Thursday, December 2, 2010


It seems the name for the "El Nino" climate phenomenon was coined by fishermen from Ecuador and Peru in the 17th century, because it seemed to always occur at Christmas time. "El Nino" is the hispanic term for Jesus Christ, and is literally translated as "Little Child" or "Little Boy". My understanding of this phenomenon is that it occurs when the normally warm surface water of the Eastern Pacific Ocean is blown west and the cold water is allowed to rise to the surface, aided by the Humboldt current which brings cold water from the Southern Pacific. Then tropical winds blowing eastwards, in contrast to the usual direction of the South Pacific Trade Winds, drives water from the ocean which results in unusually large amounts of precipitation in the Andean nations of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Or is that "La Nina"?
I have been researching the unusual amount of rain occurring in Colombia which has resulted in massive flooding that continues into December, and which is repeatedly attributed to be a result of the "La Nina" phenomenon. Not one single source can provide a succinct and unambiguous definition, as all the explanations end with caveats stating words to the effect of 'no one is really sure' about these effects, and on top of that many of the meteorological sources are frustratingly vague.
Not to worry, lets just gloss that part over, as I can report that around the world in 2010 unusually powerful winds from the Northern and Southern hemisphere were meeting at the equatorial belt, causing massive updraughts and moving spectacular amounts of water into the atmosphere. And as we have seen on news reports on all media, equally spectacular amounts of precipitation have caused disastrous flooding in Pakistan, Thailand, Colombia and Nigeria, to name a few. During the month of November in Colombia floods  caused 161 persons to lose their lives, 1.3 million people have lost their homes or sustained significant damage to them and an estimated $2.5 billion in total losses is said to have occurred. 

In stark contrast, unusual climate changes occurring in Siberia are such that this November was the warmest that has ever been recorded!

I highlight this problem, particularly with respect to our upcoming Valentine's Day in 2011. Throughout our industry there has been much discussion and opinion about the shortage of some flowers as well as their reciprocal increase in prices. I outlined the main reasons for this in an earlier article (October 18th read here) and certainly weather has been one of the problems, but going forward from now until February it seems that a wet, rainy and cold climate will engender many problems for the rose supply, as well as that of gypsophilia and most flowers grown in Colombia, and to a  lesser extent in Ecuador.
The good news is that there is almost a zero probability of a freeze this year.

The principal problem that I foresee for this Valentine 2011 will be that of quality, rather than one of supply, although issues with the former will have some effect on the latter. But the fact that quality will most likely be compromised leads one to some troubling conclusions, not least of which is that many Roses entering the marketplace will not be of export grade. But lets look at why the products from many rose farms will be compromised:
Many rose plantations are experiencing dire cash flow problems due to a variety of reasons attributable to the poor economy, as well as because the Colombian Peso remains fairly strong against the US Dollar. Quite a few farms had been promised loans by the Colombian Dept. of Agriculture but this aid was withdrawn after a scandal involving monies furnished to Falcon Farms and Florandina by the Colombian government was used in an allegedly fraudulent manner.
Without adequate financing, amicable agreements with vendors and suppliers and/or good cash flow the ability of farms to grow and maintain healthy, vigorous plants is circumspect. Realise that the rose plants projected to be used for Valentine's production, which will be all the reds, most of the pinks and a few select colors (minus those required for standing orders), have all been pinched* and will produce three, maybe four stems of roses for the holiday. To effectively produce three times as many flowers as normal, the plant will need a commensurate amount of fertilization, as well as more labor to care and groom the plants as necessary. And this is in a good climate.
Given that it has been raining in the Sabana of Colombia for what seems like months on end, and it is forecast to keep raining through February, the rose farms now face two more issues for which they need money: First of all, with the almost permanent layer of cloud cover obscuring the sun, the luminosity that the plants would normally enjoy is seriously compromised, which leads to a drop-off in productivity. This can be partially offset by feeding the plants more than normal, which should result in a yield more or less commensurate with expectations. Unfortunately, even though the fecundity of the plants may be satisfactory, without sun the rose stems tend to stretch as they reach for light. As such, plants will produce roses with 70cm stem lengths but with a stem diameter and strength appropriate to the quality parameters expected of a 40cm rose. An exigent and quality conscious rose farm will, of course, cut these stems down to the appropriate length. As well as issues with stem length, the low light levels cause the stems to 'wander', resulting in crooked and twisted stems. Furthermore these same atrocious conditions of will also negatively impact the head size, and may diminish the petal count. Usually, both these defects would cause a rose to be graded out for domestic consumption and would not enter the export inventory. Usually!
Secondly, with the copious amounts of rain and continued cloud cover expected in Colombia and Ecuador during the entire three months the roses are in production for Valentine's, the low luminosity and high humidity create the perfect environment for diseases and pests to wreak havoc. More pesticides and anti-fungal fumigation's need to be applied than usual, with extra vigilance needed as this is the most valuable crop of the year. Because of the pinch, wherein three months of production was sacrificed to ensure that an increased yield will flush at the end of January, the plants are functioning under stress in less than an optimum environment. Again, the increased amount of vegetative growth means that more labor is needed to be vigilant for incidence of disease, especially for Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew and Botrytis and also infestations of Spider Mites.

