Inside View: May 2011

April 28, 2011
Written by Gary Jones
It’s no secret that the cut flower industry has been having a hard time recently. Globally, some of this is because of the uncertainties in the local and global economies and how that affects the purchasing of what many see as luxury goods. Furthermore, Canadian growers have faced increased competition from imports.

Of course, there are also local and temporary influences, with Burnaby’s United Flower Growers auction reporting the number of wagons of (local) cut flowers down 15 per cent this Valentine’s Day compared to last year, primarily because of poor weather. Imports were up 42 per cent, giving an overall sales reduction of cut flowers of seven per cent (more about that later).

CURRENT SITUATION AND PREDICTIONS
Many growers have already changed their crop mix and continue to do so. This has led to unpredictable availabilities of some crops at certain times of year. If predictions of further production cutbacks of some crops during 2011 hold true, and if demand continues at its current levels, there will even be shortages in some commodities.

On the back of this, there are those who are predicting that prices in some crops will rise over the 2011 season. (Now is “later” from above: UFG reported a five per cent increase in prices for cut flowers this March compared to 2010.)

But who can be sure of this in the long term? And how high can prices go for a crop before demand shrinks again?

There is one “keystone rule” for this industry: “never chase a good crop.” That’s a sure recipe to end up growing what everyone else is growing, and you’ll find yourself dealing with the certainties of an over-supplied market.

So, what can be done?

Don’t ignore “the web” as an irrelevant sales option for flowers. “Fiftyflowers.com” said that 2009 Internet sales of cuts increased by 25 per cent over 2008 figures.

Over one million U.S. brides (which represents about half of all weddings!) had purchased their flowers online. “DIY Flowers” for weddings was the fastest growing sales trend in 2010 in the U.S.

CHANGE WHAT YOU GROW
There are lots of “Top Ten Flowers” lists. Invariably, they contain rose, chrysanthemum, tulip, lily, carnation, gerbera, freesia, cymbidium (orchid), alstroemeria and gypsophila (cut flowers by worldwide sales, “theflowerexpert.com”).

But there are, of course, regional differences. For example, the top five sales in the U.S. reflect the previously mentioned worldwide list, but in a slightly different order. However, in the U.K., chrysanthemum is missing from the top five, but sweet pea is there instead. So, perhaps we should look at what makes the grade elsewhere to see what might work here?

FOREIGN VERSUS NATIVE
At the other extreme, maybe it’s time for an even bigger paradigm shift in our thinking about what to grow.

For instance, how many of the “top ten” species are native to Canada (or North America at least)? A couple at best, and even then it depends on species and whom you talk to!

What if we started to grow native species for our markets? After all, local species should grow well in our climate and may require fewer inputs.

There are some examples already: asters and Solidago (goldenrod) come to mind, but there must be other possibilities. Not great examples, but initially how about Camassia quamash (Small camas – a member of the liliaceae)? Or Wild Iris, or Thompson’s Paintbrush (Castilleja thompsonii)?

Anyone out there got other ideas? While I’m not suggesting for a minute that we go raid the hillsides and strip the country of native flowers, there must be responsible options for bringing some native flowers into commercial cultivation.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD CUT FLOWER?
No matter where it’s from, there are certain characteristics that make a flower suitable for the cut flower industry.

From a consumer’s point of view, these desirables include beauty, fragrance, long stems and long vase life. Growers, however, would be looking for all of the above, plus potential yield, possibility for all-year-round production, potential for drying (to be able to use surplus in an alternative market), resistance to pests and diseases, and tolerance of heat and drought. Also, from a grower’s standpoint, flowers should be easy to grow, and low in energy input needs.

Oh, and they must allow the grower to make a profit!

Happy hunting.

Gary Jones is chair of Production Horticulture at Kwantlen University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees and would welcome comments at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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