Growing, Growing, Gone

The skeletons of two large greenhouses stand at the back of Roy Obluda's property. "I've been a little slow tearing them down," he says. "Reluctant, I guess."

When they are gone, so will be the last physical reminder of 36 years in the flower business. Thirty-six years of growing carnations for prom tuxedos, bridal bouquets and Mother's Day corsages. Now dandelions are the only flowers growing on land that once produced 440,000 blooms a year. Four other greenhouses have already been dismantled and sold for scrap; the endless rows of planter boxes disappeared long ago. All that remains are the aluminum ribs of the greenhouses, the empty spaces, the weeds and the memories.

The Obluda family was one of several hundred growers, most of them family operations, that once made Colorado the self-proclaimed Carnation Capital of the world. At the flower industry's height, the state boasted 7.4 million square feet planted with carnations.

Obluda had hoped to pass the family business on to his five children, or at least sell it to support his retirement. But no one wanted to buy into this crippled industry.

He points to more empty greenhouses on the property next door. Five years after Obluda bought his land, the Tracey family moved in and also started growing carnations. There was more than enough business to go around. The two families talked flowers and raised their kids amid rows of red, pink and white blossoms.

When Chuck Tracey died, his son, Mark, tried to hang on. But finally he, too, had to admit defeat. "The widow says she can't even go in the greenhouses anymore," Obluda says. "It's too depressing."

Obluda hung up his own clippers in 1993 but remembers his carnation-growing days fondly. "They kind of get in your blood," he says of the flowers. "There were a lot of long hours. You had to be there for them if they needed you. It wasn't like you could go away on Friday and come back Sunday and expect them to be okay.

"But it was never drudgery. I grew carnations for 36 years, and I never regretted one day of it...There was never a morning that I didn't get up and look forward to going out and seeing them."

Today, fewer than 280,000 square feet of carnations are grown in Colorado. The industry is dying an unnatural death, an unexpected casualty of the U.S. government's failed attempts to stop cocaine traffickers.

Roy Obluda graduated from Colorado State University's horticulture school in 1950 and worked in several greenhouses before deciding to set out on his own. He and his new bride, Mary Ann, found four acres in what was then an undeveloped part of Golden and set to work in 1957. Together they put up the greenhouses, filled the planter boxes, tended the flowers and saw them off to market.

"In a mom-and-pop operation," Obluda laughs, "you've got to have the mom. But she loved them as much as I did."

Their five children grew along with the flowers. As infants they'd be set out in their playpens near where their parents worked. When they learned to walk, they'd toddle after Roy and Mary Ann, playing between the planter boxes. At twelve they were given small tasks. And the week or two before Mother's Day, the busiest time for a carnation grower, everybody would pitch in, doing what they could.

The carnation was a flower tailor-made for Colorado. It needed plenty of sunshine, especially during the winter, and liked cool evenings during the summer. Although California growers tried to claim that their flowers were just as good, everybody knew that something about the Colorado air and altitude produced bigger, better blossoms.

Colorado's proximity to the major carnation markets in the Midwest and on the East Coast gave it another advantage over California, especially in the days when the flowers had to be freighted by truck or railcar. And in the mid-Sixties, the advent of jet airplanes as haulers of freight opened up whole new markets. It seemed as if the flower industry, like the flowers themselves, had nowhere to go but up.

Then the oil embargoes of the early Seventies drove up the price of natural gas used to heat greenhouses. "It broke the marginal growers," Obluda recalls. "But we weathered it. We became more efficient, cut every corner we could."

Growers made large donations to the CSU horticultural school to finance research that would help create better flowers and increase productivity. Combined with technological improvements in air-conditioning and heating for greenhouses, the research helped growers like the Obludas come back from the oil embargoes bigger than ever.

In fact, by 1974 Colorado was the number-one producer of carnations in the world. In honor of the industry, Wheat Ridge held a Carnation Festival every August. Greenhouses sprang up all over the metro area, and there were more than 250 growers in the state. Some growers--like the Davis brothers, whose brick-mason grandfather started the business in the 1920s--had been around for generations. The Davises not only grew flowers, they acted as a wholesaler for more than fifty other growers.  

Another wholesaler, Denver Wholesale Florists, had been bought out by fifty growers in 1949; by 1970 it was the top carnation wholesaler in the country. "Within the organization we had these different groups of people," remembers Larry Hagan, who has been with the company 26 years and is currently its controller. "We had a Caucasian contingent, Sicilians, and Japanese-Americans. But everybody worked for the common good.

"We were a predator group--wiping out the industry in the rest of the United States," Hagan continues. "We even shipped to Europe. So we were sitting there all fat, dumb and happy when things began to change, and because of that, it took a little while to recognize what was going on."

