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.
At farms like The Elite Flower, hundreds of extra staff are taken on in the run-up to Valentine's, which normally accounts for between 15 and 18 percent of annual sales.
Every day, 25 or 30 flights leave Colombia, carrying flowers as far afield as Japan, according to flower exporters' association Asocolflores, which expects the country to ship some 1.7 million boxes of flowers for February 14 this year.
Even before recession hit, times were tough for Colombian suppliers due to the sharp appreciation of the peso against the U.S. dollar. Asocolflores head Augusto Solano said about 18,000 jobs had been lost in the last two or three years.
The peso has weakened against the greenback in recent months, which could help exporters ride out the global economic crisis, but some workers fear further hardship.
"It's a worry because you think the company could be affected," said mother-of-two Blanca Vargas, 45, packing ready-made bouquets priced at about $15 for sale in supermarkets including Wal-Mart Stores Inc in the United States and Britain's Tesco.
The average American consumer plans to spend $102.50 on Valentine's gifts this year, down from $122.98 in 2008, and just over a third of them will buy flowers, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.
Sales normally decline when Valentine's falls on a weekend, as it does this year, but floral suppliers say they will not know the full extent of any downturn for several months.
"Hopefully we're going to be able to get close to last year's sales," Solano said. "In spite of the economic problems, the flower has shown itself to be resilient."
With additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra, Alonso Soto in Quito and Walker Simon in New York; Editing by Kieran Murray