By Klarem Valoyes Gutierrez
TOCANCIPA -- The logistical challenges imposed by the coronavirus pandemic are not preventing Colombian growers from shipping more than 700 million flowers around the world for Valentine's Day.
Flowers may not qualify as essential goods, the pandemic has shown they "bear happiness and an air of hope" in uncertain times, Claudia Fuentes, commercial director of the Ayura nursery in Tocancipa, tells Efe.
Hours ahead of the flower industry's biggest day of the year, Ayura's 200 employees, most of them female heads of households, are working flat-out.
Last year, Ayura reduced planting ahead of Mother's Day due to concerns that demand would fall because of lockdowns and that transportation disruptions would make shipping difficult if not impossible.
But the firm decided on a different approach for Valentine's Day 2021.
"We said, 'we're not going to stop planting, we're not going to halt our production, instead we're going to be more cautious,'" Fuentes recounts. "We haven't gone very big, but we've gone with the conviction that enough time has passed and things had to change."
No one has been laid off, though the employees now work in shifts to facilitate social distancing.
And Ayura's wager has paid off, with better-than-expected sales of 3.5 million carnations and 1.2 million roses to clients in the United States - the destination of nearly 80 percent of Colombia's flower exports - and in countries as far away as Australia and South Korea.
"A holiday like Valentine's Day represents 30 percent of sales for us," Fuentes says. "From the nature of the business, it's an exceedingly important holiday."
After 14 years on the job at Ayura, Flor Maria Rodriguez can cut 360 carnations in an hour and she maintains that pace despite the adjustments made necessary by Covid-19.
She and her co-workers then classify the stems by size and color in preparation for their being arranged into attractive bouquets and packed for shipment.
Colombia - the world's largest grower of carnations, according to the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (Asocolflores) - has taken steps to preserve and bolster the production chain in an industry that employs some 140,000 people in the Andean nation.
"Thanks to that great effort, Colombian floriculture has managed to move forward and continue exporting its flowers. This is the first time we're going to have Valentine's Day in the pandemic. We prepared well ahead of time and the growers continue producing their flowers," Asocolflores president Augusto Solano tells Efe.
The companies he represents have had to be creative to cope with a shortage of air cargo capacity during the pandemic, as carriers prioritize shipments of vaccines and other vital medical items.
With annual exports of roughly 5.7 billion flowers to 100 countries, Colombia has 16 percent of the global market, second only the Netherlands with 48 percent.
While flowers are not a basic necessity like food, they share some significant qualities with agricultural goods, such as perishability and a requirement for constant attention during the production process, Solano points out.
"It was clear to us that to be able to continue operating we had to maintain healthy conditions in cultivation and we have achieved that," he says.
Asocolflores members expect to increase sales by 5 percent over Valentine's Day 2020, Solano says.
Ayura, whose sales plunged 20 percent in the early months of the pandemic, has recovered from that setback as conditions have eased and the industry has begun to shift from a model centered on selling to wholesalers to one based on direct sales to consumers.
"The pandemic had a very great impact on the way flowers are marketed in the sense that electronic commerce started to play a more important role, not only to send the flowers directly to consumers, but only that small businesses anywhere in the world venture to place those orders," Solano says.