WASHINGTON — IT'S Valentine's Day. Do you know where your roses came from? Maybe you thought they were picked nearby by people wearing that nice clothing you saw in your Smith and Hawken gardening catalog. Maybe you were wrong.
Over the last 20 years a rising tide of imports, mainly from South America, has battered the American cut-flower industry.
Perhaps rose-growing was once a yuppie dream of sun-washed days, honest toil, and dogs in the Range Rover. But nowadays it's as cutthroat as the auto business.
"Most consumers are totally naive about the fact that 80 percent of carnations and 40 percent of roses come from offshore," says Tim Haley, president of Pikes Peak Greenhouses in Colorado Springs, Colo. "And the percentage will be higher next year."
Not all the news is terrible for US rose growers. They're still clipping more stems than they did in the mid-1980s. Cheap imports have helped fuel an explosion in US rose consumption, with the queen flower of romance now available from gas stations, supermarkets, and those vendors who sit on folding chairs at stoplights.
"Roses are being used more in informal arrangements and on occasions other than traditional holidays," notes a US International Trade Commission (ITC) study of the rose industry.
Fresh roses have long been the most important cut-flower crop in the US, accounting for one-third of the $600 million wholesale flower market. That's about 1 billion stems - something just under four per capita, if you want to check on whether you're getting your fair share.
Miniature sweetheart roses still do well in the US, but the larger hybrid teas now account for the bulk of sales. Red is the most popular color. That's not true in Europe, the largest flower market in the world (the Netherlands alone grows some 2 billion roses annually). Various shades of pink account for 55 percent of European rose sales, according to the ITC.
Until the 1970s, US growers had the domestic market pretty much to themselves. Then South American exporters began perfecting a distribution network that today extends from Miami to major centers across the eastern and central US.
The market share of Andean importers has increased steadily, from 0.2 percent in 1971 to 41.2 percent in 1990. Colombia is by far the largest exporter, accounting for some 3 out of 5 roses flown into Miami. Ecuador and Mexico also export significant numbers.
The importers' big selling point is price - an average 30 percent less than US growers, according to one ITC survey. At one point last spring imported roses were going for 6 cents a stem. (As you know if you bought roses today, their price peaks at holidays - imported stems were $1 apiece last Feb. 8.)
Imported roses in Miami are "offered at ridiculously low prices. US growers aren't able to compete," says David Machtel of the Floral Trade Council.
Domestic producers' big selling point is freshness and quality. US roses take up water better than the Visa variety largely grown in Colombia. Domestic roses are less likely to bend at the neck and they open fully, whereas the Visa "generally remains closed," according to the ITC.
Over the years US rose growers have often asked the US government for relief, charging that foreign growers are illegally subsidized by the government and dump their products in the US below cost, among other things. For the most part federal investigators thought these charges unfounded, though as the result of one investigation Colombia agreed to a tax on its own rose exports. While currently there is a nominal duty on flowers, "there are no meaningful restrictions on importing roses into the US," says
a US trade investigator.
In the past the ITC has never found domestic rose growers to be substantially injured by imports, this official points out. The growth in the overall market means domestic rose production is now 50 percent higher than it was in 1971.
But industry figures claim the number of domestic rose growers has dropped by 12 percent in the last 18 years. And Tim Haley worries that he'll be driven out of the rose business, just as he was driven out of the carnation business. Imports now account for 82 percent of standard carnations sold in this country.
Because of cheap rose imports, "We've been pushed out of our New York market, our Chicago market, a good portion of our Houston market," says Mr. Haley. He supports legislation, introduced in Congress by Rep. Leon Panetta (D) of California, that would set strict quotas for flower imports and require country-of-origin labeling by florists.
Haley believes that to encourage alternatives to drug production in Andes nations the US government is willing to write off the domestic cut-flower industry.