OTTAWA | January 27, 2012

Canadian flowers: bleeding not blooming

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A shiny red flower with a long yellow stamenA local Colombian grower holds out a native Colombian Andreanum, often exported to markets worldwide.

Canada’s flower producers hope that this year’s Valentine’s Day highlights how their business has been trampled by Colombian imports.

Five months after the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement eliminated tariffs on imported flowers, the Canadian flower industry is bleeding says Michel-Antonie Renaud, policy analyst for Flower Growers Canada.

"The costs of labour, heat, and many other factors make it extremely hard for Canadian growers to remain competitive in this market," he says.

Half of the cut-flowers imported to Canada are Colombian, according to statistics from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. In the past, importers paid a tariff of between six and 10 per cent to protect Canadian producers, but as of August 2011 tariffs were eliminated, opening the market.

"We were not consulted during the process of signing the agreement. We certainly provided our concerns but they went unanswered," says Renaud. "Canada’s interest in signing the agreement with Colombia certainly had many benefits for many other industries so we were the sacrificial lamb."

In an email, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade stated that, "Officials are committed to maintaining an open dialogue with Canadian stakeholders, including from the Canadian flower industry."

Wilting business

The impact of the free trade agreement hits hardest in central Canada. Ontario is the third largest producer of flowers in North America, behind California and Florida. British Columbia comes in fourth.

In addition to fighting Colombian imports, the Canadian flower industry is also struggling to maintain its exports. According to statistics from Agriculture Canada, 98 per cent of the flowers exported from Ontario and British Columbia go to the United States. In 2002, exports amounted to approximately $500 million, whereas in 2010 exports were approximately $300 million.

It is disheartening to see greenhouses closing their doors

A rise in the value of the Canadian dollar and increased transportation costs have hurt exports.

As a result, flower growers are now looking for niche geographic and floriculture markets where they can remain competitive.

One idea is to focus on plants that are much heavier and too delicate to travel long distances such as gerberas and sunflowers.

"The problem is that most people do not know what is local," says Laura Schouwenaar, marketing assistant at PickOntario, an association of Ontario flower farmers that promotes local produce. “So we spend a lot of money also trying to market our industry, making sure people know what is local."

 Some results, some answers

"We understand that the [Canada-Colombia] agreement does help other Canadian industries like wheat, and we respect that, but we do need some help," says Arjan Vos, controller for RosaFlora, a cut flower grower in Dunnville, Ont.

According to Renaud, the federal government has done little to no new assessments to see the impact of the trade agreement on Canadian floriculture. The only studies released have been done by the industry.

A greenhouse full of white, red, and pink flowersMicroclimates in Canadian greenhouses allow flowers to grow during all seasons.

"In our membership we know that 50 out 300 flower growers, went out of business," says Schouwenaar. “It is disheartening to see greenhouses closing their doors."

RosaFlora has tried to cut expenses by using windmills and other alternate sources of energy for their greenhouses. But they say this can only help so much, and that long-term answers lie elsewhere.

"There are programs like the Risk Management Program in Ontario," says Vos. "But we are currently not a part of it and it would be a big help if we were."

The risk management program helps producers maintain business after situations arise that are out of their control.

"This Valentine’s Day will certainly help us assess the industry overall," says Renaud. "We hope to be able to go to federal government soon and present our official findings so that we can get something underway."

Canadian Flowers

Most of these flowers are found in greenhouses across Ontario, British Columbia, and parts of Quebec. Availability depends on market area and season. Some of these include:

  • Gerbera Daises
  • Alstroemeria
  • Sunflowers
  • Iris
  • Tulips
Colombian Flowers

Due to natural warm weather, most of these flowers are available all year long and shipped daily in mass to foreign markets. Usually flowers are shipped within 48 hours. Some of these include: 

  • Roses
  • Carnations
  • Chrysanthemum and pompons
  • Alstroemerias
  • Andreanums