By Adina Solomon
It starts in a country like Colombia at a farm like Flores de Tenjo.
The sweet smell of 120 acres of flowers permeates the air. Workers scurry around the farm, tending to, cutting and transporting row after row of flower buds in greenhouse after greenhouse.
Flores de Tenjo grows 50 varieties of flowers, 10 of which are roses, in the town of Tenjo, Colombia, in the Andes Mountains just outside of Bogota.
“If you want to be the leader in South America and you want to be recognized like that for everybody in South America, you have to be in the flower business,” Pablo Canales, director of LAN Cargo for Colombia, says.
Air Cargo World visited Flores de Tenjo as part of a sponsored press trip with LAN Airlines. Flores de Tenjo is just one of LAN’s floral clients.
Flowers often begin their journey in Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia or Kenya – the top flower-exporting countries. They must travel thousands of miles before reaching their final destinations in the U.S., Europe and Canada on store shelves.
“Flowers are not like other perishables,” Christine Boldt, executive vice president of the Association of Floral Importers of Florida, says. “We don’t really have seasons. We are 365 days a year.”
Most flowers are moved by air.
Boldt says South America is popular for growing flowers because it’s close to the Equator. Ecuador and Colombia have the same weather conditions all year round.
She says 89 percent of all the flowers that enter the U.S. travel through Miami – and 60 percent of those flowers come from Colombia.
The majority of the flowers that LAN – and many South American countries – exports go to Miami, Canales says.
“Miami has all the infrastructure and all the players, and the logistics have been arranged,” Victor Mejia, vice president of cargo at Tampa Cargo and TACA, says. “No matter which point of the United States is going to be the final destination, they will enter the country in Miami.”
Some flowers from Colombia go to Los Angeles, and there is a small market into South America. A quarter of the flowers go to Europe, usually Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.
Bart Pouwels, director business development cargo at Schiphol, says there are 9,000 producers of flowers and plants in the Netherlands. Red roses, one of Schiphol’s biggest varieties of flowers, mostly come from Kenya and Ethiopia.
“It’s not general cargo,” Pouwels says. “It’s different. It’s perishables.”
From farm to consumer
In the greenhouses where Flores de Tenjo’s flowers are grown, one of the first steps before picking the flowers is to spray them with environmentally friendly pesticides. Workers cut the flowers according to their destination country. North America likes its flowers short. From stem to head, the typical flower for North America is 17 inches long. For Russia and the Netherlands, the flowers are almost three times as long.
After workers cut the flowers in the heat of the greenhouse, they put them in carts with water. A worker then picks up the carts of flowers and using cables strung along every row and path of every greenhouse, he walks the carts of flowers to another facility on the farm grounds.
Every 90 days, a plant grows a new flower bud.
Of the flowers that Flores de Tenjo grows, 80 percent are its own varieties. The farm has coral-colored roses, fungus-resistant roses and even ones that are engineered to smell like apples.
Once the flowers are carted out of the greenhouse, they go to a room busy with people handling flowers. The workers move in rhythm with the Spanish pop music blasting throughout the facility. A machine sorts the flowers by stem size. Workers sitting at individual tables make bouquets, mostly mixed, by hand.
The workers who assemble the bouquets are exclusively women. A guide says this is because of the belief that making flower bouquets is women’s work.
After the flowers are assembled and labeled, workers put the flowers in boxes along with water into a cooling room, where they stay for 12-24 hours. It’s there that the flowers are irrigated, drinking enough water for the trip ahead.
The flowers then go into a cold box storage room for two days.
Forty-five people work at one time at Flores de Tenjo. For the two weeks leading up to Mother’s Day, the number of workers more than triples.
During the entire time the flowers are handled and transported, they must be kept in the cool chain. Boldt says the optimal temperature for flowers is 34-38 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Maintaining the cold chain maintains the integrity of the product that we’re trying to sell,” she says. “If the consumers don’t have a good experience with the flowers, there’s the possibility that they won’t purchase again. And just looking at a flower at the beginning, you can’t always tell if it was maintained in cold or not because right at the beginning, it may look fine but depending how it reacts when it gets to an ambient temperature depends on how long it lasts.”
