Dutch flower auctions: an ever-blooming and booming industry

Nature may have given flowers their roots, but the Dutch gave them wings. What blooms in Holland today will brighten homes around the world tomorrow. With the speed and precision of a blitzkrieg, ripened Dutch flowers pass through a time-tested pipeline on their way to a Mother's Day bouquet in Germany or an Easter Sunday corsage in New York. The Dutch are still world-class marketers.

Holland is perhaps better known for its annual out-of-doors Tulpenwoede (tulipmania) each April and May. Yet a never-ending and equally astounding indoor floral spectacle awaits the business traveler throughout the year.

The sights, sounds, and fragrances of acres upon acres of flower-filled ``glasshouses,'' and the world's most sophisticated flower auctions are well worth a one-day pleasure or business side trip for everyone touring Holland - regardless of the season.

With their small home market, foreign trade has long been an economic necessity for the Dutch. So, in the late 19th century, when New World imports first threatened to undersell home-grown grains, Dutch agriculture ripened for change. A nationwide cooperative movement swept the country. Today, thousands of thriving Dutch cooperatives market the lion's share of all agricultural products, flowers included.

The first auctions - flower-laden canal barges drawn past onshore bidding stands - were also launched in the late 19th century. Nowadays, virtually every commercially raised Dutch cut flower finds its way to one of 11 cooperatively run regional flower auctions.

Each auction is a marketing and distribution hub surrounded by growers. For example, just south of The Hague over 1,500 acres of back-to-back glasshouses are owned and operated by about 1,000 growers. From the air, this expanse of plate glass resembles a glittering North Sea inlet. And afloat in this sea of glass is the Westland auction, Holland's second largest.

Dutch auctions have little in common with the popular farmers' markets found in America. Their size alone is overwhelming.

The largest auction, located 50 kilometers north of The Hague in Aalsmeer, was started in 1912. Today it occupies over 320,000 square meters of floor space - larger than 70 football fields - and, in 1985, had cut-flower sales of $295 million, or 40 percent of all Dutch cut-flower auction sales in that year.

Many experts in both Europe and the United States contend these auctions are the key to Holland's success in the worldwide cut-flower trade.

Dr. Natalio Gorin, a researcher at the Springer Institute in Wageningen, notes, ``The Institute's goal is to continually improve the accuracy and reliability of quality control measures for cut flowers. That is also a central goal of the auctions - to insure only top quality flowers reach the auction hall and overseas markets.''

Quality assurance is the flip side of the perishability equation. If cut flowers don't begin their journey in good shape, a few days later customer satisfaction on the other side of the world will certainly wilt.

Once cut, flowers become highly perishable and every second counts thereafter. In fact, the Dutch flower auctions are a combination of stock exchange mayhem and a tense, businesslike atmosphere.

Prior to the start of each auction, buyers are free to view and sniff (but not touch) the flowers. Most buyers, however, concentrate on price and market considerations, trusting the judgment of the auction's professional inspectors. Cut, bunched and already stacked aboard standard three- or four-tier wheeled carts, flowers of every color and description arrive at the climate-controlled auction throughout the evening and early morning hours. From alstroemerias to zinnias, each batch is inspected and graded.

Next, hundreds of flower-filled carts are coupled together into long train-like processions. Chain-driven tow bars are built into slotted tracks in the concrete floor to guide the linked carts from assembly halls to auction auditorium and then finally, into the distribution center, where each buyer's assorted acquisitions - a bunch of mums, one-half cart of lilies, and so forth - are collected and readied for loading aboard waiting trucks for their journey to shops throughout Europe and overseas.

At 8 a.m. the buyer-packed, clock-dominated auction hall comes to life. Each bidder's station, consisting of a small desk and bench, is equipped with a telephone for up-to-the-minute price comparisons with associates at other auctions, an earphone through which the auction master passes instructions to buyers, and a button.

After programming his location by inserting a coded account card into a slot, the buyer's every bid is automatically recorded and tallied by computers capable of handling up to 50,000 transactions per day.

For the next three hours, as the bidding clock's long arm repeatedly sweeps downward from an initial asking price, bidders stop the clock by pressing their button. At the speed of light, computers identify the buyer and the items purchased, and invoices are printed and attached to each cart as it leaves the auction hall.

Every moment counts. Few are wasted. The time required for a cart to enter and leave the auction hall is about one minute. The pace is hectic yet methodical.

The Dutch are no less proud of their flower auctions than Wall Street is of its stock exchange. Visitors are welcome and tours can be arranged. If possible, steer clear of the Aalsmeer auction. Its Gargantuan tourist-trap and souvenir-shop atmosphere, with 250,000 visitors a year, is disappointing. The visitor is treated to a much more personal tour, and feels closer to the action, in Naaldwijk at the Westland auction. For more information, and tour reservations contact: Bloemenveiling Westland, Dijkweg 66-Postbus 220, 2670 AE Naaldwijk; or V.B.A., Legmeerdijk 313, Postbus 1000, 1430 BA Aalsmeer, the Netherlands.

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