Fair flowers: Socially-responsible blooms in time for Valentine’s Day

Anne Armitage is shown with a bouquet of proteas, grown in the United States. Armitage sells flowers, including many that are locally grown, at Bark & Bloom in the NewBo City Market, 1100 3rd St. SE, Cedar Rapids.

Name any area grocery store or market — nearly all of them will have a floral department, boasting beautiful bouquets and arrangements in any color of the rainbow. But where do those flowers come from?

Anne Armitage sells locally grown flowers at Bark & Bloom in the NewBo City Market, 1100 3rd St. SE, Cedar Rapids, but sourcing local flowers is nearly impossible for Midwestern florists in the winter months.

“It’s very challenging,” says Armitage, who has to rely on what wholesale suppliers make available in Iowa during cold weather months, particularly for the Valentine’s Day rush.

What is available typically isn’t the socially responsible and eco-friendly flowers that Armitage prefers, but some of her winter selection is grown in the United States. Customers who are seeking an environmental route when it comes to flowers may ask about the flowers’ origin and look for special certifications.

Fair trade-certified flowers offer one way to ensure the flowers you purchase for Valentine’s Day or other occasions come from farms where workers are treated fairly.

Nearly 80 percent of cut flowers sold in the United States are grown in Latin America, South America and Africa, where workers often are exploited to keep costs low, according to One World Flowers’ website, oneworldflowers.org.

Fair trade certification ensures workers on large-scale flower farms have access to unions, receive better wages and work under safe labor conditions with protective equipment and proper training, Fair Trade USA notes on its website, fairtradeusa.org.

With the fair trade premium, 10 percent of the commercial price of every stem sold is allocated to a development fund that allows workers to invest in their communities, such as building a school or offering day care to workers.

Bouquets sold under the program are marked with the fair trade logo on their packaging, so customers know what they are purchasing.

“One of the biggest problems in that industry is poisoning workers with pesticides,” says Becke Dawson, owner of the SIS International Shop in Davenport. That leads to not only health issues for the workers, but also birth defects, as a majority of those workers are women, she added.

Fair trade flower farms, on the other hand, ban the use of dangerous chemicals and train workers to safely handle approved pesticides. Those are among the reasons Dawson has carried fair trade roses for Valentine’s Day at her store.

While she was unsure whether she would have the roses in stock again this year, she says she is supportive of the model.

Items at SIS International Shop, 108 E. 2nd St., Davenport, often are hand-crafted by artisans in countries where there are few income opportunities, so fair trade flowers fit the store’s mission, Dawson says.

“It’s really a huge plus for the floral industry to use fair trade,” she says.

Fair trade-certified flowers can be found at a handful of stores in Iowa and Illinois, including Jewel-Oscos, and online at a variety of websites, such as oneworldflowers.org, 1800flowers.com and FTD.com.

Sourcing flowers locally is another way for florists and customers to know the practices behind the products. When starting Bark & Bloom several years ago, Armitage had hoped to source everything from the United States but soon discovered the challenges.

She cites “Flower Confidential,” a book that explored the international floral industry, and says that flowers such as carnations, roses and chrysanthemums are rarely commercially grown in the United States because they can be grown so cheaply in South America.

The book, written by Amy Stewart, notes that wages for floral farm workers in Ecuador average just $150 per month, and flowers imported into the United States are fumigated with chemicals before being shipped to their destinations.

These are among the reasons Armitage cites for buying locally grown flowers.

While many of the flowers Armitage sells are from Pheasant Run Farm near Van Horne, Iowa, which doesn’t use chemicals like those sprayed on imported flowers, she does grow some of her own.

Fragrant lilies, colorful snapdragons, dahlias and zinnias are among the flowers grown at Pheasant Run Farm, while some sold at Bark & Bloom come from a family farm in California during the winter months. The Resendiz Brothers farm, in San Diego County, grow proteas, which Bark & Bloom sells in exotic-looking bouquets.

She cites the family-farm model as a huge selling point, along with the quality of the proteas and growing methods. The same is true of the flowers from Pheasant Run.

“Personally, I don’t want to be handling anything with chemicals if I don’t have to,” Armitage says.

“Plus, I like supporting other local businesses and the quality of the flowers. They’re just so fresh; there’s no comparison.” 

Cindy Hadish writes about local foods, gardening and farmers markets at HomegrownIowan.com. For more information about Bark & Bloom, visit barkandbloom.com. For more information about SIS International Shop, visit sisshops.com.

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