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Global flower industry suffers $1.5b loss, but Australian industry may bloom as a result

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 27/05/2020 By Samantha Dawes and Jessica Schremmer

Countries around the world are suffering as pandemic restrictions affect the trade of flowers, causing leading export countries like Kenya to lose millions of dollars while tonnes of flowers wilt and rot.

But the drop in international flower trade may offer a windfall for Australian farmers.

Almost half of the flowers sold in Australia are brought in from Kenya, Ecuador, Colombia, Vietnam, Malaysia and China.

According to Flowers Victoria chairman Michael van der Zwet, Australia imports $75 million worth of flowers each year.

He said imports had "squashed a lot of local growers in Australia", forcing many to leave the industry.

But COVID-19 restrictions — and the halt of passenger jets carrying floral produce — had seen "a scarcity of [overseas] flowers" down under, he said.

Mr van der Zwet said this had led to "a resurgence in Australia's flower industry", as florists and wholesalers turned to local farmers to fill the gap left by a lack of imports.

So, while trade restrictions are good news for Australian flower farmers, it's bad news for major flower exporting countries that rely heavily on the global floriculture industry.

Export freeze puts livelihoods at risk

Rabobank fresh produce analyst Lambert van Horen said "millions of flower stems" had "gone to waste" during the pandemic.

"The total damage, globally, in the floriculture sector will be at least $1.5 billion [$US1 billion]."

"In the Netherlands alone, we estimate the damage of the cut flower business is approximately 400–500 million euros [$660 million to $825 million] … in Kenya and Ethiopia it will be 200–300 million euros," he said.

"At first, the sale of roses dropped by 80 per cent and a lot of workers on the flower farms were sacked because there wasn't any work anymore."

The Kenya Flower Council said in a tweet in March that the flower sector "employs 150,000 people directly and one million in affiliated industries".

"Four million livelihoods … are at risk due to the impact of COVID-19," it added.

Since March, some trade and air travel has resumed but the situation remains dire for Kenyan growers who supply flowers to European and Australia auction houses and wholesalers.

Fiona Coulson, the co-owner of Nini and Lamorna farms in Naivasha, Kenya, said the first six weeks of coronavirus lockdown measures in Europe had greatly impacted upon her business, causing six million stems of roses to go to waste so far.

"Our income was cut in half … in April we had to put people on 14 days' unpaid leave," Ms Coulson said.

Nini and Lamorna farms employ 1,200 people alone — many of whom are poor and reliant on employment in the country's floriculture industry to feed their families.

Employees at Nini and Lamorna farms were some of the 'lucky ones' who could resume work in May.

But many others were still left struggling, as increased air freight costs made it unviable for farmers to ship flowers to overseas wholesalers.

Business blooms for Australian farmers

While major overseas exporters were struggling to sell their flowers, the tide was changing for flower growers in Australia.

General manager of Brisbane's Redlands Farms, Jatinder Nijjar, said Queensland's flower industry had shrunk from 200 growers to just 10 because of cheap overseas imports.

"But now, because of this pandemic, and the change in supply and demand, Australians are going direct to local growers again," he said.

"I am going to be putting in more roses to meet the demand over the next six months and I am looking to plant around 15,000 [rose bushes].

"People are wanting more and more local product. People are loving local product and they're wanting to support their local grower," he said.

Florists struggle to fill orders

The shortage of overseas imports has come at a time when more Australians are buying flowers for loved ones during uncertain and stressful times.

General manager of Tony's Wholesale Flowers Michael Vallelonga said the demand had been unprecedented.

"We've never seen anything like this. Florists have lined up outside our door, down the street, waiting to get whatever flowers we have available," he said.

"That just shows how desperate things are … if florist shops don't have enough stock it means they're not going to have enough revenue."

One of Mr Vallelonga's customers, Wendy Day of Renmark Flower House, said the past few weeks had been the busiest time of her life.

"[Some days] I can't take any more orders because that's all the stock I must work with. I'm basically selling out most days," she said.

Uncertain future for flower industry

With trade disruptions turning global demand and supply chains upside down, the future of the floriculture industry is on uneven footing.

Mr van Horen said the effects of a global recession had caused significant uncertainty about the demand for flowers.

"Of course, flowers and plants are typically a luxury product and if people get unemployed, for example, will they still give the same amount of money for the bunch of flowers, bouquets and plants?"

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