If you send a bouquet of roses for Valentine's Day, chances are they were grown in Colombia. It remains the No. 1 supplier of flowers to the U.S. even though the coronavirus pandemic at one point threatened to wilt the industry.
"It's been a roller coaster," said José Restrepo, co-owner and general manager of the Ayurá flower farm, located just north of Bogotá in the Andean mountain town of Tocancipá.
As Restrepo spoke, workers wearing face masks and rubber gloves rushed to clip, sort and box roses ahead of Sunday's romantic holiday that accounts for one-third of Ayurá's annual sales.
The farm's commercial manager, Claudia Fuentes, said customers can choose from a rainbow of hues — 35 when it comes to roses and more than 60 for carnations.
"For Valentine's Day the favorite color is red, but hot pink is second," she said while strolling through one of the greenhouses. "We have light pink, hot pink, medium pink ... red, yellow, white, lavender."
Ayurá is one of hundreds of Colombian flower farms that, in a normal year, sell about $1.5 billion worth of roses, carnations, orchids and other species to the U.S., Europe and Asia, according to Augusto Solano, director of the Colombian Flower Exporters' Association.
But when the pandemic hit last March, the Colombian government imposed one of the strictest and longest economic lockdowns in Latin America. International flights were drastically reduced making it harder to export. Meanwhile, overseas demand diminished as weddings, graduations and other ceremonies were canceled.
As COVID-19 spread — so far more than 56,000 Colombians have died from the disease — Restrepo and other farm owners feared they would have to rip up most of their flower beds and lay off thousands of employees.
"We started hearing about the first lockdowns, the cancellation of flights, big customers, big wholesalers in the U.S. shutting their operations," Restrepo said. "And at that moment we didn't know what to do."
But the flower industry was among the first in Colombia to adopt safety measures to protect workers. Farms installed plexiglass partitions in processing facilities, added more work shifts and brought in smaller numbers of employees per shift to give them more space. All of this helped convince the Colombian government to allow flower farms to continue operating.
"We moved very fast to put all of these plans in place," said Restrepo, who noted that only about a dozen of his 500 workers tested positive for the coronavirus.
In addition, the demand for flowers quickly rebounded. With people stuck indoors for months on end, Solano said that fresh flowers proved to be one of the easier and cheaper ways to liven up the decor and change the scenery.
"People have been isolated so you cannot hug someone, or you cannot show your smile. And maybe a bouquet of flowers is a way to express that feeling," he said. "Flowers are food for the soul, food for the spirit. And that's why people kept buying flowers."
As a result, Solano said flower exports last year dropped by just 5% and are expected to rebound this year. And even as Colombia's unemployment rate nearly doubled last year to 20.2%, almost all of the country's 140,000 flower workers kept their jobs.
Among them is Flor Rodríguez, a single mother who has worked on the Ayurá farm for 14 years. When her eldest daughter lost her accounting job during the lockdown, Rodríguez said her steady salary clipping carnations helped her extended family, that includes three grandchildren, get by.
"We feel blessed," Rodríguez said of the farm's workforce. "We have been working the whole time and we didn't get sick with COVID."
Claudia Fuentes, the farm's commercial manager, is also thankful that the industry survived the pandemic. The rush ahead of Valentine's Day, she said, symbolizes "hope, the start of a new time."
But Fuentes and the other flower workers in the country won't have much time to celebrate. Pretty soon, they'll be gearing up for a crush of orders ahead of Mother's Day.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
If you are so lucky to happen to receive a bouquet from your sweetheart today, the flowers probably came from Colombia. It's the No. 1 supplier of roses, carnations and other flowers to the United States. The pandemic had Colombian growers fearing their industry would collapse, but they quickly adapted to the crisis. And as John Otis reports, flower production in Colombia is once again blooming.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: This worker is clipping roses at a flower farm near the town of Tocancipa, just north of Bogota. The farm's commercial manager, Claudia Fuentes, says they come in nearly every color.
CLAUDIA FUENTES: We have light pink, hot pink, medium pink, then red, yellow, white, lavender...
OTIS: How many different colors of roses?
OTIS: Next, Fuentes takes me into the farms processing plant. Here, workers strip leaves from rose stems, then pack the flowers into boxes. Next, they'll be airlifted to Miami.
FUENTES: So this bunch is for the United States.
OTIS: That's a dozen roses, a dozen red roses.
FUENTES: That’s a 25-stem bunch.
OTIS: For a while, it was unclear whether this farm would even survive until Valentine's Day.
JOSE RESTREPO: (Non-English language spoken).
OTIS: Amid the pandemic, Jose Restrepo, the farm's co-owner, thought he might have to rip up flower beds and lay off workers.
RESTREPO: We start hearing about the first lockdown, cancellations of flights, big customers, big wholesalers in the U.S. shutting their operations. And at that moment, we didn't know what to do.
OTIS: But the flower industry was among the first in Colombia to put in place social distancing and other safety measures to protect workers. That helped convince the Colombian government to allow flower farms to operate amid a tight economic lockdown. What's more, despite the cancellation of weddings, graduations and other celebrations, overseas demand rebounded.
AUGUSTO SOLANO: People are being isolated. So you cannot hug someone, or you cannot show your smile or something. And maybe a bouquet of flowers is a way to expressing that feeling.
OTIS: That's Augusto Solano, president of the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters.
SOLANO: People realized, finally, that flowers are food for the soul, food for the spirit. And that's why they kept buying flowers.
OTIS: That's also why, even as Colombia's unemployment rate doubled last year, nearly all of the country's 140,000 flower workers kept their jobs. Among them is Flor Rodriguez, a single mother who has worked on the farm near Tocancipa for 14 years.
FLOR RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken)
OTIS: When her eldest daughter lost her accounting job during the lockdown, Rodriguez says her steady salary clipping carnations helped the family get by. Claudia Fuentes, the farm's commercial manager, is also thankful that the industry survived COVID.
FUENTES: After a year. For us, it's almost one year off of having, like, a lot of problems with the COVID. It was like, again, like, a hope, the start of a new, like, time.
OTIS: But the flower workers here won't have much time to celebrate. Pretty soon, they'll be gearing up for a crush of orders ahead of Mother's Day. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Tocancipa, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.