Natural Foods Merchandiser
|Nurseries without fertilizers burgeoning into a new industry
by Shara Rutberg
Natural Foods Merchandiser - August 1, 2005
Organic flower sellers believe there would be no tangle of taffeta at weddings if pouncing bridesmaids knew 127 chemicals went into growing the
roses in the bride's bouquet. These flower merchants are confident that as consumers become aware of their budding industry, they'll begin to choose
organic for their floral, as well as their food needs. "There's more to organic than food," says Gerald Prolman. The success of his Mill Valley, Calif.
based company, Organic Bouquet, the first national organic flower supplier, is proving his point. "Sales in 2005 quadrupled over 2004," he says, "and
we anticipate exponential growth in 2006."
Americans spent $8 million on organic flowers in 2003, an estimated 52 percent growth spurt over the previous year, according to the Organic Trade
Association, whose statisticians predict that sales will grow about 13 percent annually through 2008. This despite the fact that sales in the conventional
cut-flower industry have been flat, hovering around $19 billion over the past few years, according to the Society of American Florists.
In June, Prolman and members of Scientific Certification Systems, a company that develops environmental standards, hosted "Eco-Flower Power:
Sustainability Trends for the Floral Industry," in San Francisco. The event included representatives from nearly every link of the daisy chain of
distribution. Panelists discussed problems facing the floral industry and recently developed solutions.
Between 60 percent and 70 percent of cut flowers sold in the United States are imported, mostly from countries with less-stringent pesticide
regulations. According to a report from the National Wildlife Federation, rose growers in Ecuador, on average, use three poisons to kill worms, four to
kill insects and six for fungi, including several that are tightly restricted in the United States because of the poisons' threats to human health. Sixty
percent of Ecuadorian workers surveyed in a study for the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showed symptoms of poisoning. In addition to
harming workers, the chemicals can poison groundwater, invade the food chain and evaporate into the atmosphere, then migrate across the globe.
Certification programs in other parts of the world have begun to address social and environmental concerns. On a quest to implement a similar
program of standards for flowers sold in the United States, Prolman began to search for sources for organically grown flowers. Having no luck in the
States, Prolman headed south. He made a deal with Ecuadorian grower Dr. Hernan Chiriboga. Prolman agreed to buy his entire crop of organic roses
at a guaranteed price for three years if Chiriboga would go 100 percent organic. After extensive research and the construction of a new greenhouse on
virgin soil, Chiriboga produced the world's first commercial crop of organic roses. Prolman introduced them to the American market in 2002.
About a year and a half ago, Prolman and a group of producers and distributors approached Scientific Certification Systems. The result was Veriflora,
a new certification standard recently launched for the American market and highlighted during the "Eco-Flower Power" symposium. "The standard
revolves around six principles: advanced agricultural practices, social responsibility, conservation of ecological resources, water conservation, waste
management and product quality," explains Linda Brown, executive vice president and cofounder of SCS. "The program certifies crops and growers
and provides standards for growers as they transition toward certification."
Veriflora is the first sustainable agriculture standard to explicitly incorporate organic agricultural practices into its criteria. "We saw the trend of
concern about sustainability issues diverging from agricultural trends toward organic," Brown says. "In the sustainability movement, there was no
mention of 'organic,' [and] limited chemical use was permitted.
"We saw 'sustainable' and 'organic' coming to a head in the U.S. market, where people associate progressive agricultural practice with organic. We
felt it was important to bring these diverging paths together." Prolman likens the early days of the organic flower industry to the organic produce
industry of the 1980s: It's the "classic chicken-and-the-egg issue, where growers were not looking at growing organic flowers because the market was
not demanding them, and the market was not demanding them because they were not available."
Kendall Farms in Fallbrook, Calif., was one of the first growers to receive Veriflora certification, for its sunflowers. The rest of the farm is organic,
moving toward eventual Veriflora certification. "There's definitely opportunity," says President Jason Kendall. "It's all about educating the consumer
—about why some of the added costs are there and just letting them know the organic option is out there." Kendall's first two years growing organic
sunflowers were a bit rocky. The first crop was not as aesthetically perfect as conventional flowers on the market. To improve quality, the farm raised
prices and consumers balked a bit. This year, they planted only half as many. "Now, we're getting a huge demand for it," Kendall says.
Tulips grown in Arcata, Calif., by the Sun Valley Group, the country's largest grower of cut flowers, are also among the first crop of Verifloracertified flowers. "I definitely would not call demand 'huge,' " says Bruce MacDonald, Sun Valley Group's vice president of sales and marketing. "It truly is a niche market. ... Is it a growing market? It's growing a little bit. Remember, it's very expensive to grow these products ... [and] the consumer has to be a pretty dedicated organic person—a person with a love for flowers and a passion for organic. But if the consumer wants something badly enough, the industry will provide it, whether it be a pet rock or an organic tulip. The market is consumer-driven."
Consumers—and the chefs who cook for them—have been steadily driving another, albeit tiny, sector of the organic flower market: edible organic
flowers. Jacobs Farm, in Pescadero, Calif., is the country's largest provider of edible organic flowers. "Generally speaking, this is a limited niche
market and comprises less than 5 percent of what we currently grow and ship, which is a full line of certified-organic culinary herbs," says president
and chief executive Larry Jacobs. "Nevertheless, since the early '80s there has been moderate, steady growth."
Education, say many in the industry, is the key to convincing consumers of the importance of buying organic—and to increasing sales. When
consumers learn about the availability of organic flowers, their enthusiasm for conventionally grown flowers will shrivel up like last month's bouquet.
"It doesn't take a lot of convincing," says Prolman. "I believe that given the choice, most people would prefer flowers grown in an environmentally
responsible manner." He says the greatest challenge growers face is convincing retailers to commit to proactively supporting growers who are
transitioning to organic operations. Only then will the industry truly blossom. And though catching an organic bouquet still might not guarantee a
husband on the horizon, it might bring the world a few blooms closer to becoming a sustainable planet.
Originally published in the August 1, 2005 issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 8/p. 30