Farm to Florist: The Switch to Local Flowers
I had just received my first wholesale order of flowers, shipped in from Colombia via Miami. New to floristry, I had planned an editorial to build my portfolio. I was ecstatic to finally design with O’Hara Garden Roses, and every bride’s favorite, eucalyptus.
You can imagine my horror when, just a few hours after unpacking and hydrating the flowers, my hands began to break out into an angry and swollen rash of hives. I was a florist allergic to her own product.
I felt the disappointment deeply. I couldn’t take joy in touching the product I had been dreaming of designing with for years. Flowers are an art medium for me, and being able to touch the stems, feel the petals, test the turgidity of the blooms, without gloves hold a precious importance to me. Like a potter who can feel the clay beneath their fingertips, that direct connection with the flowers is something that makes my craft better. I also knew I was taking on a risk to my new company. What if one my brides had an allergic reaction like I did? What if it happened on her wedding day?
I needed a solution. That’s when a simple web search led me to Blue Sky Flower Farm in Elko Minnesota.
The owner of Blue Sky Flower Farm, Rachael Ackerman, was shocked when I told her about my allergies. She suggested that maybe it wasn’t the flowers. Maybe, it was the way they were grown. She sent me home with eucalyptus she harvested that morning. Much to my delight, after designing with her eucalyptus, there was no angry rash and no itchy hives.
It turns out that I was reacting to the chemicals used to treat the imported blooms.
I started using Rachael’s flowers, and my allergies disappeared. As I designed with the best from her fields week after week, and even used dried flowers and branches in the winter, my appreciation for seasonal flowers grew. When I would occasionally order imported blooms, the difference in bloom quality was evident: the locally grown flowers had stronger stems, longer vase life, and superior scent. As an artist, I was continually challenged to create something new each week with local flowers.
“What started as a practical move to chemical-free flowers, led to a discovery of something more exciting – a new appreciation for the beauty of seasonal blooms.”
Traditionally, florists have their “go-to” blooms – not unlike how we may purchase the same items from the grocery store each week. But now, I had the equivalent of a florist’s farmers market. I had different ingredients each week, leading to both subtle and dramatic variations on my designs. I was in love.
What started as a practical move to chemical-free flowers, led to a discovery of something more exciting – a new appreciation for the beauty of seasonal blooms.
Switching to Local Flowers
Blue Sky Flower Farm in Elko Minnesota is a perfect example of how local flowers are changing the wedding and event floral industry for the better. Local, chemical free blooms are lovingly tended by hand and harvested just a few days before event day by farmer Rachael Ackerman. Rachael brings the flowers directly to my studio, meaning longer lasting blooms, especially for delicate favorites like Dahlias. I can personally attest to the high quality of these flowers; they are truly a joy to work with.
“Local flowers are so beautiful and reflective of our natural being,” says Ackerman, “they support our local economies, our neighbors, our friends. They allow us to enjoy blooms that would not otherwise be available and they haven’t traveled thousands of miles to be in one bridal bouquet.”
While the global flower industry is focused on cheap mass-production, local is something completely different. “For me, it’s the seasonality,” says Ackerman, “why wouldn’t you want the best flowers for the season? Tulips in spring, peonies in the summer, dahlias in the fall, you chose your wedding day for a reason, shouldn’t the flowers reflect that?”
Garden roses have become the latest American-grown flower crop to become available with some farms selling directly to consumers. These gorgeous, heirloom variety roses had been previously near-impossible to find anywhere else. The blooms are more delicate than an imported rose, they open to reveal their full clusters of petals, and most are grown organically. The scent is incomparable, and the fleeting beauty of the bloom that much more precious. And that’s what flowers are. Precious. Once a luxury item, flowers have become a global commodity. The race to be the lowest-cost has cheapened the experience of flowers, and turned the allure of a fragrant, fleeting bloom into a mass-produced, artificially-scented deception.