What was going on was this: At the same time CSU researchers were working with the cut-flower industry here in Colorado, another CSU professor and his graduate students were trying to determine the very best location for growing flowers.

"The argument had been: Colorado or California," recalls Tim Haley, a third-generation grower whose family owns Pikes Peak Greenhouses in Colorado Springs. "Unfortunately, the answer they came up with was Colombia, South America."

What the CSU researchers discovered was that the 9,000-foot plateau outside of Bogota had as much sun as Colorado, maybe even more, and the same desirable cool evenings. But while growers here had to contend with heating costs during the winter, which drove up the cost of growing flowers, temperatures were much more moderate down near the equator.

"In our worst days of winter, they were enjoying lots of sun and warm weather," says professor Doug Hopper of the CSU horticultural school. "Because they didn't have to worry about heating costs, they could take their time and grow bigger flowers and also time when to have their products hit the market--like Valentine's Day--when domestic growers were having to charge more to cover their costs."

Labor, traditionally 25 percent of a grower's cost of doing business in this country, was cheap in South America. "What you had to pay a worker," Hopper says, "even at minimum wage, a day in the U.S. would probably cover a week's salary for someone in Colombia."

South American growers weren't hamstrung by all those Environmental Protection Agency regulations regarding pesticide use that were growing increasingly restrictive and cost-prohibitive as the years passed. And the technology that allowed Colorado growers to get their flowers to European markets--freight-carrying jets--would also allow the Colombians to get their products to Miami quickly and cheaply.

American scientists, including three CSU professors, traveled to Colombia to help get its growers off the ground. Eager to win the hearts and minds of its poor populace, the Colombian government listened to their advice and subsidized the fledgling flower industry.

U.S. growers, particularly those in Colorado, felt like they'd been stabbed in the back by CSU.

"Traditionally, because it is a state-funded school, we give any information developed to in-state growers for free," says Hopper. "But if you consult out-of-state, you can get paid. Technically, there was no breach of any rules or laws.

"But there is the moral issue: If Colorado growers paid to develop the technology--and they did put tons of money into it, still do, though not as much--was it right to hand that over to someone for what was really a small consulting fee?"

And the U.S. government was only too happy to assist the Colombians, encouraging the information exchange and allowing cheap flowers to be imported with only slight tariffs, says Colorado Springs' Haley, now president of the Floral Trade Council, which was formed to lobby the feds on behalf of American growers.

Flowers soon became a foreign-policy tool. South of the border, the U.S. was still fighting to win the battle of ideologies against communism, and Fidel Castro's exportation of revolution was less likely to take root in countries with stable economies and lower unemployment. But in the process of such petal-pushing, the U.S. aided and abetted the enemy's war against domestic growers.

The Colombians first targeted the chrysanthemum industry, which was based largely in Florida. Chrysanthemums had a longer shelf life than either carnations or roses, giving the Colombians time to work out the freight logistics.

The Colombians next set their sights on the carnation and rose industries and began dumping the flowers on the U.S. market for less than it cost to produce them. They made their money by charging their distributors in Miami $10 for every box they handled.  

Growers like Obluda began hearing rumors of these cheap invaders from the salesmen they encountered in wholesalers' offices. Then, almost before they knew what had happened, the carnation growers had lost their East Coast markets. From there, the Colombians gobbled up market after market on their relentless move west.

"I knew I wouldn't be able to compete," Obluda says. But unlike many of his fellow growers, Obluda didn't blame CSU, his old alma mater, for arming the enemy.

"Maybe it would have taken a few more years," he says, "but I think the Colombians would have found out about it eventually. My thoughts were, 'If they can ship them that far and still compete, maybe it was meant to be.' The problem was that the playing field wasn't level because of the subsidies."

In the early Eighties the carnation and rose growers were able to pool enough money to hire legal counsel in Washington, D.C., to argue against those unfair practices. International trade law prohibits selling products in a foreign market for less than it costs to produce them; however, those affected must prove they are truly being harmed by the imports.

The growers took their case to the International Trade Commission, a government agency that is supposed to protect U.S. businesses from unfair trade practices. But the Colombians had their own high-priced attorneys who argued that because they grew bigger carnations, they were, in effect, producing a different crop altogether. The commission ruled that the U.S. growers had not proved damages.

The bloom was definitely off the rose. While in the Seventies the government had worried about the exportation of Cuban communism to Latin America, by the mid-Eighties it was far more concerned with another south-of-the-border export: Colombian cocaine. The U.S. declared war on drugs.

