The Faraway Flower- Is it Worth it?
Story by Kymberly Breckenridge
Published in our January/February 2014 issue
I will take the memory of receiving my first bouquet of flowers to my grave. I was living in Tivoli at the time, and late to work as usual. As I rushed out of my house, a large white flower delivery van pulled up alongside my beater car. A jolly woman emerged, carrying a dozen roses wrapped in shiny pink paper. It was a gift from a secret admirer. Naturally the secret admirer became my boyfriend, for who can say no to flowers?
I can say no to flowers that are harming the planet and ensuring that future generations of flowers are doomed to die. The ugly truth is that according to Kasey Cronquist, CEO/Ambassador of the California Cut Flower Commission, over 80% of flowers sold in the U.S. are imported from South America. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the environmental implications of importing such a volume of goods. The burning of fossil fuels, the tons of waste in packing materials, pesticides, and drought conditions from unethical farming practices in South America are but a few residual effects of trying to make someone happy with a vase of flowers.
Jennie Love, a flower farmer from Pennsylvania, made an interesting point in an article she wrote about supporting local flower farms. She wondered what would happen if Hallmark suddenly decided that tomatoes were the thing to give at Valentine’s day. Well, everyone knows that tomatoes don’t grow in many places in February, and they would naturally have to be imported from a hot country. But we fail to make the same connection with flowers. And who decided that we should be giving blooms at Valentine’s day anyway?
You can blame Charles II of Sweden for linking flowers to Valentine’s Day. It was Charles who introduced 18th century Europe to “Floriography,” the Persian custom of non-verbal communication through the use of flowers. We all remember hearing Ophelia in 10th grade English class say, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.” Imagine, instead of passing notes during class, all we had to do was hand over a clump of clover. And it wasn’t long before someone said, probably deep in their cups, “Hey, didn’t Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love dig red roses? Maybe that’s what I’ll give the little lady at the next pagan love festival” (now called Valentine’s). So sorry Ms. Love, flowers are here to stay.
Now as a long time tree hugger, I am pretty well versed in the importance of reducing our carbon footprint. So I was not that surprised to read about the evils of “big box flowers.” But when I read that shopping at a local flower shop saves you money, I sat up and took notice. I love to save money. I am the type of person that stuffs the dryer lint into her cardboard toilet paper rolls and use them for fire starters (it works, by the way). Unfortunately, living green does not come cheap. So it was sweet relief to discover that doing something for the planet can also help my wallet.
When you reach for the phone or mouse to place an order with a “flower company” like FTD, you are actually employing an “order gatherer.” They take your order, and then use a wire service to send the order to a real florist in your desired location to deliver. That means that both the order gatherer and the wire service take a cut of your “$30 bouquet,” and the real florist has very little money left to work with to create the picture you see on a website. According to Heather Forrest-Lundy of A Night in Bloom in Kingston, the commission cuts aren’t the only issue with big businesses such as FTD. When a small local flower shop agrees to work with FTD, they are then beholden to create the arrangements dictated by the company. These “vanilla” designs use flowers that any florist has on hand, and the simplest forms to assure that anyone in the field can duplicate it. If you took your $30 directly to A Night in Bloom, you not only get more flowers for your money, but a higher level of artistic integrity. When you walk into her shop, your breath is snatched from your chest as you gaze at her creations, employing not just flowers, but herbs and occasional vegetables.
Not only does buying flowers locally from shops like A Night in Bloom increases your chances of knocking your loved ones socks off from a design perspective, you will also receive a higher quality product. Many commodity-type flowers have been bred for size to fit into a box, and the stem strength to hold up in that box for long-distance travel. What is usually lost by such practices is the flower’s natural fragrance (ask any rose grower about breeding pest-resistant hybrids that smell like a boys’ locker room). Locally-grown flowers are produced in greater varieties, providing a wide range of colors, forms, and scents.
Companies like FTD are not only taking a cut from your wallet, but they are exacting high fees from the florists who use them. Ms. Forrest-Lundy explained that a $50 order from FTD or 1-800-Flowers puts about $6 in her pocket after fees and “stem count requirements” are met. So why are so many florists using these companies? Because not enough of us walk through their shop door.
Now sheepishly, I immediately said, “Well how do I know where there’s a local flower shop near mom in Podunk Vermont?” As a generation Xer, I am almost always on the Internet. It must somehow have felt depriving to grow up without a computer, so now I must over-consume. Much like discovering sugar cereal at a friend’s house. I don’t even know the last time I’ve seen a Yellow Pages book. Oh wait, yes I do. It’s holding up a broken table of mine in the basement. So unless a local store has a presence on the Internet, I won’t be able to find it. Ms. Forrest-Lundy wholeheartedly agrees. “I always encourage fellow florists to get on the Internet. They have to brand themselves as part of the community.” When I asked why an online presence seems to be a stumbling block for many shops, she speculated, “Florists are creative people. The number one problem is ‘coming down to earth.’ Creative types struggle with business sense, numbers and bookkeeping.” They need to modernize to keep up with the times, and we need to do our part and ironically commit to an old fashioned way of doing business: face to face.
