Organic Flowers: Increasingly Available, and Stunning!

For many of us, flower bouquets are an impulse item. We pick up a bunch from the grocery store to surprise our sweeties, wire them to a relative for a last minute gift, or indulge in a treat for ourselves. As a splurge and a non-consumable, we might not give flowers the same careful consideration we give to our food. Three LocalHarvest members would like to change that; they believe that organically grown flowers are the next "push" in organics. This month they are inviting us to pay more attention to where our flowers come from and how they're grown.

It turns out that if you buy a bouquet at the grocery store or florist, chances are excellent that the flowers were imported and grown in a chemically-intensive environment. This is especially true if the bouquet contains any of the most popular flowers - roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. Between 90-98% of these flowers are now grown in Central and South America, where labor costs are lower, pesticide regulation is looser, and the climate supports year-round production.

Growing commercial flowers is a sensitive and vulnerable enterprise. The final product has to look perfect, usually after withstanding days of travel. To achieve the desired results, producers try to control as many variables as possible. Most cut flowers are grown ina greenhouses where producers can monitor air circulation, temperature, and irrigation. The trouble is, greenhouses are notorious breeding grounds for fungal and pest problems, the antidote for which is chemicals. Moreover, imported flowers are inspected at the border for signs of insects, but they are not tested for pesticide residues remaining on the bouquets. Flower exporters play it safe by spraying even more.

Unfortunately, the environmental and social costs of this system are steep. In a survey of 8,000 Colombian flower workers, the International Labor Rights Fund found that workers were exposed to 127 different pesticides, 20% of which are banned or not registered for use in the US or Canada because of their toxicity. Meanwhile, fewer than a quarter of the flower companies in Ecuador trained workers in proper use of the chemicals, a factor that could reduce the associated health hazards. In the dangerous combination of toxic chemicals and lack of education the results are predictable and sad: two-thirds of Colombian and Ecuadorian flower workers suffer from work-related health problems, including headaches, nausea, impaired vision, asthma, stillbirths, miscarriages, and respiratory and neurological problems. While there is a small but growing market for imported organic flowers, "fair trade" flowers have yet to become available in the U.S.

Fortunately, there are alternatives that allow you to have your flowers and feel good about them too. As Marc Kessler, founder of Terra Bella Farms in Chico, CA (known on-line as californiaorganicflowers.com), puts it, "The whole point of flowers is to bring nature into your house. And so with that in mind, you want a good story behind that bouquet sitting on your kitchen table."

Many farmers sell locally grown, organic flowers at farmers' markets. And because 'diversity' is the key word in small farm operations, flower growers often offer more than bouquets. Lucia Dorsey of Dorian Hill Flower Farm, who grows flowers in West Chester, PA, offers a flower CSA. Teri Chanturai of Flower Child Farms in Orleans, CA sells organic flower seeds and seedlings in the spring and makes beautiful dried flower wreaths from her organic flowers in the fall. (This year they will be available through the LocalHarvest store!) Chanturai, Dorsey, and Kessler each grow and arrange flowers for local weddings as well. And for those who do not have local access to organically grown flowers, Kessler sells his bouquets on LocalHarvest. All of these growers have fun growing varieties of flowers that aren't available commercially.

Kessler finds that growing organic flowers professionally requires an uncommon marriage of skills, because growing flowers is much more technical than growing vegetables, and farming organically is a different skill-set than growing conventionally. But none of the LocalHarvest flower growers would have it any other way. Dorsey, a flower grower in West Chester, PA, speaks for many when she says, "As a grower, I don't want to add to chemical pollution, nor do I want to work closely with some of the hazardous pesticides and fertilizers in widespread use today."

Asked about their favorite part about being an organic flower grower, Dorsey, Chanturai and Kessler each named the same thing: seeing their customers' faces light up when presented with a beautiful, unusual, fragrant bouquet. What could be better, for everyone?

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