EUGENE, Ore. — Late May and early June are typically glory days for the U.S. cut flower industry, with growers hustling for weddings, filling farmers markets with blooms and gracing special event tables with color.
But this year, American flower farmers are in trouble. Many are reeling from COVID-19 shutdowns. In response, growers across the U.S. are pivoting: for example, by selling direct to customers or doing home deliveries.
Despite the lost markets, industry leaders say something remarkable is happening. Profits are slimmer, but more individuals are buying flowers than ever to send to loved ones.
Dave Pruitt, CEO of the California Cut Flower Commission, said when lockdowns started growers’ average sales fell 90%.
Weddings and other events were canceled, Pruitt said. Farmers markets closed — and as they gradually reopened, many market directors deemed flowers “nonessential.” Big grocery store chains turned away trucks filled with fresh flowers or reduced orders.
“In some states and cities, florists were told they weren’t essential. To me, that just seems like a crime. If Amazon can keep delivering, why can’t a florist take your order and go deliver flowers?” Pruitt said.
Even funerals, another major market for the flower industry, were canceled. Industry leaders say they heard from many people grieving without services or flowers.
But the roadblocks didn’t stop farmers from being creative.
Direct-to-consumer delivery and community supported agriculture models bloomed as growers swiveled their businesses, said Jennie Love, president of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, a national trade organization.
Love said it’s been incredible watching growers innovate. But the work and logistics behind finding new customers and making deliveries, she said, has been “exhausting.”
Love is a grower in Philadelphia. She said she has lost more than $100,000 in sales from wedding cancellations alone.
The growers hit hardest, industry leaders say, were the wholesalers.
“The wholesale flower market is totally a disaster right now. It’s falling part. Crumbling,” Love said.
Pruitt, of the California Cut Flower Commission, said wholesalers have suffered so much some may never again return to their full scale.
Bethany and Charles Little, co-owners of Charles Little and Company in Eugene, Ore., are specialty cut flower growers with over 250 varieties. They have typically sold 90% of their flowers wholesale.
“Our bread and butter are wholesalers across the U.S.,” said Charles Little, who founded the farm in 1986.
Wind rustled his hair. It was a hot May afternoon and the air carried sweet floral scents from the surrounding fields.
Bethany Little estimated the farm’s total sales were halved and its wholesale market was down 80%.
The farm has been able to stay afloat largely because of orders from New Seasons Market, a grocery store chain operating in Western Oregon and Washington and Northern California.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for how New Seasons has supported us, and even increased their orders during this time. People helping people — it’s beautiful,” she said, laughing and blushing as she wiped away tears.
The Littles are also expanding their U-pick farm stand.
Across the U.S., according to Love of the flower association, record numbers of individuals are buying flowers. In her business, Love said, her monthly number of customers doubled from 2019.
Despite higher numbers of buyers, industry leaders say growers are struggling financially because the price point for a basic bouquet is vastly lower than for, say, a bridal bouquet.
Love said she has a practical way to discern why people are buying. Many of her customers request florists write special messages on the brown paper sleeves the flowers are wrapped in. Americans have been sending thank-yous, I-miss-yous and messages of hope to friends and family they can’t see.
“People are so hungry for flowers,” she said. “This is a hard time for growers, but seeing people buying so many flowers for each other has been the most joyous thing.”