Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images
If you send a bouquet of roses for Valentine’s Day, chances are they were grown in Colombia. It remains the No. 1 supplier of flowers to the U.S. even though the coronavirus pandemic at one point threatened to wilt the industry.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” said José Restrepo, co-owner and general manager of the Ayurá flower farm, located just north of Bogotá in the Andean mountain town of Tocancipá.
As Restrepo spoke, workers wearing face masks and rubber gloves rushed to clip, sort and box roses ahead of Sunday’s romantic holiday that accounts for one-third of Ayurá’s annual sales.
The farm’s commercial manager, Claudia Fuentes, said customers can choose from a rainbow of hues — 35 when it comes to roses and more than 60 for carnations.
“For Valentine’s Day the favorite color is red, but hot pink is second,” she said while strolling through one of the greenhouses. “We have light pink, hot pink, medium pink … red, yellow, white, lavender.”
Ayurá is one of hundreds of Colombian flower farms that, in a normal year, sell about $1.5 billion worth of roses, carnations, orchids and other species to the U.S., Europe and Asia, according to Augusto Solano, director of the Colombian Flower Exporters’ Association.
But when the pandemic hit last March, the Colombian government imposed one of the strictest and longest economic lockdowns in Latin America. International flights were drastically reduced making it harder to export. Meanwhile, overseas demand diminished as weddings, graduations and other ceremonies were canceled.
As COVID-19 spread — so far more than 56,000 Colombians have died from the disease — Restrepo and other farm owners feared they would have to rip up most of their flower beds and lay off thousands of employees.
“We started hearing about the first lockdowns, the cancellation of flights, big customers, big wholesalers in the U.S. shutting their operations,” Restrepo said. “And at that moment we didn’t know what to do.”
But the flower industry was among the first in Colombia to adopt safety measures to protect workers. Farms installed plexiglass partitions in processing facilities, added more work shifts and brought in smaller numbers of employees per shift to give them more space. All of this helped convince the Colombian government to allow flower farms to continue operating.
“We moved very fast to put all of these plans in place,” said Restrepo, who noted that only about a dozen of his 500 workers tested positive for the coronavirus.
In addition, the demand for flowers quickly rebounded. With people stuck indoors for months on end, Solano said that fresh flowers proved to be one of the easier and cheaper ways to liven up the decor and change the scenery.
“People have been isolated so you cannot hug someone, or you cannot show your smile. And maybe a bouquet of flowers is a way to express that feeling,” he said. “Flowers are food for the soul, food for the spirit. And that’s why people kept buying flowers.”
As a result, Solano said flower exports last year dropped by just 5% and are expected to rebound this year. And even as Colombia’s unemployment rate nearly doubled last year to 20.2%, almost all of the country’s 140,000 flower workers kept their jobs.
Among them is Flor Rodríguez, a single mother who has worked on the Ayurá farm for 14 years. When her eldest daughter lost her accounting job during the lockdown, Rodríguez said her steady salary clipping carnations helped her extended family, that includes three grandchildren, get by.
“We feel blessed,” Rodríguez said of the farm’s workforce. “We have been working the whole time and we didn’t get sick with COVID.”
Claudia Fuentes, the farm’s commercial manager, is also thankful that the industry survived the pandemic. The rush ahead of Valentine’s Day, she said, symbolizes “hope, the start of a new time.”
But Fuentes and the other flower workers in the country won’t have much time to celebrate. Pretty soon, they’ll be gearing up for a crush of orders ahead of Mother’s Day.