Longform

Growing, Growing, Gone

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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.

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Steve Jackson