Florists, growers plan well ahead to supply Valentine's Day roses

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Posted: Friday, February 14, 2014 12:00 am

Right about the time many Americans are enjoying leftover turkey and stuffing, wholesale florists are beginning to think about Valentine's Day.

“Shortly after Thanksgiving, we start eyeballing how we're going to hit the right number of roses,” said John Adams, manager of Denver-based DWF Wholesale Florist's Omaha distribution center, one of the nation's more than 500 wholesale florists.

Around the same time, South American growers, who supply the majority of Valentine's roses, pinch back the plants to keep them from flowering until February and to ensure a “bumper crop,” according to the Society of American Florists.

For the past two years, Americans have spent about $2 million each year on Valentine's Day bouquets. Roses are the bloom of choice, and filling orders requires more than 220 million roses.

One million of those were picked up by Florist Distributing Inc., the floral company operated by Hy-Vee, the West Des Moines-based grocery retailer, for distribution among its parent company's 235 grocery stores in eight states, including Nebraska. About 60 percent of them were red.

Everyone wants roses, particularly red roses, and as a result, wholesale prices often double, Adams said.

Retailer florists, faced with increased wholesale costs, can't raise prices accordingly without scaring away customers.

Calculating how many stems to stock for Valentine's Day is “all about timing,” said Sheila Fitzgerald, owner of Blooms flower shop in Rockbrook Village. Fitzgerald takes into account customers who order their roses a month ahead of time, a week ahead of time and those who will rush in today for a dozen long-stemmed beauties.

Hit the right number of roses and you're in the pink. Order too many — roses have a short shelf life — and the spoilage could put your balance sheet in the red.

Lou Wiltse, the fourth-generation owner of the Wayne Greenhouse Inc., in Wayne, Neb., relies on records going back 30 years to help her predict sales, which can fluctuate depending on the day of the week.

When Valentine's Day falls on a Friday, flower sales can wilt somewhat, she said, as some folks try to get away with just taking their sweetheart out to dinner.

Fitzgerald plans to boost the number of drivers today from two to “six or seven,” and hopes for clear roads.

“Snow, I don't mind,” she said, but icy roads can keep people at home who would normally be at work. The showy bouquet meant to wow the beloved and her co-workers gets delivered, but the intended isn't at work to receive it, a big disappointment.

“It's all about the delivery,” Fitzgerald said.

On the wholesale end, live volcanoes, pests and freezing temperatures can slow the wholesale distribution chain that stretches from South America to Miami to Omaha, Adams said.

“This year about 95 percent of our roses came from Ecuador or Colombia,” Adams said.

“I heard some distributors experienced delays because of the volcano in Ecuador,” said Adams, referring to the Tungurahua volcano that erupted earlier this month, causing some flight cancellations.

The bouquet of red roses you sent or received today may have been cut on a farm in Colombia last week, boxed, trucked to Bogata and then loaded onto a cargo plane for a 1,500-mile flight to Miami.

Miami, followed by Los Angeles, are the major ports of entry for cut flower imports.

And just like any traveler arriving on U.S. soil, those blooms have to go through customs. U.S. customs agents, on the lookout for pests or contraband, expect to process more than 225 million roses to meet the needs of the nation's 15,300 florists on Valentine's Day.

“It's pretty scary what those poor babies go through,” said Cindy Sulzman, Hy-Vee's assistant vice president of floral operations. Sulzman visited a U.S. Customs processing center three years ago and watched agents choose random palettes for a thorough inspection.

If the blooms pass muster, they're loaded onto refrigerator trucks set at between 34 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit and driven to Omaha, a 1,700-mile trip.

For DWF, last week's low-low temperatures meant each box of flowers had to be loaded individually onto trucks instead of by the pallet. “It protects them from the cold,” Adams said.

For Hy-Vee, the flowers first were delivered to one of FDI's five distribution centers, including a warehouse near 144th and L Streets in Omaha, and popped into coolers. Then they were trucked to the stores as close to Valentine's Day as possible.

Nebraska's 25 Hy-Vee grocery stores claimed about 150,000 roses, including 85,000 stems for the retailer's 14 Omaha-area stores, said Pat Behnke, general manager of the FDI warehouse in Omaha.

The classic long-stemmed beauty, the Freedom Red Rose, measures about 24 inches in height. The taller the rose, the more costly. If you're feeling really flush, there are 5- and 6-feet-tall roses, which are “amazing, but pretty expensive,” Sulzman said.

Today's temperatures aren't expected to rise above 30 degrees, which means that Hy-Vee florists will likely double or triple bag Valentine's Day bouquets to protect them from the cold's withering effects.

Every Hy-Vee delivery van, which can hold from 25 to 50 flower orders, will be on the road today, with many drivers starting deliveries at 6 a.m. Most stores operate anywhere from two to six delivery vans each, but that won't be enough for today, Sulzman said.

“We've rented some cargo vans and recruited store volunteers, mostly our management team, to help make deliveries,” Sulzman said.

Once they're delivered, enjoy: “Our roses are guaranteed to last from seven to 10 days,” she said.

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