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Ethical Imports: Colombia’s Booming Bloom

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Given it’s six months since we were in Colombia you’d be forgiven for thinking memories would fade and enthusiasm waned. Far from it. For whilst Caroline has been a proud Ambassador for Colombia for over 20 years, Hannah was making her first visit but it was love at first trip! As she discovered behind millions of flowers is a growing economy for a changing country, fuelled by promise, hundreds of thousands of people and above all passion. In celebration of Colombian Children’s Day, given they are the people who have and continue to benefit so much from the Colombian flower industry, she reports on what makes such a difference to every part of the flower chain.


Last November we met María Beatriz on her rose farm, El Redil, in the Savannah de Bogotá in Colombia. Her team of 500 workers take care of growing, harvesting, conditioning, packing and exporting around 3 million stems per year. No mean feat for a farm that’s only been in existence since 1991 but now provides flowers for bouquets and events the world over.

Soaring at 2,600 metres above sea level, high atop the Colombian Andes just outside of Bogotá city is a sprawling mass of flower farms, of which El Redil is one. Together, last year they produced nearly €1 billion worth of flowers, supplying 89 different countries.

Combine Bogotá-grown blooms with those from the valleys near Colombia’s renowned Medellín and you’ve got a flower industry worth €1.35 billion, covering an expanse of 20,000 acres in land. Not only creating a blooming new market but also approximately 130,000 jobs and opportunities in a country that has undergone a major transformation over the last decade.

 

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María Beatriz, El Redil Farm, Colombia

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El Redil Farm, Colombia

 

A trip immersed in Colombia’s flower industry is guaranteed to leave anyone involved in the sector overwhelmed by that sense of change, led by the extreme dedication and hard-work of those leading the way.

People like María at El Redil and her fellow growers, as well as Augusto Solano and Jairo Cadavid of Asocolflores, Colombia’s flower export association, Ximena Franco, Director of Florverde Sustainable Flowers which promotes social welfare and workers’ rights, and Cristina Uricoechea, Director of Colombia’s international flower trade show, along with their committed teams and many, many more.

 

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VARIETIES & BUSINESS AT PROFLORA

Proof positive comes in the form of the Proflora trade fair. Organised by Cristina and her team, last year’s show welcomed 7,000 international visitors all looking to cash-in on a chunk of the Colombian flower export action.

Roses, Carnations, Chrysanthemums and Alstros are the country’s top exports, which you might think would make for a boring show but in fact left us in awe. We saw around 360 exhibitors at last year’s event, showcasing the latest innovations boasted by the country’s high-altitudes and fertile soil; natural resources that make it one of the most near-perfect growing places in the world and with far less reliance on artificial light and heat it’s much better for the planet, even taking into account transportation.

We witnessed Extasis carnations of a purple deep enough to provide Prince’s most fitting tribute, dinner-plate garden roses to make the biggest David Austin fan swoon and buckets of larger-than-my-palm alstromeria. Creating unimaginable design possibilities with the likes of three-swirl Kahala roses, amazing antique Dianthus and the new, immediately popular Blackberry Scoop scabiosa.

 

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Varieties and trade exhibits at Proflora trade fair

 

FARMS FOR THE FUTURE

On a boutique rose farm high in the Andes you’ll find one of the most unforgettable characters you’ll ever meet. Jose (Joey) Azout with an infectious charisma runs Alexandra Farms, named after his daughter, and creates the most unforgettable garden roses you’ll ever see or smell.

Recognised as a world leader in cut garden roses, Alexandra is a Florverde certified farm (so they’re up to scratch in the social welfare and environmental department) and is also the only grower of esteemed David Austin roses. Thought they were English garden? Think again. Whilst David Austin began here on UK soil, thanks to its perfect terrain and temperature plus Jose’s expertise, these famous roses are now grown at their most beautiful and exported in quantity from Colombia.

 

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Garden roses at Alexandra Farms, Colombia

 

Trundle across the mountain-tops for another few hours and find Ayura, a flower farm specialising in carnations and spray roses, and exporting by the plane-load. Quite literally, as during the tour our guide was pleased to explain that they send short-stemmed cut carnations straight to Avianca, Colombia’s airline, to be displayed at each business class passenger’s seat.

Wearing their Florverde certification like a badge of honour, we were told about Ayura’s specialist social programmes, “Our farm is just around the corner from a dairy factory and Coca Cola, so for us it’s particularly difficult to find labour. We have to put in a special effort to look after our employees.”

Special efforts like housing scheme saving funds for workers, employing someone to put-together a balanced menu for staff lunch and paying for 75% of the food.

Representing over 75% of farms like these is the team at Asocolflores, the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters. It’s a big job given there are more than 400 growers in Colombia and roughly 300 of them produce flowers for export, which is why Augusto, Jairo and co have such important roles in the sector.

During his opening speech at Proflora, Augusto acknowledged, “On October 18th it was the 50th anniversary of Colombian exports to the United States, the day when industry pioneer, Edgar Wells, sent the very first shipment of flowers valued at just USD $20,000.”

Colombia has emerged as the second largest flower producer in the world, second only to Holland, and can now boast a higher GDP than its Latin American counterparts, surpassing the average in 2012. The US is still the most important export market but Russia, Japan, the UK and Canada take a good share too.

 

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Carnations at Ayura Farm, Colombia

 

PROMISE THROUGH GOOD-PRACTISE PROMOTION

Whilst Colombia’s flower trade has had its fair share of bad press (we’re lookin’ at you Oliver Balch, Guardian Feb ’15), it’s plain impossible to disregard the good going on. Yes, as international floristry journos we were never going to be taken on a whirlwind tour of the country’s deepest, darkest secrets, however what we did see was genuine, promising, and in many cases life-changing.

So instead of advising the British public to stop spending money on a foreign economy that now relies on exports to fund livelihoods, we should be boosting confidence, best practice, social welfare and sustainability. Generating good-ethos flower sales by pushing initiatives like Florverde and celebrating the Colombian flower boom for its recent successes.

 Find out how to make a differenceand see our favourite 37 varieties.

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