Colombia’s Cash Crop: Flowers for Valentine’s Day | NBC Left Field

Valentine’s Day. Millions of Americans are spending billions of dollars on flowers. People across the country are remembering, or forgetting, to pick up a bouquet of roses for their loved ones. Alvaro Camacho is sending 130 million flowers this Valentine’s Day, but his loved ones won’t be receiving any. If you’re buying flowers for somebody this Valentine’s Day, there’s a good chance Alvaro had a hand in getting them to you. As logistics manager for Colombia’s largest privately-owned flower farm, he is responsible for dispatching 130 million flowers in just two weeks. Almost all of those are destined for the United States. How does something so fragile make it so far? The story of how this bouquet of roses travelled the 4,000 km from Bogota to New York is, in a nutshell, the story of globalization. It all begins with Jhon Velasco, who has dedicated his life to growing the perfect rose. At about one and a half miles above sea level, a cool 57 degrees Fahrenheit, and with 12 hours of daylight every day of the year, the Bogota savannah is the perfect place to grow flowers. But even with such reliable conditions, the slightest fluctuation in weather could result in the roses not blooming in time for Valentine’s Day. Once they’re out of the fridge, the roses are measured, stripped of their thorns, and packaged up for delivery around the world. The run-up to Valentine’s Day means long shifts and hard work for staff here. During this period, Elite Flower employs a full-time DJ to keep up morale. In the early 90s, the U.S. eliminated import tariffs on Colombian flowers in an effort to reduce the cultivation of drug crops and boost legitimate exports. And it worked. The Colombian flower industry employs 130,000 people and exports around 1.3 billion dollars worth of flowers. One of the ironies of the consequent boom in air freight from Bogota to Miami, is that flower shipments became a popular target for drug traffickers. It is Col. Siza’s job to make sure that none of it gets through. Miami International Airport is America’s flower hub. Ninety percent of all flowers imported to the U.S. come through this airport. That’s a billion dollars worth of flowers every year. Around Valentine’s season, there’s approximately about 30 cargo airplanes coming in every day bringing in flowers and roses for Valentine’s. Every day, all of this, they’re all coming in from Bogota. This one too. Jaime Suarez oversees air cargo coming in from Latin America for Atlas Air. This is one of his busiest times of year. In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, he works seven days a week to make sure these roses get to where they need to go. The aircraft arrives and everything needs to be offloaded. and transported into the cold rooms. It’s a global world now. With the advances in technology and transportation, of course, we can reach everywhere and bring whatever we need into the U.S., so in this case, fresh cut flowers are the celebration for Valentine’s Day, so that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re part of a big chain of transportation or globalization. Before the flowers can be cleared to enter the U.S., they are inspected by officers from Customs And Border Protection. They keep a watchful eye for insects and parasites that might have come along for the ride. A sample of flowers are turned upside down, and as one officer put it, they are “spanked” to see if anything falls out. During this time of the year, our agricultural specialists inspect around 6,000 units. or samples. That is the same or equivalent to 700 million flowers. If insects are found, they are taken to a lab for analysis, to see what kind of threat they pose to American agriculture. While the exporting of flowers creates over 100,000 jobs in Colombia, it creates even more in America. From airline staff to truck drivers, to florists, over 200,000 people are employed in industries related to these imported flowers. This rose isn’t just an expression of love, it’s a symbol of globalization. Demand for a product in one country generates whole industries, technologies, processes and employment in another. The part of the rose that we remember is the giving and the receiving. But those are just the simplest, easiest steps in the global chain that got it there. But everything that came before it, is a function of a globalized world. Roses travel far for Valentine’s Day, but for couples who cannot travel to get married, there are proxy marriages.
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