Longform

Growing, Growing, Gone

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(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.

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Steve Jackson