South American flower farmers pin hopes on Cupid

Tue Feb 10, 2009 10:13am EST
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By Helen Popper

FACATATIVA, Colombia (Reuters) - Valentine's is the most important day of the year for South American flower growers, and this February 14 they're hoping romance will triumph over the economic gloom afflicting their biggest markets.

Three-quarters of the cut flowers imported by the United States come from farms like The Elite Flower, which lies in the fertile Andean plains around Colombia's capital, Bogota. Neighboring Ecuador sends many more of the millions of red roses sold on Valentine's Day.

Growers in the region expect sales to fall as consumers in the United States, Britain and Russia cut back on extras, but some think a simple bouquet of roses, carnations or lilies may end up replacing more luxurious tokens of love.

"When things were going well in the United States you had jewelry, restaurants ... or people would take a three-day weekend and wind up spending a couple of thousand dollars. That's not going to happen this year, but husbands are still going to buy their wives something," said Randy Schenauer of The Elite Flower.

Nearby, in vast greenhouses, workers carefully box stems of red, pink and cream roses, which have suitably sentimental names such as Sweetness, Romance and Dark Engagement.

Schenauer said sales could fall by more than 20 percent this year, although Ignacio Perez, head of Ecuador's flowers exporters' association Expoflores said orders were down just 4 percent so far.

The multibillion-dollar flower industry employs about 200,000 people in Colombia, the world's second-biggest exporter after the Netherlands, and another 180,000 in Ecuador.

TOUGH TIMES   Continued...

<p>A Colombian worker collect flowers in Tahama cultivation in La Ceja, ahead of St. Valentine's Day, February 6, 2008. REUTERS/Albeiro Lopera</p>