“There were a lot of different reasons why, but mainly the prices were so drastically different. When we were trying to sell a flower stem at 12 cents, they were selling at 3 or 4 cents. And they could do a very good job with them. Light and temperatures were great for carnations, and their costs, especially for labor, were much lower.”
South American imports enter the United States at Miami. Because shipping to western markets required added transportation costs and delays, those markets were still open to California and Colorado carnation growers into the 1980s. The local crop value peaked in 1988 at $17.5 million. As imports pushed down the price of blooms, by 1998 the local crop was worth $2.6 million, although acreage planted to carnations had decreased by only 50 percent in that same time.
“And right after the Colombian carnations hit, the chrysanthemum market followed,” says Echter. His Colorado cousins now have home-garden stores on their old carnation land, “and Dramm & Echter shifted into roses,” he says.
A Rose by Any Other Name Would Be Cocaine
“Everybody here thought that roses were so perishable,” says Echter, “how will [South America] ever ship roses successfully? That’s what everyone thought. They’re picked [in Colombia] one day, graded and bunched probably the following day, sold maybe the next day or the second day. Then they have to be shipped to Miami and go through customs. It’s four or five days old before they get to the United States. Then they’re held in Miami, at the importers’ refrigerators, until they can sell them. So we were thinking that it would be a real slow transition into roses or maybe [the market would be] protected just because of the nature of the beast, the perishability.
“But in South America they grow them at high altitudes and so slowly that they grow a very firm rose. They don’t open very well. The plants are cold grown, so the buds just kind of sit there and can handle the shipping and storage and be sold economically,” Echter says.
Then in 1991, as part of the Bush administration’s war on drugs, Congress passed the Andean Trade Preference Act. At the time, South America already claimed nearly half of the U.S. rose market and more than 70 percent of the mums and carnations. This new legislation removed all tariffs from flowers and some other products from four countries known to be major sources of cocaine and heroin: Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. The hope, of course, was that farmers would replace coca plants and heroin poppies with roses.
Once again domestic growers struggled to compete with the South American product, grown where a worker earns less in a day than the average American worker earns in an hour and where pesticide regulations are less restrictive. While it costs the average American grower 40 cents just to produce a rose, imports can sell for as little as 10 cents. Roses and other flowers have occasionally been dumped on the American market at giveaway prices in an effort to lure wholesalers to the imported product. South America now supplies 75 to 80 percent of the roses sold in the United States. San Diego supplies 10 percent of the roses sold from California, which amounts to 1 percent of the national market.
In San Diego County, 1988 was the peak year for rose growers according to farm bureau statistics. The value of 61 acres of roses was $14.1 million. By 1998, acreage was down to 47, and the value was slightly over $7 million. But last year the county lost the Thompson Rose Co., its largest rose grower. Robert Thompson closed down nearly half a million square feet of greenhouses in Carlsbad and moved to San Marcos, where he now specializes in houseplants and potted ornamentals. But if Bob Echter concedes the carnation wars to South America, he’s still a booster of American-grown roses.
He opens the door to a greenhouse full of compact, lush rose bushes. The roots of each deep-green plant sit in a small plastic sack of shredded coconut fiber. The sacks rest on ranks of wooden benches. Tubes and pipes run in and out of each sack, connected to pumps, gauges, and larger tubes for dispensing timed infusions of water and nutrients. Each bush looks like a patient in an emergency room. The dim, silvery light through the plastic walls gives the space an eerie, underwater feel. The damp air is surprisingly cool, not warm and thick like in the adjacent greenhouses.
Echter surveys the sea of green teardrop buds on tall stems, all of nearly equal height. “We have the temperature down in here to keep the buds from opening too soon. We’re timing them for Valentine’s Day. We’ll bring the temperature up so that when we cut them they are just beginning to unfurl. If a rosebud is too tight when you cut them, they will never open into a full blossom.
“California growers, we heat our greenhouses and we push our roses faster so we can turn more units, which is one way that we can compete with South America. But until six or seven years ago, growing roses that way, they were weaker stemmed, and sometimes they didn’t last as long in the vase.
“But growing them hydroponically and with new cutting techniques, now we have a stronger, heavier rose that’s superior to the South American rose. It isn’t as big as the South American rose, but they’re healthy, and the stem thickness is good, and they open. But everybody’s so tied up on size, that the rose has to be big, so they choose a South American rose. But South American roses don’t open. And they have to pick them a little too early to time them for the market.” Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day account for the bulk of rose sales.
Part of the market psychology rose growers must deal with is what Eric Larson calls the “wow factor,” the visual impact of the larger South American rosebud. As he puts it, “The highest value a cut flower has is the moment it’s received [by the customer].”