California Cut Flower Commission may sue Colombia government for illegal trade


By Tom Ragan

WATSONVILLE — The landscape here has changed since the Colombian roses and South American carnations started flooding Pajaro Valley's flower market — from Bogota to Miami to Los Angeles to here.

In that order.

It's a hop, skip and a huge jump, but it's a significant one that has long taken its toll on rose growers in Santa Cruz County and across the United States.

It even prompted the Watsonville-based California Cut Flower Commission last week to consider suing the Colombian government for violation of the Andean Free Trade Agreement, accusing the government of subsidizing it flowers growers in excess of millions of dollars — a clear violation under the 1991 pact, the commission says.

The free trade agreement has changed the Pajaro Valley.

There was a time when the landscape here was a sea of green against the brown backdrop of the Santa Cruz Mountains — testament to dozen upon dozens of rose growers and a vibrant economy that revolved around the cut flower industry and anchored the traditional florists in town.

But the influx of South American roses and carnations and the mass marketing mentality that has ensued, disgruntled rose growers say, have changed the rules of the game in a world of free trade, rendering many of them incapable of competing.

Not only have the cheaper flowers inundated what was once a local and fresh market, they've also served to undermine traditional florists who find themselves trying to compete with chain stores that sell bouquets on the cheap.

The sad fact, according to the California Cut Flower Commission, is that there are fewer than a dozen rose growers left in Santa Cruz County. No more is the change more evident than in George Marciel's business, Rose Gene Technology, which has lost 90 percent of its customer base since South American flowers started flooding the market in the early 1990s.

Though Marciel says his business is the only one left in the country that specializes in growing rose plants for greenhouses, his customers have withered like flowers on a vine.

There was a time when Marciel was wheeling and dealing with more than 500 customers, who bought, then grew his plants inside their greenhouses from Florida to Seattle.

"Now I'm down to 20 customers; the trend isn't good; you do the math," says an exasperated Marciel, 45, who's thinking about selling his roses piecemeal and embracing the concept of "agro-tourism," a trend that often plays out in the Pajaro Valley when business takes a downturn.

Some in the cut flower business fear that flowers are going the way of the apple industry, which once reigned supreme in the Pajaro Valley at the turn of the 20th century but over time yielded to strawberries and the higher cost of land, which, in turn, spawned development.

The culprit in the case of the cut flower industry, however, is free trade, which, with cheaper labor and fewer regulations abroad, has forced rose growers at home to either change professions or come up with a new schtick to compete with the inexpensive South American imports.

The particular thorn in the side of growers is the Andean Free Trade Agreement, which allowed cut flowers to come into the country for free as a way of weaning the South American countries off the cocaine trade, which, while illegal, still represents a good chunk of the countries' gross national product.

The Cut Flower Commission says if it does sue the Colombian government it would be through the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, where all the rules of international trade are handled.

Peggy Dillon, a spokeswoman for the California Cut Flower Commission, with more than 300 members, said the Colombian government has not played by the rules.

Under the guidelines of the Andean pact, Colombia's flower growers can only receive $15 million a year in subsidies, which it had been heeding since the agreement was ratified between the United States and Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru.

But when the Colombian government announced last year that it was going to give hundreds of growers as much as $40 million to help offset the devaluation of the peso against the dollar, the news of the special subsidy grated on the many cut flower growers the commission represents, Dillon said.

"When our dollar heads south, our growers don't turn to the government for handouts," said Dillon. "And we don't think the Colombian government should be doing it, either. It's unfair, and it's illegal. We already face such financial hardship from free trade, which was supposed to help us in the war on drugs."

The Colombian Embassy in Washington D.C. could not be reached for comment, nor could the World Trade Organization or the press office for U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman in Washington D.C.

While the California Cut Flower Commission hasn't hired an attorney or filed legal recourse with the WTO, Dillon said if growers continue to express their frustration and if their bottom lines continue to suffer, the lawsuit could be filed as early as next year.

But it's been 15 years since the Andean agreement was ratified and local growers have been forced to reinvent and rethink their business strategies and search for niche markets, a far cry from the days when there was never a shortage of customers.

Catering to weddings, while they've always been essential to the cut flower business, have become the anchor.

"What's mainly left is the wedding industry," says Marciel. "It's very high end, and when she spends money, she wants to make sure that the flowers look good, and if they're local, there's no chance that they're going to wither and die from Colombia to here."

But the South American flowers aren't dying. They're just flooding and overwhelming the market.

By airplane then by truck, the Colombian roses have made their presence felt here: They're bigger; they're inexpensive; they're bountiful; and they now make up 80 percent of the U.S. market.

But they're not necessarily more beautiful.

"They have more petals, and they kind of look like a small piece of cabbage," says Arne Thirup, a Pajaro flower grower since the early 1960s, with a tone of resentment in his voice.

"They don't open up like our roses do," he said. "If you want a nice rose, then you should buy here."

That's because often the Colombian roses sit on the tarmac either in Colombia or in Miami, they suffer through temperature spikes, which are a rose's worst enemy, and it can sometimes take between two to three days to get to Northern California, if not more, according to the California Cut Flower Commission.

John Furman, owner of California Pajarosa on Hughes Road in Watsonville, feels the same way that Thirup does. Since the Andean pact, Furman has gone from growing only 20 types of flowers to more than 140 varieties in order to compete.

He's long conceded that the good days are long gone and he's no longer the major supplier that he once was.

"But if somebody needs flowers and they need them quick, then they come to us," says Furman, in business since 1979.

"We just keep our noses down and concentrate on the basics of doing business," he said.

Contact Tom Ragan at tragan [at]