Disruptions to the Colombian floral supply chain resulting from anti-government demonstrations in May have dissipated, at least for now. But while flowers from Colombia are again flowing to the U.S. market much as they were before the demonstrations began, challenges originating from the pandemic are still causing some shortages and delays.
The demonstrations erupted on April 28, right before Mother’s Day, in response to a government proposal for tax reform that critics said would impose insupportable hardship on the middle and working classes. The early supply of Mother’s Day flowers was, for the most part, unaffected but during the first week of May, some shipments were hampered and sometimes prevented altogether by roadblocks and other actions by protesters.
Since then, large rallies have continued, but with little direct impact on the country’s major flower-producing areas, says Augusto Solano, president of Asocolflores, the Colombian Association of Flower Growers and Shippers. The remaining impact is from protest activities in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, and the Pacific port of Buenaventura.
“The social unrest has been slowing down, and things are coming back to normal slowly,” says Solano. “The blockades have almost disappeared, especially in the areas where the flower industry is located.” Political tension, however, is likely to remain for some time, he says, especially with the approach of Colombia’s presidential elections scheduled for next May.
Joey Azout, of the Colombian garden-rose grower Alexandra Farms, says the disruptions have affected delivery of fertilizer and packing materials to farms. “Raw materials for flower boxes that come from Cali are scarce, slowing down the box delivery,” he says. “We may have to send our roses in Kraft boxes if the box manufacturers don’t catch up to demand.”
Looking Backwards and Forwards
While the supply chain from Colombia has largely recovered from the early May disruptions, pandemic-related challenges with production, labor, and transport remain in force.
The first concern is the sharp rise in the cost of air freight and a persistent shortage of air freight capacity in a market where flowers must compete with other goods for cargo space, says Oscar Fernandez, director of sales at grower and distributor Equiflor/Rio Roses.
“The cost of freight has gone up exponentially,” says Fernandez. “It’s something that we in the flower business need to keep our eye on, because no company can simply absorb those increases over a long period of time.”
The shortage of cargo space has resulted in more and more delayed shipments, says Fernandez. Solano, on the other hand, says he is hearing that cargo capacity is coming back into balance with demand — at least for now, during the summer months.
The capacity of growers to produce enough flowers to meet demand remains affected by the onset of the pandemic, when many growers, facing an uncertain market, were reluctant to make the investment to renew their crops. While spring 2020 might seem like a long time ago, once production is paused, it takes a long time to recover fully. “Most farms curtailed production last year in April and have yet to get back up to speed,” says Azout. “Sourcing vegetative material is also hard as those suppliers also curtailed their volumes.”
Meanwhile, Fernandez says production in South American countries is also hampered by the need for social distancing and other pandemic protocols on the farms, since COVID vaccines have not yet become widely available there.
Although universally considered a good thing, increased demand from the U.S. does put further strain on the supply chain. “From January to April, we had an increase of exports of 18 percent compared with last year,” says Solano. “Even a little bit more, about 21 percent, compared to 2019. That shows that flowers are flowing, and demand is high.”
As demand increases even more during the busy fall and winter months, Solano advises buyers to plan and order in advance — not to wait and see, for example, if the cost of freight will drop. “The important thing is to plan ahead,” says Solano. “For those who do that, there is plenty of opportunity.”
Bruce Wright is a contributing writer to Floral Management.