The roses purchased this week at a florist, supermarket or website for Valentine's Day most likely arrived in the United States through one place: Miami International Airport, the port of entry for about 90 percent of percent of cut flowers imported from the country.
Throughout the year, farmworkers cut flowers by hand, primarily in Colombia and Ecuador, to ship them on cargo planes to Miami, where they are inspected and then loaded onto trucks to reach all continental states. Sometimes cut flowers in the morning can be in South Florida, a three or four hour flight away, in the afternoon.
It's a logistical feat, especially in the weeks leading up to February 14, one of the floral industry's two biggest holidays, along with Mother's Day. However, few consider that when purchasing $20 bouquets at Target.
“If you ask general consumers, 'Where do flowers come from?' They think they come from someone's backyard,” said Christine Boldt, executive vice president of the Florida Floral Importers Association, a trade group.
Colombian airline Avianca doubles its daily cargo flights to Miami during the month leading up to Valentine's Day. Customs and Border Protection is bringing in additional agricultural specialists from other parts of the country to step up flower inspections. Industry executives lose sleep coordinating truck routes and troubleshooting problems.
Missed a shipment of roses? Bad luck. Demand plummets when the day ends, that is, until Mother's Day.
“It's difficult from a production standpoint, because you really have to ramp up production, turn it down, ramp it up again for Mother's Day, and then ramp it down again,” said Carlos Oramas, co-founder and CEO of Gems. Group, a flower importer based in Doral, west of the Miami airport. “There's a lot of agricultural complexity in it.”
Not to mention “many more planes, many more trucks and many more hours” than the industry demands at other times of the year, Oramas said. (Critics point out that greenhouse gas emissions from air cargo flights are harmful to the environment and have urged consumers to seek out and buy American-grown flowers, which represent a much smaller portion of the market.) .
Flower sales surged during the coronavirus pandemic, as more people sent bouquets – “a gift of contactless delivery,” Boldt said – to loved ones they couldn't see in person. Then, as pandemic restrictions eased, flowers were in short supply for a time, as people made up for lost time and the number of weddings and other holiday events soared.
“We are now in a transition to calculating how much demand there is on a weekly basis from consumers,” Ms. Boldt said.
Overall, there is enough demand for South Florida's floral industry to directly or indirectly employ about 6,000 people, his group estimates. In Colombia, the business formally or informally employs about 200,000 people, said Javier Mesa of Asocolflores, the Colombian association of flower exporters. Valentine's Day accounts for perhaps half of the year's sales for the country's farms, he said.
Preparations for the holidays begin months in advance. Starting in mid-January, the number of flights of flowers, inspectors and workers increases. Importers order their Valentine's Day offerings, typically boxed bouquets for retail florists, who curate their own bouquets, and pre-packaged bouquets for grocery chains like Costco and Walmart, as well as e-commerce sites like 1-800- Flowers.
Still, perishable flowers must remain “dormant” in cold temperatures, requiring cargo planes, warehouses and refrigerated trucks.
On Monday, workers unloaded 22 pallets containing boxes of flowers from an Avianca Airbus 330 freighter. Inside the warehouse, the floors were slippery from the cold of the cargo, so cold that among thousands of flowers there was no trace of their aroma. Boxes of flowers were stacked in neat piles, waiting to be cleared by Customs and Border Protection. White carnations with red tips. Bright sunflowers. Lavender hydrangeas.
“From the magical land of Colombia to the world,” said one shipment of boxes.
Agricultural specialists sampled shipments to look for hitchhiking diseases and pests, including beetles, grasshoppers, wasps and moths. They removed bouquets of flowers and shook them upside down on white paper. If something suspicious fell out, they examined it with a magnifying glass and a flashlight.
From mid-January to the end of last week, specialists removed more than 830 million stems from 75,000 sampled boxes and found about 1,100 pests, according to Daniel Alonso, port director of Customs and Border Protection at Miami International Airport.
On Monday, a specialist, José Rodríguez, found a small pest, not much larger than a speck of dirt, in a bunch of chrysanthemums. He placed it in a jar with alcohol to send to the US Department of Agriculture for identification. The chrysanthemums would be kept on hold until the agency decided what action to take, if any, such as fumigating the shipment, returning it to the farm or destroying it.
Several specialists said they enjoyed knowing they would be a part of making someone's day a little happier, a sentiment others in the industry also expressed.
“There is a story that will accompany each of these lines,” said Mr. Oramas, the executive. “That we can be a part of such an intimate moment in so many parts of the country is a great blessing.”
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