“What was once a rare, delicate, and seasonal product, has been mass marketed as common-place, and as a result, we’ve lost the magic.”
The Realities of the Flower Industry
The vast majority of the U.S. cut flower market is imported, with Colombia and Ecuador being the largest suppliers.i The reasons for this come down to a global economy, and the need for mass production. Blooms are grown in optimal year-round conditions where high altitude and cool nights make for a hearty stem and flower head. That bloom then has to makes a long journey: farm to airport, airport to plane, plane to customs, process through customs, customs to wholesaler (or auction), auction to wholesaler, wholesaler to florist, florist to customer, and THEN, still last for an additional 7-10 days for the customer. To achieve this, growers must suspend time, keeping blooms refrigerated at around 36 degrees Fahrenheit.ii
All of this must be done for mere cents per rose. And that’s just shipping. Countries importing the flowers, such as the US, have strict requirements around plant products. Simply put, flowers MUST be free of containments, like fungus or insects. Anything that does not pass customs cannot be allowed in, and the wholesalers cannot receive it. That means lost income for the farm that sent the flowers. To prevent massive loss on the backend, and create a robust bloom that will survive the trip, spraying with multiple chemicals isn’t a choice for most flower farmers. It’s a necessity.
Chemicals are a reality of our global economy and a topic that desperately needs more in-depth scientific study around the effects of all those who handle the product. A study in Belgium monitored the exposure of florists to chemicals and found the most contaminated bouquet to have chemical residues up to 97 mg/kg. Other studies have found up to 43 different chemical varieties on a single bouquet.iii Translation: that’s roughly a quarter teaspoon for every 2.2 pounds. Considering most of the chemicals start attacking the human nervous system at 1 teaspoon, with some being fatal at that dosage, imagine a florist handling multiple pounds of flowers A DAY. Now, over a lifetime.iv The exposure of florists to a high number of toxic chemicals is a unique situation, and one that requires additional education and academic studies to raise awareness around the health and environmental impacts at play.v
Chemicals are only part of the picture. In a world of mass-production and the race to make products as cheap as possible, we’ve lost something that goes beyond the chemical impact to the individuals and the environment.
Chemicals: It’s Complicated
The conversation around chemical free is a complicated one. On one side we have dramatic studies indicating that farmers and florists are exposed to residual chemicals in high concentrations that will likely affect health and quality of life (although additional scientific studies must be done in order to corroborate this conclusion).
On the other hand, even buying local or American-grown doesn’t mean that chemicals aren’t present. When it comes to the livelihood of the flower farmer, protecting the crop is necessary to keep food on the table. And this is true of agriculture across the board.
Ackerman explains, “Crop loss is a reality of chemical-free farming, and happens every year. Some of these crops could have been saved with an application of a relatively safe or certified organic pesticide.”
As a florist, things are just as complicated. I primarily work with couples on their wedding day – a day that is a once-in-a-lifetime event. The pressure is on to create something perfect. The reality is, even if I wanted to use only American and locally-grown flowers, sometimes it’s not practical for the client’s budget. Explaining the incomparable beauty of local blooms to someone in the middle of winter is difficult with just a photo. Additionally, because the flowers are seasonal, I do not promise specific flower types, and instead I will select the best blooms for their event based on color and aesthetic. For couples who have their heart set on a specific flower, this can be heartbreaking. Because of this, I’ve adapted a hybrid approach, where I will prioritize the use of local flowers, and add in some imports based on the exact needs and wants of the couple. Cold weather weddings are another reason that I have adapted a hybrid approach. For couples getting married during the off-season, importing fresh is necessary, but I do try and incorporate local blooms that are dried to bring a unique, seasonal touch.
“As florists, we have a unique and powerful role in change.”
As a type A personality, leaving things in grey areas is hard. It’s frustrating. Would that we could all commit to chemical-free, locally grown flowers, and our world would be changed for the better.
