BY LYNN OLDSHUE
As life returns to normal with weddings, funerals and celebrations, 2021 should be a much better year for florists.
There’s just one thing missing: flowers.
The pandemic decreased the supply of flowers and there aren’t enough blooms to meet the current demand. Local florists are worried about getting enough for weddings and Mother’s Day, one of their busiest days of the year.
“There’ve been days the last few weeks when I turned down orders because we didn’t have enough flowers,” said Kimberly Snipes, owner of Bay Flowers, located downtown on Government Street. “Valentine’s was booming, but it depleted the inventory of brokers and wholesalers. Growers were already behind because of COVID, but in February they squeezed all of the blooms they could from their plants. There was nothing left.
“It’s been a scramble to get flowers ever since.”
COVID-19 upended the supply chain, Snipes said. The global lockdown restricted labor, including in South America, the biggest supplier of flowers to the U.S. Demand plummeted and shipping by truck or plane became much harder. Some growers tossed out mounds of unsold blooms, went out of business or switched to another crop.
In the middle of March, Snipes received a message from a supplier advising her Mother’s Day orders needed to be placed by March 31 because “product is simply not available.” Not only were the plants “exhausted and in recovery mode from Valentine’s,” but also the “weather has been very poor, therefore weekly production has been well below our production forecasts. We are simply not harvesting enough flowers each day to meet demand,” the supplier said.
That demand is strong, Snipes said.
“Mother’s Day is going to wipe out the market again,” she said. “The farms will be in the same spot.”
Pulling roses from a box that read “Sunrite Farms in Ecuador,” Snipes explained most fresh-cut flowers are grown in Ecuador and Columbia. They’re shipped into Miami, then distributed to florists across the country by brokers and wholesalers. The process takes two to three weeks from field to vase.
Now, there are no guarantees what stems florists will get or how many.
“I ordered 200 Jessicas, a pink rose,” Snipes said. “Sending a sand-colored rose was the best my broker could do. In a typical week, I get 16 boxes of flowers on Monday, six boxes on Tuesday and eight on Wednesday. There are 100 to 300 stems per box. Right now, I’m lucky to get in five or six boxes a week. I can’t get any daisies right now. My broker is doing all she can to help. It looks like we’ll get through Mother’s Day because we pre-ordered so far in advance.”
The uncertainty of orders makes Snipes nervous.
“I’m a perfectionist and don’t want to let anyone down,” she said. “I’m very careful about what I tell brides I can get for them. I want everything to be just right. If all of this had happened when I first opened, Bay Flowers would’ve gone out of business. I’m thankful for our loyal customers who have gotten us through.”
There will be flowers for Mother’s Day, just not in abundance and probably not exactly what the customer wants, said Andy Givens, operations manager and flower buyer at Hall’s Wholesale Florist in Theodore.
“People have to be willing to accept substitutions; we’re making it work,” Givens said. “It’s never been like this before. I hate the term ‘perfect storm,’ but it feels like that right now. Many issues have created shortages in the flower industry around the world.”
One of those was the COVID-19 curfew that cut the hours available for work in South America.
“Ecuador’s curfew was 2 p.m., but farms closed by noon because some workers commute two hours to work and two hours home,” Gavin said. “There were farms with hundreds of acres left untouched. There wasn’t enough time to cut or process flowers or to replant for the next season.”
The weather was another problem.
“There were hurricanes last year, plus Columbia and Ecuador have had two or three times the regular rainfall,” Givens said. “Flowers too wet to pick are rotting in the fields. Wet blooms turn moldy before they reach the U.S.”
One of the three major airlines that shipped flowers from South America to the U.S. went out of business last year, reducing the amount of cargo space, Givens said. The pandemic also grounded air travel, reducing available cargo space under commercial flights.
If the weather in South America improves in the next month, Givens is hopeful for a better flower season by June or July. But the labor shortage could continue to cause problems.
“Farmers in Florida growing the greenery tell me they don’t have enough employees to cut the plants,” Givens said. “There’s a shortage of migrant labor. [Some American] workers are also making more on unemployment benefits than they would be working in the fields, so they are staying home. Growers are having a harder time getting their product to us.”
Givens said this has been one of the most challenging times for his business.
“Last March and April, weddings canceled quickly, leaving us with $60,000 in wedding flowers,” Givens said. “We put them on special and donated them to charities and random people. We tried to do some nice things with them.”
The company was founded in 1920, but COVID-19 canceled its 100th-anniversary celebration.
“We’ve learned to be flexible and will have a customer appreciation party to kick off our second century instead,” Givens said.
Ron Barrett, one of Hall’s best customers, has designed floral arrangements for 53 years. He recently placed a wedding order that included white tulips, Bells of Ireland, Italian Ruscus, Japanese Ranunculus and anemones. He said it was “one of the most expensive flower orders I’ve ever placed.”
“The cost of flowers has increased 14 percent,” he said. “In the business world, that is paralyzing. At the same time, the trend is real flowery. Girls are bringing me pictures of archways with $2,000 worth of flowers on it.”
Not only was Barrett’s list of flowers expensive, but some flowers were also unavailable.
“They gave me a list of six things that would sell out before I got there because they’re not getting the flowers,” he said. “That hasn’t happened before.”
The cancellation of Mardi Gras balls and celebrations was another blow to local florists.
“When Mardi Gras ended last year, I had 28 employees,” Barrett said. “Now I only have two employees and they are furloughed. In 2020, I did 37 Mardi Gras balls, which brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars. All of that went away in 2021. I didn’t do a single one.”
Barrett said by this point in the year, he should be drawing stages for next year, but Mardi Gras groups haven’t started meeting or planning yet.
“Whenever they contact me, I’ll be ready to go,” Barrett said. “We’re going to come out swinging with social events. I’m ready to have my artists back. It’s our job to bring people together and make them happy.”
Stephanie Easterling, owner of Wildflowers in Fairhope, also described this as the “perfect storm” as she scrambles to find enough flowers for twice as many weddings.
“Every bride who postponed last year is getting married this year,” she said. “Plus, we have the brides who planned on getting married this year. The demand is greater than it’s ever been, and there’s less product than I’ve ever seen. We aren’t getting the variety that we are used to, but we’re substituting with the best quality flowers that we can.”
The cost of product and shipping is much higher now, but Easterling is locked into bids based on last year’s pricing.
“We didn’t anticipate costs going up this much,” she said. “I am paying the difference out of my own pocket. I’m even giving extra product to make sure our brides are happy.”
Easterling said it’s hard to find employees, so she’s bringing in a designer from New York to work the busy season.
“I could use five more employees right now,” she said. “I interviewed 14 people last week for a driver, but they only wanted to drive a little bit, not a lot.
“I thought the year of COVID would have been our hardest year, but the Fairhope community took care of us and helped us through. Working through the post-COVID ramifications has been even harder. I didn’t see that coming.”
Local florists don’t do many summer weddings because of the heat, Easterling said. If Wildflowers can make it through summer, she’s hoping for a better fall.
“Fall is our busiest time of the year,” she said. “Hopefully some of this works itself out and we will have the flowers we need.”
“Life is full of seasons,” she said. “This is a season and it will pass.”
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