The strategy on one front went like this: Give the Colombians a legal export crop to grow instead of drugs and no one gets hurt. Except, of course, U.S. flower growers. "But being a collection of family businesses, we didn't have much political clout," says Haley, who even traveled to Miami to discuss the situation with U.S. customs officials.

The government's reasoning had a number of flaws. While the bushes that produce the leaves used to make cocaine are grown in remote, hilly areas far from the prying eyes of police, flowers must be grown in areas large and flat enough to accommodate greenhouses and with access to airports. It wasn't as though a farmer could substitute one crop for another.

Even so, flowers soon became Colombia's number three legal export--right behind coffee and emeralds. "But anyone who thought that it would replace the number-one export--cocaine--was fooling himself," says Haley.

In fact, the Colombian flower industry wound up providing some benefits for the cocaine cartels. Drug traffickers were always looking for ways to launder their drug money by investing it in legitimate businesses--and what better investment than the burgeoning flower industry? Given its money-laundering capabilities, there was even less motivation for the already-subsidized flower industry to turn a profit on the actual sale of blooms--the cartels could afford to absorb the losses in exchange for clean money.

Not all Colombian growers, or even the majority, are owned by cocaine cartels, Haley admits. "But you get a loan from somebody who got the money from someone else without even knowing where the money came from," he points out.

Not only did the floral industry give drug traffickers a way to launder their money, but it also provided a new method for exporting their product to the U.S.--packed in large containers of flowers.

"They arrive on these refrigerated 747s and are immediately placed into huge coolers," Obluda says. With millions of perishable flowers arriving at any one time, customs agents can't inspect them all.

"It's not necessarily the growers who are doing it," Haley says diplomatically. "Maybe somebody sticks it in at the Bogota airport and then gets it after it's cleared customs here."

Haley says U.S. customs agents told him that smuggling has tapered off since U.S. customs began seizing airliners if drugs were found on board. "The airlines got tired of having to ransom their planes," he adds. "So they began X-raying the containers...Flowers and packages of cocaine have very different molecular structures, so it was easy to spot cocaine in a shipment of flowers.

"Now they send the cocaine in with shipments of fresh fish. They have similar molecular structures, so they stick it right into the fish and it's hard to spot with X-rays. The customs guys have to stick their hands in the fish to inspect them, which must be far less pleasant than flowers."  

(The flower-drug shipments haven't stopped entirely, however. In April the DEA confiscated 700 kilos of cocaine found in a flower shipment from Colombia. At $2,000 an ounce, that represents about $56 million.)

This country's carnation and rose growers continued to, as Hagan puts it, "fight the good fight." They kept taking their evidence of the Colombians' illegal dumping practices to the International Trade Commission--which kept telling them that they had failed to prove they'd been harmed.

Finally, in 1990, the ITC ruled in favor of U.S. carnation growers. The Colombians were told to pay an 8 percent dumping fine. "But it was too little, too late," Haley says. "The industry was already too crippled to compete anymore. And [the ruling] didn't do much anyway because of what Bush did."

Early in George Bush's tenure as president, he'd met with the president of Colombia, who had a list of five things he wanted from the United States. One of the five was the removal of the 8 percent tariff on the import of Colombian flowers.

The result of that meeting was the Andean Trade Preference Act of 1991, which granted preferential tariff treatment to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru--the two other countries that were major players in the cocaine trade. Now Colombian carnations were cheaper than ever.

By 1992 the number of carnation growers in this country had dropped to 139. In 1971, the year when cheap flowers first began arriving in the U.S., the Department of Agriculture had recorded 1,525 carnation growers. According to the USDA, over the same period the number of standard-sized chrysanthemum growers had dropped from 2,143 to 152.

Some growers turned to roses, the last flowers targeted by the Colombians. Even so, the number of rose-growers in this country dropped from 323 to 225 between 1971 and 1992.

Only a handful of Colorado's carnation growers remained. Of the ones forced out, some managed to sell their land to developers. Others fought as long as they could and then simply went under.

Haley ticks them off. "Park-Elitch, which was connected to the amusement park: bankrupt. Rocky Mountain Wholesale Florists: bankrupt. The Davis brothers: bankrupt...Most of them are gone."

Two of the Davis brothers went on to work for Euser Wholesale Florists, one of the few carnation growers left. Having their own retail outlets helped Euser keep the carnation business going, says Kent Davis.

Haley, whose family had been in the business since the 1940s, got out of carnations altogether and concentrated on roses; in order to stay competitive, he and his brother also opened their own retail shops. "But I have to be honest," Haley says. "Half the reason we survived was because the others were driven out and there was less competition for what remained of the local market."

Denver Wholesale survived by diversifying into other areas, such as providing growers' supplies, Hagan says. Still, the number of stockholders in the company--once as high as a hundred--is now down to four, "including the Tagawas, who no longer grow cut flowers."

