Every year more than a billion flowers come into the U.S. for Valentine’s Day. Most come from massive farms in Colombia, but some roses have as little as 48 hours to get cut and flown to Miami before they wilt. They have a short lifetime and thus require the most rapid form of transportation, and that is by air. It takes a vast network of farmers, air cargo coolers, and customs officers working 24/7.
Leading up to Valentine’s Day, the number of flowers that come into the airport double and triple. Treating these flowers right is even a matter of protecting the U.S. The danger of an exotic pest to establish in the United States our food supply is affected.
From greenhouse to gift, we followed the journey of your Valentine’s Day bouquet. 70% of cut flowers imported to the U.S. come from Colombia from big farms. For example, with over 2 800 acres, “Elite Flower” is the largest privately owned farm in the country.
The temperate climate, high altitude, and 12 hours of sunlight create the perfect growing conditions for these blooms. That would fill up 414 Boeing 767’s, and even within roses, there are a hundred varieties.
Out in the greenhouse, socially distanced workers inspect each flower from petal to stem for rot or bugs. Using shears, workers cut each flower off one by one. To slow that decay, the flowers are sent to a cold room for a minimum of 12 hours. This begins what’s known as the cold chain.
Extra leaves and thorns are stripped off the stem, and workers wear thick gloves to guard themselves against thorns. “Elite Flower” is buzzing year-round, but it gets especially busy in February. In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, the company adds an extra 4000 employees and generates 90% of its profits.
They partner with UPS to fly flowers to the U.S. Each plane can hold up to a million flowers, but airlines like Avianca or Latam are also big flower movers. 89% of all flowers entering the united states by air came through Miami International airport.
After a four-hour journey, temperature-controlled flights land in Miami, the flowers end up in a cold warehouse held at the same temperature as that airplane. The most important thing is to maintain the cool change.
There are almost 400 000 square feet of cooling facilities at Miami airport. Next, customs and border protection checks flowers from every flight. Agricultural specialists pull just 2% of the flowers from each flight to inspect. Inspections are done quickly, so the flowers don’t wilt or get handled too much.
They make sure that the inspection area is сooler the temperature is good for the flowers and for the personnel. One by one, officers open up boxes and remove the bundles wearing PPE to protect against diseases and pesticides.
They take a bouquet of flowers, remove the plastic, and then they shake it gently. If anything falls, they’ll have to absorb if there are any insects, but at the same time, they are doing the visual observation to see whether the leaves have any kind of signs of diseases like bacterial or fungal disease.
Even more important to look out for bugs, leaf miners, caterpillars, fruit flies, and beetles – critters that may seem harmless, but if they got through, they could wreak havoc on the U.S. agricultural system.
Every year the United States spends billions of dollars on eradication programs in order to eradicate those pests. From 2007 to 2014, Florida’s orange and grapefruit growers lost 2.9 billion dollars trying to eradicate the Asian citrus psyllid, so if an officer finds something, they collect it in a vial with alcohol for preservation. That specimen goes to the USDA department of agriculture for identification.
And for the flowers importer has basically three choices. One is to return to the origin, two is to fumigate, or the third is to destroy. Destruction is the last resource treatment. Most often, they use fumigation. On an average day, inspectors find around 50 to 60 different pests. Some flowers like the eucalyptus are at high risk for carrying hitchhikers, while roses are less risky.
After the fumigation takes place, the rest of the shipment can go to the public CBP inspects flowers every day, but on Valentine’s Day, they inspected over 700 million stems of flowers. If CBP officers don’t find anything, they bring the flowers back to that cold chain warehouse, and when the customers arrive there, they take the flowers and go to the literary area to load the flower directly to the truck.
The majority of these flowers are trucked to the Northeast or West Coast of the U.S, where folks like you and me can treat our loved ones to a colorful bouquet for Valentine’s Day.