The flowers are flown out of Colombia during the cool of night – odds are to either Amsterdam or Miami.
Air Cargo World followed flowers transported by LAN to Miami.
During the journey, the temperature of the flowers doubles because they create their own heat, Schiphol’s Pouwels says. This is due to the fact that the flowers are still growing, and the energy produced puts off heat.
LAN’s planes are kept at 50 degrees Fahrenheit for the 3.5-hour trip from Bogota to Miami, Canales says.
“If you ship under the right conditions,” Pouwels says, “then you will have a longer vase life, which is a kind of quality indicator.”
At LAN’s cooler at Miami International Airport – the largest refrigerated cooler at a U.S. airport operated by an airline – workers are busy unloading a newly arrived 767 full of flowers. It takes about 40 minutes to unload an aircraft.
The flowers must be inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection within 1.5 hours, which officers do by taking a sample from each shipment of flowers. Once the boxes of flowers are inspected, they are stacked in LAN’s cooler, which is kept at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
All the boxes of flowers are counted to make sure there are no extra or missing boxes and to check that LAN’s AWBs match each box.
Each shipment of flowers can belong to 100 or more companies.
The entire process from unloading the plane to checking boxes takes four to seven hours, depending on the size of the aircraft.
LAN’s cooler can handle eight flights at once. Usually, there are four flights full of perishables in a day.
When the flowers are ready, the refrigerated trucks of floral distributors come rolling into the airport. The trucks back up into the cooler to maintain the cool chain. They then take the flowers around the country, which eventually end up in the hands of consumers.
The cool chain is vital for making sure a flower stays beautiful and fresh for consumers. If they aren’t kept in the cool chain, Mejia says, they can get black stains in the petals and die quicker.
“Every time flowers rise above the temperature that is optimal for them, they lose life. So for every hour that they’re outside that temperature, they’re going to lose part of their life,” Boldt says. “The last thing we want is somebody to pay money on Mother’s Day, get a bunch of roses sent to their mother, and three days later, they’re dead because they weren’t handled properly.”
Flowers that were kept in the cool chain during the entire trip last seven to 10 days.
“At the end, this is the most important thing that the customers are looking for. You can have a delay maybe. You can have a delay in your air flight. You can be three hours later to Miami than the time that the customer was expecting. But you cannot break the cool chain,” Canales says. “If you get the flower in bad condition, that’s it.”
When the flower industry really blooms
There are specific times of year when the air cargo industry transports more flowers. All the people interviewed by Air Cargo World say Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are the two biggest holidays, when the amount of flowers shipped triples for many.
Pouwels mentions the start of gardening season in early May as another peak. In September when school starts, Russian children offer roses to teachers.
Pouwels and Canales say Russians also give flowers for International Women’s Day in March, a public holiday Russia inherited from the days of the Soviet Union.
There’s no hiding flowers’ importance to the airfreight industry. Pouwels says perishables – mostly flowers – make up a quarter of the total cargo volume at Schiphol.
Flowers are an important part of Tampa Cargo, Mejia says. In fact, the airline began 40 years ago to serve the floral business.
“The flower industry is very important for us to balance the southbound cargo with the northbound cargo from the U.S. and Europe into and out of South America,” Fernando Poitevin, COO at LAN Cargo, says. “One of the keys to our success is to have a very efficient operation. And one of the key components of efficiency is to make sure our flights are full 100 percent of the time.”
Poitevin says LAN’s main import market is Brazil. When its cargo planes go to Brazil, they need to return full of perishables, so the airline uses flowers to balance it out. He says flowers account for 15 percent of LAN Cargo’s revenue.
“The flower industry is key for our business,” Poitevin says, “for our success.”