard. It’s frustrating. Would that we could all commit to chemical-free, locally grown flowers, and our world would be changed for the better.

Nothing is that simple though, and to think it could be is naive. Instead, we are still in the beginning stages of re-learning to see the beauty around us, and how mass-commercialization has impacted our health and our planet.

For farmers, research and old methods of farming can reduce chemical usage. “There are so many more ways without [chemical] applications we can protect our farms; crop rotation, no till, planting pollinator plants, diversifying species, flame weeding etc… but I think the more people support local growers, the more education and investment there can be on how we can safely and efficiently grow in a sustainable and safe manner”.

For Florists

As florists, we have a unique and powerful role in change. As the last step before purchase, we have insights into what customers like, and often, we hold sway over their buying decisions.

For florists, that means supporting your local farmers. Here in Minnesota, we are fortunate to have the Twin Cities Flower Exchange, where growers bring their crops (all grown without chemicals) and florists have their pick of the best flowers for that week. To find farmers in your area, and establish a working relationship with them, visit myslowflowers.com.

This also means being proactive about asking your wholesaler where your flowers are coming from. Ask your representative for American (or locally grown) product. This means learning seasonality of products, and not relying on year-round imports. Yes, this means stretching your design muscles and using new and unique products. This also means educating your customers on, “this new flower that just came in from the flower farmer!” Touting that you carry heirloom varieties of local and American grown flowers is a selling point, especially for an incoming generation who is more focused than their predecessors on community values and what makes their group unique.vi Customers love new, unique, and exciting. It is more effort up front for florists to educate the public, but well worth it. Customers should know where their products are coming from! And I encourage everyone to ask, where are these flowers coming from, and what impact will that have for the planet, my community, and myself?

If we educate a customer on why they should purchase local, they most likely will. This is the first step in changing the consumerist mindset that has cheapened the value of a stem, and ultimately the value that we provide as florists. Florists must become the expert in our communities, educating our customers on the value of a stem. We should let them see the face of our local farmers in the shop or on our websites. We need to wow them with stems that are unique, beautifully scented, and grown mere miles from their home. I challenge my fellow florists to consider educating our customers and clients on the luxury of a flower, on its fleeting beauty, on its price, and what it takes to bring beauty to them. The local movement that changed the way the restaurant industry saw its food can change our industry too. And we MUST change. Our own future, and the future of flowers depends on it.

This article originally was published as part of a larger feature in Et Toile Magazine. Read the full article here.

For More Information on Local Flowers

For information on finding local flower farmers in your area, visit Slow Flower Society

For information on sustainable floral design, visit the Sustainable Floristry Network

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