US flower growers fight to survive amid imports

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WASHINGTON — As she took a break on Monday from picking dahlias, zinnias and amaranths on her Jello Mold Farm in Mount Vernon, Wash., Diane Szukovathy wondered why, in her opinion, the federal government is working so hard to put other flower growers and her out of business by helping competitors thousands of miles away in the temperate regions of Colombia.

First came the international war on drugs, with the U.S. government spending millions since 1999 to help poor Colombian farmers destroy their coca plants and replace them with flowers. Then Congress passed a free-trade agreement with Colombia last year, making those blooms cheaper for Americans to buy.

With Colombian imports now accounting for three of every four cut flowers sold in the United States, domestic growers say they can’t compete with the planeloads of Colombian flowers that are flown in through Miami each day.

“It’s job robbing. I mean, it’s so bad. It’s so wrong,” said Szukovathy, 49, who’s run her farm in the Skagit River Valley, about an hour north of Seattle, for nearly 10 years. “Those politics are such a mess. I don’t really feel like that’s my government, almost.”

For small growers caught in the crossfire of global trade, it means the possible loss of an industry they love.

For Americans, it means the possible loss of the simple notion of heading to the neighborhood florist to buy locally grown flowers for special friends or spouses or to decorate the graves of loved ones.

In Washington and California, two of the top-producing states for flowers used mainly in bouquets, growers are trying to fight back, but they fear they don’t have much time before their industry collapses.

For starters, they’re banding together by forming cooperatives that they hope will reduce their transportation costs and make it easier to deal with the expanding foreign competition.

And they’re trying to push new buy-American, buy-local campaigns, hoping that consumers will think twice when they realize that their Valentine’s Day bouquets and nearly all the roses on the California’s Rose Parade floats are South American imports.

“My sense is that people don’t understand what we’re really up against, the Costco effect of flowers being shipped in by 747s each day, between seven and 10 a day and up to 35 on the holidays,” said Kasey Cronquist, the chief executive officer of the California Cut Flower Commission. “It really puts us at a sizable disadvantage.”

The booming flower imports from Colombia reflect growing demand from Americans, who’ll want even more as the economy recovers and consumers start piling up more non-essential purchases, said Jerry Haar, the associate dean and director of the Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center at Florida International University.

Colombian flowers already have created nearly 225,000 jobs in the United States, most of them near the port of entry in Miami, according to August Solano, the president of the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters.

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