Let's Stop Weaponizing Flowers for Political Reasons [Unpublished]

by:  Michael LoBue, CEO

It seems to happen around every flower holiday – flowers are weaponized by protectionists.  They drag out the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) as the reason domestic flower growers have been harmed over the past quarter century.  While this narrative is comforting to some, it’s not the complete story.  It’s not even the accurate story.  I suppose it’s a comforting narrative because it places the blame beyond our shores.

I bought into this narrative when became CEO of the CalFlowers back in late 2013.  As a native Californian, I accepted the charge against the "foreign" perpetrators of a seemingly obvious injustice.  Trained as a policy wonk, I went to find the data that supported the narrative.  That’s when I discovered that not only was the core thread of the narrative wrong, it was exactly 180 degrees wrong.

While there’s no denying that inexpensive imports from the Andes coincided with a massive disruption of domestic flower production, especially in California, there’s actually a more supportable narrative that inexpensive imported flowers actually saved the US floral industry.

Consider the following facts that the protectionists conveniently fail to mention:

  • The equator is a far superior location for growing the three flowers most preferred by US consumers:  roses, carnations and mums;
  • Colombia and Ecuador can grow these and other flowers, in the quantities desired by US consumers 52 weeks a year.  It’s not possible to do that in California; if it were possible, then why haven’t Californian flower farmers met US consumer demand in the past?
  • Between 1981 and 1991, a full decade before the ATPA was signed, the number of California commercial cut flower growers declined by 37%, from 478 in 1981 to 301 in 1991.  Source: Floriculture Crops Reports from U.S. Department of Agriculture.

  • 50% of California’s current commercial flower farms started operations after 1993.  1993 was the first year imports accounted for more than 50% share of the US flower market (Source: California Association of Flower Growers & Shippers, 2017 membership records).  In the graph below the Early Era was from 1870’s to 1941; the Middle Era was from after WWII to 1993; and the Current Era is from 1994 to the present: 

  • California commercial cut flower production grew 22% between 1993 and 2015 – not spectacular when compared to 168% frowth in flower imports during the same period.  Note, however, that the 22% growth of the California production was enjoyed by two-third fewer farms in 2015 than in 1993.

What are some of the reasons, completely unrelated to imports, that might account for the challenges that faced California commercial flower growers?  After an analysis of several possible cofactors, only two rose to the surface:

  • California population growth.  From the first census taken in 1860 until the most recent decennial census of 2010, California’s population has grown by double-digit percentage points every single decade.  One in 8 Americans reside in California today!  This phenomenon, alone, put tremendous pressure on land use in the State to the point where almost any other land use is more valuable than growing commercial flowers.
  • Family businesses.  Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves is a multicultural proverb that predicts that within three generations of a family business the special qualities that existed in the founder are no longer carried by the 3rd generation.

While the above proverb may have been more true in the past, it describes a general condition of today’s flower farms.  Most flower farms are family-owned and about half in California are multi-generational, as were the vast majority of now defunct California farms.  Employment options outside the flower business for members of third and fourth generations on family farms are factors that have likely affected the continuity of some farms.

In addition to land use issues, both water and labor issues remain significant challenges for the California flower farmer.  California’s rapid population growth has caused water availability issues, while farm labor became more complicated in the second half of the 20th century. 

The above factors – population growth, the preponderance of family businesses, and land use and labor issues - are never mentioned by flower protectionists, perhaps because they aren’t as simple or as emotionally appealing as casting blame elsewhere.

Understanding these issues by incorporating all the important and relevant facts is critical to maintaining a healthy domestic flower industry.  There is a place for domestic production of cut flowers, and as today’s California cut flower farmers know, there’s good business for domestic growers with imports helping to drive U.S. flower consumption.

Human and capital resources are too scarce in the California flower industry to be confronted with problems that don’t exist or to purse challenges that are more emotional than real.

This post is intended to end the wrong and destructive narrative that weaponizes flowers for the political purpose of blaming imports for the state of the domestic industry.  There’s a new narrative in town!  By the way, the floral industry is doing fine.  It has its challenges as does any industry that must respond to rapid innovations and changes.

The next time you think the California flower farmer needs to be bailed out to save farm jobs, consider how many of the more than 83,000 Americans currently employed in the domestic floral industry could loose their jobs because of tariffs that increase flower prices and potentially shrink the market. 

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