The politics behind the flower business

Mercer 14755

Sanden Totten

Agriculture Specialist Albert Coronel roughs up some carnations as he searches for bugs. He is inspecting one of hundreds of boxes of flowers that were shipped into Los Angeles airport in anticipation of Valentine's Day.

The Valentine bouquet you may have offered the one you love during the weekend – or will tonight, after a swing by the supermarket floral department – may have traveled thousands of miles.

In this security-conscious era, even long-stemmed roses get pat-downs at the airport.

Albert Coronell with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol examines shipments of cut flowers for contents that could put the kibosh on romance. “That’s a mite right there. It’s a very tiny red spot over there. Lately we have been getting a lot of mites from Ecuador and other Central and South American countries.”

Coronell says these exotic stowaways can carry crop-destroying diseases to California farms if they get loose. So he puts the entire shipment of flowers under quarantine.

Still, plenty of other blooms pass inspection.

“Oh, millions of flowers, millions of flowers" says Richard Stumpp, who monitors this warehouse for Mercury Air Cargo. "I would say 1 million to 2 million flowers a day.”

He says his company receives flowers from all over South America. “Chile, Ecuador, Peru, a lot from Colombia. These flowers are of such variety that it looks like some of them are from a different planet.”

Stumpp says there’s a growing demand for foreign flowers. The Society of American Florists figures that 80 percent of all cut flowers sold in this country come from somewhere else.

Kasey Cronquist is with the California Cut Flowers Commission – a state agency that represents flower growers. He says the Golden State almost exclusively fills the demand for the other 20 percent.

“We’re America’s flowers," says Cronquist. "Whether you are on the East Coast or you are in California. We are the last largest group of growers in the United States, we represent the local choice.”

But Cronquist admits that California’s share of the market has wilted. He estimates that only a dozen major commercial rose farms remain in the state.

“California was known for roses. The Rose Parade, the Rose Bowl. That sort of thing. We were the country’s largest producer of roses and unfortunately we lost a lot of that market to Ecuador and Colombia over the last 20 years.”

Consider the California-grown rose a casualty of the drug wars. Twenty years ago, Congress passed the Andean Trade Preference Act.

It was supposed to drive down coca leaf cultivation, necessary for cocaine, by promoting other cash crops. The law reduced tariffs on goods, including flowers, that South American counties shipped to the U.S. Farmers in those countries undercut the price of petals, and the domestic flower industry dried up.

Global economics aside, there’s an upside to this policy for Customs and Border Patrol inspector Beison Ramirez. He’s less likely than ever to find narcotics packed in boxes of carnations from Colombia.

Here’s what might show up instead: “Caterpillars, spiders, moths, sometimes it’s lizards or frogs that pop out.”

He finds them... so you won’t have to.

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