Celebrating 60 years of flowers and fellowship
B.C.’s United Flower Growers Co-operative Association marks six decades of community, commerce and cultivation
December 18, 2023 By Amy Kouniakis
An evening of flowers and fellowship was held in early September to celebrate the 60th anniversary of B.C.’s United Flower Growers Co-operative Association. According to attendees, it was an evening filled with laughter, camaraderie and reminiscing.
“It was so memorable and special for everyone – especially for those who travelled from further away – to have a chance to gather and to be together again after three years of being separated,” Michel Benoit, the association’s CEO, told Greenhouse Canada in a recent interview. “I don’t think there will ever be another evening like that for a long time.”
The excitement was palpable among the more than 250 people in attendance, Benoit explained, because for the first time since COVID-19 restricted access to the UFG’s premises at 4085 Marine Way in Burnaby, growers and buyers were once again, face-to-face.
“Prior to the event, a lot of growers were only a number to some buyers,” he said, adding that members even contributed to the celebration by creating breathtaking floral arrangements and trade show booths for the event.
The joy of coming together to celebrate this important milestone in the life of UFG stands to underscore the association’s importance to the industry as a whole.
United Flower Growers was established six decades ago in an effort to empower B.C.’s flower growers. Today, with more than 70 members and close to 90 growers shipping to the co-op regularly, and over 500 customers, United Flower Growers facilitates approximately $45 million per year in flower sales.
Much of those sales are generated through UFG’s Dutch-style flower auctions, which take place daily in-person and online.
“The benefit of the auction is that we are able to move a large amount of product in a very short period of time,” Benoit said, noting that nowadays, a lot of those transactions are happening online – a trend that has only gotten more popular since the pandemic.
“Before COVID, at a regular auction, we would see less than 100 people in the building not counting staff,” Benoit says. “The number of buyers buying remotely increased a lot (since COVID) and the number of new customers also increased because of their ability, now, to be able to buy online.”
In fact, COVID proved to be quite a boon for the floral industry as more people turned to beautifying their homes with plants and gardens while in isolation. “Flowers and plants were extremely popular, especially in 2020. The amount of tropicals that we sold that year was just record-breaking amounts,” Benoit said.
UFG’s adept navigation of the pandemic is further proof of the association’s resilience in times of uncertainty – a trait that’s been put to the test several times over the past six decades.
The emergence of big box stores put much strain on the association’s membership as the Dutch-style auction format wasn’t suited to the purchasing needs of these companies.
“They’re looking for long-term contracts with growers with UPC codes with certain branding requirements,” Benoit explained. “We saw some of that business leave the co-op and that has been a long-term trend.”
The co-op, however, remains “incredibly viable,” Benoit says, because what it services best is “people who are in the floral business, or who have independent garden centres, or other wholesalers who sell to the floral side of the business.”
In the early 2000s, the UFG underwent another transition as the board recognized opportunities in the wholesale and the import of flowers. By 2012-13, Benoit said, that aspect of the UFG became too profitable to be a part of the non-profit association so the decision was made to create a separate wholesale and import business from the co-op. Thus, United Floral was born and today, the wholesale side of that business sources most of its local products from co-op members.
Beyond facilitating the sale of growers’ products, the UFG works tirelessly to support the community it serves. The association works closely with Flowers Canada and the BC Agriculture Council to advocate for growers and push for legislation that is beneficial for farmers. Most recently, the association saw success in lobbying for the reduced cost of the carbon tax for greenhouse growers. Additionally, following the devastating floods in the Fraser Valley in 2021, UFG lobbied for compensation for farmers affected by the disaster.
Looking ahead, Benoit says, in the wake of the uncertainty of the past few years, what the future holds for the UFG remains unclear but Benoit is still rather hopeful.
“We feel that we’re in a better place than 2019 but how much of the COVID gains we’ll be able to keep is a challenge to know where that will land,” Benoit said. “We’re still projecting some growth, but certainly not at the levels we had in 2021/2022.”
One thing is for certain, after the success of the evening spent celebrating 60 years of its success, the UFG plans to host more gatherings and open houses for its customers and growers as this next phase of the association looks to prioritize the preservation those personal relationships.
“We really want to make sure we maintain those relationships and build them because they are really, really valuable,” Benoit said, recalling a story of a recent trip to Seattle where he met one of the co-op’s wholesale customers.
“He says to me: ‘You know, I hope you don’t mind but in Seattle, we sell your flowers as local because we feel that you know, we are local. So, even though there’s a border that separates us flowers brings us together,’” Benoit remembers fondly. “I love it. That wholesaler has access to incredible sources of product (in California), and yet he just loves the B.C. products.”
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