Saturday, February 9, 2008

Another Colombian Crop Takes Off In U.S: St. Valentine's Flowers

Fresh cut roses shipped from Colombia to the U.S.

The expansion has been so successful that Colombia is the second largest exporter of cut flowers in the world after the Netherlands

In the high Andean plains here, Reynaldo Garcia Navas lives in a world bounded by Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day and Secretary's Day.

In the high Andean plains here, Reynaldo Garcia Navas lives in a world bounded by Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day and Secretary's Day.

''This carnation was cut 10 minutes ago,'' Mr. Garcia said, selecting a bright red flower in the cold storage area of his flower farm. ''Tomorrow, it will be in Miami. The day after, in a local florist.''

Coaxing Colombian flowers to bloom according to American holidays is part of a booming new export business.

In the last 20 years, Colombia's exports of fresh cut flowers have soared, from virtually nothing in 1969 to an expected $250 million this year, making it the nation's fifth largest export.

Today, Colombia is the second largest flower exporter in the world after the Netherlands.

The flower industry has taken hold in the high, sunny plateaus outside of Colombia's two largest cities, Bogota and Medellin. In a boon to areas with high unemployment, the labor-intensive industry now directly employs 70,000 people and gives indirect employment to 30,000 more.

In the year-round springlike climate here, millions of roses, carnations and chrysanthemums bloom under tented plastic.

With the eyes of the United States now focused on Colombia because of the Government's war with cocaine traffickers, Jorge Enrique Uribe Salazar, president of the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters, hopes to win tariff concessions for Colombian flowers.

Mr. Uribe's target is a 4.4 percent duty on American imports of Colombia flowers. The tariff was imposed five years ago in response to American flower growers who complained that the Colombians were dumping, or selling at below market prices. The Colombians admit that in July and August they are often forced to sell to brokers in Miami for prices that are below production costs. American flower prices traditionally are low at that time of year for a variety of reasons: there are few weddings, many people are on vacation and there are no major holidays associated with flower giving.

''Obviously, I don't want to sell below cost,'' said Mr. Garcia, general manager of Colibri Flowers. ''But flowers grow all year round and they are perishable. I have to sell them.''

To appease the Americans, Colombian growers say they have ended a series of Government subsidies - tax breaks, duty-free imports of agricultural implements and bank loans extended at below market rates.

American officials here do not seem to be moved by Colombia's complaints of protectionism. ''Don't look at the lawsuits, don't look at the arguments,'' said an official at the American Embassy here. ''Look at the final figures, look at the enormous gains for Colombian flowers in the United States.''

The American official noted that Colombia's flower exports to the United States this year are expected to be 20 percent higher than last year's level. #15 Cows or 1.6 Million Flowers but, production here is expanding as more and more ranchers discover that the acreage that supports 15 cows will also support 1.6 million flowers. Several industry analysts say the Colombians should explore new markets.

Japan would be a natural market, but exporters here say they are handicapped by poor airline connections and by Japanese protectionism.

''Japanese prices are so high that Colombian flowers would be very attractive,'' said Mr. Uribe. ''But they have a very high level of protection. There are no duties, but when the flowers arrive at Narita Airport, they are inspected one by one.''

Another solution is to induce Americans to buy more flowers. Americans buy only $15 worth of flowers a person each year. Europeans buy between $35 and $65 worth of flowers a person.

''I compare flowers to wine,'' said Mr. Uribe, warming to the idea of a joint Colombian-American effort to promote flower consumption in the United States. ''Twenty years ago, Americans really didn't drink wine. Now you have flowers entering America's mainstream - they are sold in supermarkets and chain stores.''


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