Airport area businesses bloom with flower power
By Sherri C. Ranta
About 86% of all fresh-cut flowers imported into the US each year go through Miami International Airport, said Miami-Dade Aviation Department spokesman Marc Henderson, making cut flowers the airport's largest imported commodity.
Fresh-cut flowers, Mr. Henderson said, accounted for 30% of the tonnage of all imports through the airport in 1999. That's 155,631 tons of flowers roses, carnations, mums and alstroemeria, to name a few.
Miami International officials estimate the value of flower imports at $495 million for 1999, the most recent year for which statistics were available.
With Valentine's Day approaching, the South Florida floral industry importers, wholesale distributors, e-commerce distributors, truckers and retail outlets, as well as growers in Central and South America is working in high gear for one of America's favorite flower-sending holidays.
During the height of the Valentine season, about 50 flights of fresh cut flowers 60,000 to 70,000 boxes arrive each day through MIA primarily from Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala, said William Manning, Port Director at US Department of Agriculture.
The flowers are first cleared each day through US Customs. After Customs, members of the USDA animal and plant hygiene inspection unit check for foreign pests and diseases, he said.
When a problem is found, Mr. Manning said, the flowers are fumigated by a licensed exterminator at the airport. About 5,000 problems are reported annually, he said.
The large volume of imports around Valentine's Day means fumigation is likely going around the clock, Mr. Manning said.
Generally speaking, he said, USDA officials inspect imported flowers seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day. Many agents are working overtime to accommodate the round-the-clock shipments from Central and South America, Mr. Manning said.
He said overtime charges are billed to companies requesting inspections.
"Actually, more cut flowers are inspected on an overtime basis rather than regular time," Mr. Manning said, because many shipments arrive late in the evening.
Most flowers making their way through Miami International now are roses, according to Philip Nowers, director of the Colombia Flower Council, a trade association presenting about 200 growers in Columbia and 30 US flower importers.
Government statistics show about 1 billion roses were imported into the US in 2000, with 526 million imported from Columbia through Miami, he said. Ecuador is the second-largest rose exporter to the US, figures show.
Colombia exports 59% of the total volume of fresh-cut flowers that reach the US, or about 2 billion stems and bunches, more than half the total US flower imports of 3.4 billion stems and bunches, according to USDA statistics. Flowers are categorized by stem or bunch depending on the variety.
Mr. Nowers said the number of rose shipments dramatically increases before Valentine's Day. Figures for 2000 put rose shipments nationwide at 11.6 million for the second week of January, 21.5 million for the third week and 27.4 million for the fourth week.
By the first week of February, 44.9 million roses came into the country last year, followed by 48.7 million the second week and 17.5 million the third week. Most of those roses came through Miami International, Mr. Nowers said.
"The logistical machine in Miami," he said, "does a really Herculean job of moving a huge amount of product through the city to meet the country's demand for Valentine's Day."
According to the Association of Floral Importers of Florida, that machine at Miami International and the industry itself is much larger than the average person thinks.
Association officials say there are about 100 flower importers with operations set up near Miami International as flower imports through Miami comprise two-thirds of all cut flowers consumed in the US.
Floral association importers near the airport occupy about 1.4 million square feet of office, warehouse and cooler space, and contribute annual associated payments of $7 million for insurance, $3.5 million for professional fees and $4.5 million for office expenses, a 1998 survey by the agency showed.
The association estimates the value of imported cut flowers through Miami was about $870 million in 1998-99, $860 million in '97-98 and $800 million in '96-97, according to the latest available figures.
The association has 43 members in the Miami area and represents them on topics such as national public policy issues and international trade matters to ensure the free flow of imported floral products into the US, according to the organization's media advisory.
Among AFIF members is Miami-based Eden Floral Farms, founded in 1981 by Publio DeLaRosa and one of the estimated 100 flower importers in the Miami area. An example of the local growth of this global industry is Eden's move in December to new 30,000-square-foot headquarters at 2153 NW 86th Ave.
Eden offers a "chain of care" refrigeration process, according to Mike Lancey, vice president, marketing and sales. He said the company advocates a continuous chain of refrigeration, from growers to airlines to warehouse to the company's trucks that transport the flowers to its headquarters.
"Flowers that are able to stay cool, that are cared for in the cold chain, last by far the longest. It's been proven that temperature is the single most important factor in distributing quality cut flowers," he said.
Mr. Lancey said the company has experienced about 20% growth in sales each year since 1996.
"It's really a result of our intense focus on quality management," he said.
While Mr. Lancey says Eden Floral Farms supports what floral industry officials call the traditional supply chain grower to importer to wholesaler there are other routes of distribution.
Miami-based JA Flower Service Custom House Broker, a division of Armellini Express Lines, headquartered in Palm City, is one alternative. The broker serves as the middle man in Miami, providing customers with clearance and pre-cooling services when the flowers arrive at MIA, said Rosanna Winningham, Armellini sales and marketing support manager.
"We do all the functions without being involved in the selling process. At no point do we own the product. All we do is the handling," she said.
Once the flowers leave the Armellini-leased refrigerated warehouse facility at MIA, they are shipped via air or ground transportation to wholesale distributors, she said.
Flowergrower.com, a Miami-based, business-to-business e-commerce firm, puts US retailers in touch with growers in Ecuador and Holland, said executives there.
Through an Internet website, the company provides all the tools necessary for retailers to purchase from growers, ensuring accurate and satisfactory orders and guaranteed payment for growers, said Rutger Borst, co-founder and vice president, Flowergrower.com.
The company's website, he said, allows pre-registered retailers and growers to post vital information. Growers post what they will have available on certain dates and retailers order from what is available, Mr. Borst said.
Shipping is handled by Flowergrower.com. Orders are flown direct to retailers from Ecuador and Holland. Retailers who order from both countries have their orders shipped to Miami, where Flowergrower.com combines the orders and ships them to retailers, he said.
"We have found out that in order to grow consumer consumption in the US, we've got to provide fresher product. We can get the flower from the grower to the retailer in three days," Mr. Borst said.
At the end of the flower supply chain are retail outlets, grocery stores and local flower shops such as Miami-based Gil's Fruits & Flowers Inc., 1860 NW 17th Ave, owned by Gil and Mariaelena Ravelo.
Manager Edy Ravelo says many people wait until the last minute to order flowers for holidays like Valentine's Day. This week, the shop is busy preparing for the big day, he said.
Most orders, Mr. Ravelo said, will come in next week and will be for red roses. "We try to promote other products to have variety everybody wants red roses."