Local florists are also fighting convenience, she explains. How do you tell a mother with two screaming kids in tow that she should bypass the flowers at the grocery checkout line, fight traffic and downtown parking to buy from her local flower shop? You say “Because you will receive outstanding customer service, from people who will work to create a close relationship with you, and provide you with a product that is as unique as you.” When looking for a local store online, she urges that you look for Mom and Pop sounding names. She often passes on names of fellow florists in other towns to her clients. “We’re [florists] all competitive, but there’s enough work to go around. There is a strong network of florists that I can turn to when I need something, either a plant or design idea, and they are always willing to help.” So if you’re worried that using a local florist limits your choices, you are sadly mistaken.
Buying from local flower shops usually means you are also supporting the local supplier. The production and sale of locally grown cut flowers contribute to a community’s economy, and provides employment and valuable agriculture experience to young people. Claire Beaumont of Hudson Valley Blooms in Rhinebeck dreamed of creating a garden that she could use to further her photography artistry. But as she added more plants, her love of gardening deepened and matured. Soon she found herself overwhelmed by her prized Dahlias and realized she had a business on her hands. She called in the experts; Briana Davis and Eli Joseph-Hunter of Greene Bee Greenhouse in Cornwallville, to help her select plants that would both thrive and peacefully co-exist with other species of flowers and trees. Soon she had a mini-botanical garden, complete with educational labels and zen-like hardscaping. She starts each annual from seed, and begins to sell when her flowers are ready to harvest—never before. Businesses such as Adams and Battenfeld snapped up her Dahlias that were so large they needed upright logs strung with tomato wire to keep vertical. When she walked me around her two-acre property, I realized that she is not just creating an opportunity to purchase green flowers, but providing a much-needed ecosystem for the local birds, bees, and other creatures in the Hudson Valley. Can the same be said for the giant flower farms in Colombia? Wait, aren’t they the ones that caused devastating droughts in their country?
Now Lynn Mehl of Good Old Days Eco Florist in New Windsor is the type of person that makes you proud to be a homo sapien. Lynn is not only dedicated to providing a green alternative to flower arrangements, but she strives to both educate the public and advocate for the planet. She makes frequent trips to Albany and Washington to fight the good fight, though often calling on deaf ears. But she gets up the next morning, and tries again. She is passionate about exposing the deception propagated by big flower business. And she makes a damn nice flower arrangement.
Lynn was an environmental science and forestry major when she came home one summer to her mother’s newly opened flower shop. She was smitten, and her life calling was found. “My philosophy is buy American, buy local, and support local businesses. Everything goes hand in hand, from buying organic vegetables to refusing to support unethical agriculture practices in South America.” But she often finds a disconnect with people who are passionate about only buying organic meat, but are willing to purchase their flowers at Sam’s Club. “Flowers are the one industry that has slipped through the cracks” she quips. “Why is it that flowers, like make-up, are not regulated by the FDA?” Considering what they put on flowers grown overseas, they should be. According to Lynn, formaldehyde and resin are found in the foams used as a base for arrangements, petroleum and synthetic based ribbons, candles, tapes, balloons, and containers are used for decoration, there are the, and of course, chemical laden flowers and plants. Lynn reports that the Material Safety Data Sheet states: “it [materials used in flower arrangements] never biodegrades and should be disposed of and/or recycled properly…
it is made of documented, cancer causing agents and warns… [that] any who handle it are advised to wear mask, goggle, and impervious gloves.” Now when was the last time you pulled on your rubber gloves to stick your lover’s roses in a vase?
What strikes me about all the farmers and flower artisans I met for this article is that due to the stiff competition from big business, they have all had to diversify their businesses.
Andy Szymanowicz of SOL Flower Farm in Millerton believes that its imperative that small farms diversify in lieu of large scale farming. Andy often provides both organic food and flowers to his clients’ events. His holistic farming and sustainable practices attract those he likes to call “Farmers Market Clients.” People that look to buy from him are flexible and committed to the green market. When I asked him how he handles a devastating heat wave that wipes out his zinnias he was planning on using for a wedding, he replied, “I never guarantee a flower. I sit down with a client and decide on a look and color scheme to create an over the top beautiful creation, but never promise specific flowers.” I suppose that’s where the flexibility comes into play.
Andy also made an excellent point about the herbicides and insecticides used on exported flowers. “These chemicals are illegal in the US, but we’re willing to import them.” It’s not just the florists who come in contact with these harmful chemicals, but all of us. “It’s a big picture thing,” he says. “Our practice of importing flowers is not only bad for the environment, but also bad for the people who work the fields.” To me it feels like a giant spider web, where everything is connected. Our need (or greed) for the disposable, the “now” thing, even if it’s out of season, or demand for an easier existence is guaranteeing that soon there won’t be an existence for us.
Those of us who are committed to sustainability know that going green is a process, one that will change over time. If you are reading Organic Hudson Valley, then you are no doubt aware of the philosophy of living green, in which we strive to reduce our negative impact on the earth. I stress strive, as I believe living green is as easy as living without sin. We mess up. We get stressed. We need to save money. I get it. But as long as we live green most of the time, and forgive ourselves the times when we cannot, it is more than what we’ve been doing in the past. And buying flowers from my local florists who are also striving to live organically seems doable. Not all of us are in a position to run out and buy the latest electric car, but every little change counts, however slight. It comes down to what kind of community you want to live in. Personally, I thank my lucky stars that I get to live in the Hudson Valley where establishing relationships with my farmer and florist is a reality.