This is not the same soulful rose that inspired countless poets and lovers.
It is, however, a Valentine’s Day blockbuster. Tomorrow, Americans will spend nearly $2 billion on cut flowers, and a dozen long-stemmed roses are the most popular choice.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 80 percent of all flowers sold in the U.S. are imported, primarily from South American industrial flower farms that have a history of using harsh chemical fertilizers, toxic pesticides and unfair labor practices. At the U.S. border, flowers must be fumigated to clear customs.
“They don’t know where their flowers come from or what they’ve been sprayed with. There are better options.”
If that doesn’t scream romance, consider the massive carbon footprint that results from global transportation and plastic packaging.
“People don’t realize that they have a choice,” said Lisa Zieglar, owner of The Gardeners Workshop, a small organic flower farm in Newport News, Virginia. “They don’t know where their flowers come from or what they’ve been sprayed with. There are better options.”
Zieglar is part of an emerging sustainable-flower industry, which is determined put the bloom back on much more than roses: zinnias, snapdragons, Sweet William and the like.
For $100 – not much more than a single traditional Valentine’s bouquet – Zieglar’s customers can give their sweethearts a gift card redeemable for a CSA-style share when the weather warms up. “The smart men have figured it out,” she laughed. “Their wives get flowers all summer long.”
CULTIVATING A FARM-TO-VASE MINDSET
Though the sustainable flower market is still tiny, it’s clearly growing. According to the USDA, the number of small flower farms has increased by about 20 percent during the past five years. As of the 2012 census, there were nearly 6,000 flower farms across the country.
Many small flower growers are taking a cue from organic food farmers, who have successfully harnessed the farm-to-table trend. More of us now know where our beef comes from and how our tomatoes are grown, but it rarely occurs to us to ask the same questions about the flowers on our tables.
Prinzing, who lives in Seattle, is on a crusade to educate consumers about sustainable floriculture. Her message is simple: “Most of the time, it’s possible to source sustainably grown flowers within 50 miles of where you live.” And if you can’t buy local, then at least buy domestic.
The hard part? Determining which flowers were farmed domestically. The USDA only requires labels on the boxes used to deliver flowers to the florists, rather than on individual bundles.
To help, Prinzing established www.slowflowers.com, an online directory of florists, event planners, and supermarket floral departments who use flowers grown stateside. Other helpful resources include the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers and Local Harvest. Some retailers, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, sell flowers certified by VeriFlora, signifying growers who meet eco-friendly and fair trade standards.
Meanwhile, small flower farmers are using labels to their advantage. For example, a simple “Sustainably grown in the Northwest” sticker on cut flowers can be a very effective marketing tool.
“Many growers have become very overt about telling people that their flowers are local. They go to farmers markets and special events to explain how their flowers are raised or how they use beneficial insects,” Prinzing notes. “It puts a face on the farmer.”
AN AGRICULTURAL SHIFT FROM TURNIPS TO TULIPS
Many food farmers also discover that flowers can provide a surprising, untapped stream of income. “There’s an a-ha moment when the food farmer realizes that flowers are a higher value crop,” Prinzing explains. “Flowers are an opportunity for the small farmer to diversify and sell more product to existing customers.”
To gain a competitive edge, some growers specialize in heirloom varieties that aren’t typically available at chain stores. Instead of commonplace tulips, a grower might focus on French double tulips, parrot styles, and other hard-to-find specimens.
“Flowers are finally becoming part of the dialogue about agriculture,” Prinzing said. “And people are realizing that growing food is only one way to farm.”