It does not take much to figure out that the top rose farms with good management, a sound financial footing and professional integrity will be generally impervious to the issues outlined above, except for the problem of filling all their orders. But how many of those farms are there, really? Not enough, that's for sure.
Rose farms in Colombia and Ecuador will be doing the very best that they can, and with no malice aforethought, but the facts are that with out sufficient financial resources strict fertilization and phyto-sanitary programs cannot be maintained. And this will lead to a serious compromising of quality. Most of these lesser quality products will come to the USA as, unfortunately, the US flower industry is generally considered to be a largely uneducated marketplace with an overemphasis placed on price.
Rose growers will be shipping their best roses to their most knowledgeable clients, as well as those paying the best price. In Ecuador this means a lot of these will be going to Europe and Russia, as well as some select importers and wholesalers in the USA. This is because Ecuadorian roses are considered among the best in the world. Of late, only 29% of all Ecuadorian roses on an annual basis come to the USA, although at Valentine's percentage-wise it is a little higher. Colombia sends a little under 90% of its rose production to the USA, so one can see that given the litany of problems in Colombia, it appears inevitable that the overall quality of roses available to US consumers will be compromised.My conclusion is that there will be a good supply of roses, but that good quality products will be quite scarce.

Therefore, I urge you to consider your flower purchases with diligence, not just for Valentine's Day but for the rest of the year. Learn about the products that you work with, ascertain what the internationally recognised grading standards are for the flowers that you use, establish meaningful relationships with wholesalers, vendors, growers and such, who can provide you not only with products but with knowledge.
Yes, roses, carnations, peonies, hydrangeas, in fact, probably all flowers will cost a bit more next year, so it behooves you to buy them from a company or individual who can provide you with provenance** and knowledge. And a fair price, too!

*Pinch - Term used to denote the cutting back of rose canes to promote a vigorous flush of several stems of roses at a later date. The lower one cuts on a rose plant, then fewer stems are promoted but they tend to be very long and of high quality. The higher up on the plant one cuts the rose back, the more stems are produced but are shorter and of lesser quality. Therefore the 'pinch' is a compromise of yield balanced with quality. While the bush is pinched there is no production of roses on that plant until harvest. Also note that after Valentine's the plant is effectively 'pinched' again, which explains the dearth of product in February and March. Ecuador is pinching less and less, in order to have high quality roses year round - another factor contibuting to the scarcity of top quality products for Valentine's Day.

**Provenance - A term generally used in the Art World, and especially that of Antiquities, to denote that an item has a traceable history and/or a clear and legal origin. I use it here to emphasize that it should be part of a flower buyer's routine to ascertain origin of a product, the grower perhaps, how it was shipped, when it was shipped, when it was harvested, was the cold-chain maintained and so forth. Professional wholesalers will be happy to be engaged in a process of edification, as after all they are really partners in your success.

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