Longform

Growing, Growing, Gone

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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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Steve Jackson