Ken Tagawa, whose parents founded Tagawa Greenhouses in 1969, says his family saw the writing on the wall and went into bedding plants instead.

Second-generation Japanese-Americans, his parents had begun farming row crops in 1947 after being released from an internment camp. The ordeal, Tagawa says, taught them the values of resiliency and flexibility, and they passed those lessons along to their children. As a result, the Tagawa business remains healthy and family-run.

"If you don't change, you get run over," he says. "And that's what happened."

In the four years since the Andean Trade Preference Act, the number of U.S. growers has continued to drop. According to the USDA, today there are only 92 carnation growers in this country, along with 113 standard chrysanthemum growers and 175 rose growers.

Colombian growers continue to enjoy the duty-free benefits of the ATPA, despite the fact that their country has been repeatedly chastised by the U.S. government for failing to halt the drug trade.

In April the Floral Trade Council met with U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to discuss the ATPA's impact on this country's growers. The council was told that although the Clinton administration had considered removing the preferential tariff treatment as a trade sanction against the Colombians, it had decided against that action.

Despite that setback, the Floral Trade Council keeps trying. One of its latest tactics is to point out the difference in pesticide use between the lightly regulated Colombians and the highly regulated U.S. growers. In this country, growers are limited in what chemicals they can use; Colombians use several that are prohibited in the United States.  

U.S. growers must also abide by certain rules for application of the few chemicals they can use. For example, workers cannot re-enter greenhouses for a certain period of time after chemicals are applied, sometimes as long as three days. But according to a recent National Public Radio report, workers in Colombia often remain in greenhouses while chemicals are sprayed. As a result, they suffer from respiratory and skin ailments.

"I saw a picture where they were using a mule to haul pesticides that they were spraying on a field," Haley says. "The mule had a respirator on, but the workers didn't."

In February 1995, the American Journal, a television newsmagazine, reported that of twenty flower samples imported from Colombian farms, eleven showed high levels of pesticide residue, some of them known carcinogens or chemicals said to cause birth defects. In contrast, roses from four American growers tested negative for chemical residue.

"As you know, when you get a rose, the first thing you do is sniff it," Dr. Samuel Epstein, a toxicologist and chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, told American Journal. "You put it on the table and you have dinner...[the chemicals] are gradually de-gasing as you eat."

A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health warns that people who handle large numbers of imported flowers can become ill. It also cites a threat to children who "inadvertently eat flowers" and to people who delight in burying their faces in a bouquet of roses that may contain high levels of pesticide residues.

Although the EPA says the flowers are unlikely to cause birth defects, the agency still suggests caution be used when handling them. The Colombian Floral Council, however, has insisted that its country's flowers pose no danger. (German Salazar, the Miami-based executive director of the council, did not return Westword's calls.)

Beyond health concerns, though, there are aesthetic issues. Flowers exported to this country aren't as fresh as they were in the days when they were grown in the U.S., cut one day and delivered the next, says Will Carlson, executive director of the Floral Trade Council.

"I just bought roses for my mother from Tim Haley," he adds, speaking from his office in Michigan. "I know when they arrive they will have just been cut the day before and will last more than a week. The flowers from Colombia may have been shipped days before they arrive at their destination and kept on ice. They last a couple of days...if they open at all.

"Unfortunately, the consumer tends to blame the whole industry, because they don't realize that their local flower grower has been put out of business by unfair trade practices."

Hopper says he believes that economics was the major factor in the demise of domestic growers. "To what extent subsidies and the drug trade contributed to that, I don't know," he adds. "That's certainly the perception."

For Roy Obluda and his wife, the last few years in the flower business were mostly a matter of "trading dollars, trying to make enough to pay the bills," Obluda says. He was close to retirement age, and none of the kids wanted into the flower business. "By then it was evident there wouldn't be any kind of a living in it," he adds.

The couple called it quits on June 15, 1993. "Summer, everyone grows their own flowers outdoors," Obluda says. "It was always a quiet time for us, so we thought it might be easier. But it was tough. You can't do something you love for thirty years and not miss it.

"We may have been able to compete, all things being equal. But they weren't. And the government didn't really care what happened to us," he adds. "Most people, if they have a viable business, can sell it when they retire. But nobody wanted these." He points to the frames of the greenhouses.

Then Obluda smiles. "It was a good thing my wife and I discovered there is life after the greenhouse," he says, then steps into a small greenhouse tucked behind his garage. Inside are a few poinsettias, some tomato plants and one single, twelve-foot-long planter box full of carnations.

Gently touching a pink bud, he says, "I kept a little something to play with.

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