Nothing is that simple though, and to think it could be is naive. Instead, we are still in the beginning stages of re-learning to see the beauty around us, and how mass-commercialization has impacted our health and our planet.
For farmers, research and old methods of farming can reduce chemical usage. “There are so many more ways without [chemical] applications we can protect our farms; crop rotation, no till, planting pollinator plants, diversifying species, flame weeding etc... but I think the more people support local growers, the more education and investment there can be on how we can safely and efficiently grow in a sustainable and safe manner”.
For florists, that means supporting your local farmers. Here in Minnesota, we are fortunate to have the Twin Cities Flower Exchange, where growers bring their crops (all grown without chemicals) and florists have their pick of the best flowers for that week. To find farmers in your area, and establish a working relationship with them, visit myslowflowers.com.
This also means being proactive about asking your wholesaler where your flowers are coming from. Ask your representative for American (or locally grown) product. This means learning seasonality of products, and not relying on year-round imports. Yes, this means stretching your design muscles and using new and unique products. This also means educating your customers on, “this new flower that just came in from the flower farmer!” Touting that you carry heirloom varieties of local and American grown flowers is a selling point, especially for an incoming generation who is more focused than their predecessors on community values and what makes their group unique.vi Customers love new, unique, and exciting. It is more effort up front for florists to educate the public, but well worth it. Customers should know where their products are coming from! And I encourage everyone to ask, where are these flowers coming from, and what impact will that have for the planet, my community, and myself?
As florists, we have a unique and powerful role in change. As the last step before purchase, we have insights into what customers like, and often, we hold sway over their buying decisions.
If we educate a customer on why they should purchase local, they most likely will. This is the first step in changing the consumerist mindset that has cheapened the value of a stem, and ultimately the value that we provide as florists. Florists must become the expert in our communities, educating our customers on the value of a stem. We should let them see the face of our local farmers in the shop or on our websites. We need to wow them with stems that are unique, beautifully scented, and grown mere miles from their home. I challenge my fellow florists to consider educating our customers and clients on the luxury of a flower, on its fleeting beauty, on its price, and what it takes to bring beauty to them. The local movement that changed the way the restaurant industry saw its food can change our industry too. And we MUST change. Our own future, and the future of flowers depends on it.
Commonly Used Pesticides and Fungicides Used in the Global Floral Industry.vii
To Find Flower Farmers and Florists who prioritize local, chemical free flowers in your area, visit: www.slowflowersociety.com
Twin Cities Flower Exchange
iUSTradeNUmbers. “Imports: Fresh-Cut Flowers.” 2020. https://www.ustradenumbers.com/import/fresh-cut-flowers/
iiFredenburge, Jez. BBC. “Made on Earth The New Roots of the Flower Trade.” Feb. 8, 2020. http://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/made-on-earth/the-new-roots-of-the-flower-trade/
iiiDundas, Mairead. France24. « toxic Cocktail : The secret within your flowers. “July 6, 2019. https://www.france24.com/en/20190607-down-earth-pesticides-toxic-chemicals-slow-flowers-bouquets-agriculture-netherlands
ivToumi, Khaoula ; Vleminckz, Christiane; van Loco, Joris; Schiffer, Bruno. “Pesticide Residues on Three Cur Flower Species and Potential Exposure of Florists in Belgium.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Sept 23, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5086682/
vToumi, Khaoula; Joly, Laure, Vleminckz, Schiffer, Bruno. “Risk Assessment of Florists Exposed to Pesticide Residues Through Handling of Flowers and Preparing Bouquets” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. May 13, 2017 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28505067/
viStevens, Liene. “The Power of Cultivating Community When Marketing to Gen Z.” February 26, 2019. https://www.thinksplendid.com/blog/wedding-marketing-gen-z
viiToumi, Khaoula ; Vleminckz, Christiane; van Loco, Joris; Schiffer, Bruno. “Pesticide Residues on Three Cur Flower Species and Potential Exposure of Florists in Belgium.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Sept 23, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5086682/