inside view: Cut flower advice: just be different

May 04, 2010
Written by Gary Jones
Cut flower growers have taken quite a beating recently. Imports of around $130 million in 2007 (Stats Canada), mostly from South America (Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala), Africa and to some extent the Netherlands have practically killed off all Canadian greenhouse rose and chrysanthemum production. Other species, such as gerbera and snapdragons, have somewhat taken the places of these old favourites, but it’s a struggle.

The issues: No surprises really. As in many other horticulture sectors, indeed across many other industries that have gone “off shore,” the challenges come down to a number of issues: export sales facing increasingly common parity of the loonie versus the U.S. dollar, rising energy costs at home compared to lower energy inputs at more southerly latitudes, and cheaper foreign labour are all key issues. Of course, there are few that are unique to our products: market trends (changes to how cut flowers are purchased), new (quarantine) pests, and challenging environmental legislation.

The solutions? So, where do we go? Three oft-quoted options are: (a) offer the best quality product; (b) cut production costs to a minimum; and (c) find specialized markets – perhaps flowers not grown (yet) in South America! But don’t most growers try to do all of this anyway? Here are some adjustments based on these options:

Grow something else, such as greenhouse vegetables.

Turn to niche market products (easier said than done!).

Cultivate novelty crops, such sprayed, dyed or glittered flowers (not everyone’s cup of tea).

Organic flowers.

Fair trade flowers.

Guaranteed product vase life.

Organic flowers: A number of growers have tried (and some stayed with!) organic cut flower production. Even though there is no guarantee of a price premium just because the label says “organic,” organic production of cut flowers is on the increase in the U.S. In 2005, there were 183 acres of certified organic cut flowers growing in the U.S., 50 per cent of which were in Maine (USDA figures). In the Netherlands, “Florganic BV” is a wholesale business specializing in organic ornamental plants certified with the EKO label. The website says that the organic principles to which they adhere are “focusing on organic manuring, biological weed killing, crop rotations and appropriate variety selection.” One of the issues mentioned earlier was “how are cut flowers purchased now?” Well, here is an interesting story. Since 2004, Shell (yes, the oil company) has been selling organic flowers at many of its own “points of sale” (gas stations) in the Netherlands. This has made it the country’s largest retailer of organic flowers! (Check out the ‘BioFlora’ website.)

Fair Trade flowers:
“Fair Trade,” or otherwise “ethically traded” flowers, in particular roses, are sold at most of the leading U.K. supermarket chains such as Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. Sainsbury’s claim to offer over 800 Fair Trade products, including five lily products, one carnation product and a full 100 per cent of their Kenyan roses (offered in 17 different line items).

The point about both of these concepts is that they provide options. They enable significant product differentiation in a way that enables today’s discerning customer to make purchases that they feel make an impact beyond the value of the product. They have an added-value social “feel-good” factor.

Guaranteed product life:
A more contentious innovation for cut flower bouquets is the requirement from some retailers for growers to guarantee product vase life. In the U.K., vase life is now guaranteed for five, seven, 10 or even up to 14 days. This has helped these retailers increase their market share of cut flower sales from 18 per cent to 60 per cent over the last 15 years. Much of this is done with exemplary growing techniques and production systems, but some is due to innovations in packaging such as modified sleeving and ethylene inhibitors. Newer packaging materials (e.g., mineral-impregnated polyethylene) aim to remove ethylene from flower packs and yet maintain suitable humidity in the pack to prevent flower desiccation.

Whether you choose the high-tech or the “green” option (or indeed, both!) is up to you. Either way, do something to make your product different from cheaper imports.

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