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Reportage

The Business of Colombian Flowers

The export of flowers, one of the strongest pillars of the Colombian economy, is a boundless source of jobs and national pride. When worldwide celebrations such as Valentine’s Day approach, this industry hits peak production. Since Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, growers have already buckled down to work. Our reporter gives voice to two of the main characters in this industry.

By Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino

Flower Lady 1

No one will ever know exactly how flowers change, influence, and enlighten people. The presence of flowers awakens the noblest of human feelings. I am well qualified to make such a statement, since every day I work with more than three hundred people who earn their living growing roses and orchids for export as part of an industry that is famous in cities like New York, Tokyo, and Moscow.

The stress and commotion you see now is due to the fact that we are preparing for our most important occasion: Valentine’s Day. Flower production is frenzied and highly stressful during the run-up to that date. But flowers also accompany the patriotic fervor of Independence Day in the U.S., sentimental remembrances, and even the theological passion of Easter, not to mention Russian military parades. We get emotional when we see that a magazine, newspaper, documentary, or news report from another country features one of our flowers, whether it’s pinned on a woman’s dress, standing in a vase in the background during an interview, used as part of the decor in a room where the action takes place, or slipped into the hairdo of a supermodel.

My name is Edelmira Chacón and I was not always involved in this business. I got into it by accident when my husband started working on a dairy farm here in Tocancipá, next door to fields of roses and carnations. I was curious about what I saw happening in the fields. I had worked at casual, informal jobs that did not stir my soul. Then I met Eliseo, the owner of all this, who enticed me with a generous offer, even though he knew that I would need to start from scratch. I remember the first time the boss said: “Edelmira, this will be your new home next to the flowers. After a while, you will understand that you are performing an important task and that the world needs you.” And, indeed, I soon discovered that each orchid and each rose has its own personality, like just we humans do. The so-called “flower people” learn to talk to flowers and even know when the flowers feel sad.

I have developed an expert eye, maybe a clinical one, for flowers, so I’m not surprised that they have been given so many varied names that represent beautiful cities, national symbols and passions, moods, colors, feelings, regions, legends, and customs: Pomodoro, Farida, Doncel, Betzy (Ikebana-Dankiza), Zurgo, Farieta, and New York. There are many carnation varieties, some of which, like great paintings by Picasso, are daring mixtures of colors: Fiesta, Minerva, Antigua, Hipnosis, and Belle Époque. And among classic roses, I would note Freedom, Vendella, Topaz, High & Exotic, Limonada, Cool Water, and Garota, perhaps because they’re the ones I like best. No two look alike, and it’s difficult to conceive of all the love stories in which they figure.

No one who does this delightful work can be uncouth, coarse, rough, angry, or careless; the emotion would instantly be reflected in the flowers, since they perceive our moods and our temperaments. It’s as if they have telepathic powers.

Memories of a Manager 1

I am José A. Restrepo, general manager of Ayurá SAS. We have been producing and exporting Colombian roses and carnations for many decades. My family line has maintained the business, continuing to send its gorgeous flowers to the principal cities of the United States and Japan. To a lesser degree, we also do business with Russia, Latin America, and certain European and Asian countries. My father, Eliseo Restrepo, died just a year ago. His career reflected the vitality, imagination, and strength of the Antioquia native. This world traveler, businessman, palm grower, cattle rancher, and fish farmer grew up on this plateau, where he patiently overcame quite a few obstacles to build the great emporium that we will do our best to protect.

We have always known that the key to success in this wonderful business lies in human relationships, especially with the workers, who are the ones who give life to so much beauty and exquisiteness. We have built everything with patience and a fair amount of research, and we are all one big family.

The numbers out of the flower industry are encouraging: production has hit 225,000 tons. Data from the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture shows that between 2012 and 2016, sales of flowers increased by 11%, with Valentine’s Day orders alone bringing in more than 1.1 billion dollars.

A people can be understood through their relationship with flowers. You see, the Japanese await their orders at the airport with the intense, stern miens of judges. They painstakingly check the orders; they are serious, but they are also enjoying themselves, rather like judges at a beauty contest. Their inspection of Colombian flowers is certainly eastern and evokes the sense of honor characteristic of that land of samurais and patient warriors. If there are any flaws or the merchandise differs from the order, they will reject the delivery.

In contrast, people from the U.S. are more open ―possibly more democratic― diverse, and easy-going, just like their country. They often prefer to mix different species in one order and they don’t pay too much attention to minor details. They are excellent customers and they love the scent of our flowers. They say that the flowers fire their imaginations and put them in a great mood.

Flower Lady 2

The job turns you into a psychologist, a wordsmith, a scientist, an artist, and even a poet. Working with so many people from so many different places and with such varied pasts is difficult and we often don’t understand them very well. Dialogue and observation become essential. As I said, I have become a psychologist. I understand a woman worried about her son’s health as well as I do a man suffering the fear, anxiety, and melancholy of violence; I likewise comprehend a young woman with marital problems or a worker sinking into a morass of debt that seems impossible to untangle.

Colombia is the second largest exporter of flowers in the world. To ensure that our “babies” reach their destination in good condition, each and every flower passes through several phases, each of which merits our utmost attention. We are extremely demanding. Our country has labs that supply us with seeds for both classics and newer flowers.

The birth of just one flower is a true miracle. It is akin to the coming of a miracle child, who will, of course, receive the best of care from its entire family.

Memories of a Manager 2

In my father’s time, flowers were part of everyday life, and it was impossible to imagine that people might not need flowers or consider them absolutely essential. It’s not like that now, and there are even pessimists who think that the passion for flowers will soon die out. A radical change in customs and habits is threatening all things traditional, including flowers. As proof, we need only look at U.S. flower shops, which used to be part of the fabric of life in that country, but are now closing their doors at an alarming rate.

Nor could we have imagined that there would come a generation that would prefer other manifestations of communication, courtship, and friendship. Nowadays, many people prefer to give mobile phones or tablets as gifts instead of flowers.

I have to travel to the United States and Japan once or twice a year to ensure that we don’t lose our presence there. I get to see our magnificent flowers playing sometimes surprising starring roles. Recently, for example, a Japanese designer put on a runway show with beautiful, sumptuously-dressed models, all adorned with Colombian flowers.

Flower Lady 3

Our workers will always be flower people. They will die smelling the delicious perfume of roses and carnations. I think that must be a wonderful way to ascend to heaven.