Flowers can be as slow as food. Km 0 blooms are increasingly popular in anglo-saxon countries while in Italy very few people talk about them. And it’s a pity, because they would be ideal for our marketplace.
The 0 km or slow flower business is to organic food what 2017 is to the early 80s. When organic farming only involved small groups of producers, consumers and environmental movements and the market was so niche that envisaging a turnover of 4.8 billion with double-digit annual growth (Italian data for 2016) would have generated general skepticism.
The success of bio food at the table is the main argument of those who say that the time is ripe to open the flower market to local production, better if seasonal.
This would mean to bring back to its origins a small niche of the overall market which is a global reality since the early ’90s, billing 43 billion euros yearly (70 if we include nursery products), with the Netherlands acting as a place for international exchange and 72% of the cuts coming from Kenya, Colombia, Israel and Ecuador.
But, from a consumer perspective, why should we be interested in the origin of the flowers we buy as vegetables?
«Motivations are mainly ethical, linked to environmental and social sustainablity, the same ones that push people to choose organic and Fair Trade products», says Francesco Mati, president of the Federazione nazionale florovivaistica di Confagricoltura. «Few people know that the flower they buy at home has traveled tens of thousands of kilometers on a Dutch Boeing, spent three days in a refrigerator, was sold in an auction and finally arrived in Italy with an airplane before doing the last hundreds of kilometers on the road. And that despite all its travelling, the flower is cheap because in most countries (Colombia and Kenya) where export floriculture is practiced, workers – who are often women and children – are not protected in any way and exploitation is the rule. But Italians should also have another reason for wanted Slow Flowers: their rebirth would support our nursery gardening sector, which was once a herald of Made in Italy. And it should and could return to being it».
FLOWERS LIKE FASHION, DESIGN AND FOOD? «Absolutely. Because in Italy our production, once based on quantity, has gradually changed to focus on quality and research and development, precisely to face the crisis that began with globalization. We are leaders, for example, in the creation of royalty protected varieties to be cultivated all over the world: Andrea Mansuino of Imperia, world president of the Association of hybridizers of roses, is one of the most important creators in the world. Italians are also famous for the design of buttercups.
Italy would do a great job to invest in a short-chain, organic and sustainable flower production. Not to counter globalization but to create new ethically motivated niche markets, cultured and able to recognize a product with added value: the equivalent of organic tomato, which costs something more but is better and more ethical».
It is an approach that is working in England, and that was born in the wake of the success of organic food. «The penetration of organic and local goods on the table is such that the public is starting to demand similar criteria for flowers», says the English florist Jen Stuart-Smith who founded Blooming Green Flowers in Maidstone, Kent, where she grows local blooms (rigorously from April to September, and with organic methods) to sell them to whoever can come to pick them up.
A pioneer of the Slow Flowers movement (which she undertook almost ten years ago), Stuart-Smith now feels less alone: from 2011 the floriculturists looking for a rebirth of local cutscenes have joined by creating Flowers From The Farm and growing their weight on the English market. According to the latest report from the National Farmers Union, the value of the local flower market has risen in just one year from 10 to 12% of the total. And + 2% may seem a little but it is not, considering that it is a battle between David and Goliath: on the one hand a handful of small farmers without state subsidies or laboratories, which are promoted at the British Flowers Week (New Covent Garden of London), and on the other hand Dutch giants, supported by the state, high tech research centers and a unique logistic system in the world. The same is happening in the US, where the local flowers represent 20% of the total market thanks to the creation of the American Grown certification system.
KM 0: ON THE PLATE BUT IN THE GARDEN? In Italy, quality, sustainability and ethical production are issues that, when it comes to flowers, do not interest consumers. Above all for ignorance. This is confirmed by the great florists like Andrea Daneri of Numero Nove in Milan, which also supplies the luxury hotels of Milan. «People are used to considering having peonies in December. Few people know that flowers have been around the world, or in what conditions they get picked up. And since flowers are not eaten, the attention to the organic is non-existent».
It is therefore a matter of culture above all. In order for the Slow Flowers to succeed, even in Italy it would take a double push, as it happened for the food industry: from above, through a targeted communication of the nursery associations, and from the bottom, through the creation of a market, niche but trendy, able to act as a tow. To achieve this, according to experts it is necessary to act on two fronts: image and price.
«Slow Flowers work where the flower is perceived as an object of daily pleasure that is worth buying for itself, to feel happier and furnish the house», says Margherita Lombardi, agronomist and author of italianbotanicaltrips.com. «In Italy, however, bunches are bought only for big occasions. And they cost a lot, too much. Because if it is true that the quality flower can not be low cost, often the imported one also reaches discouraging prices, which push us further away from this change of pace»
LOW COST FLOWERS WITH NO EXPLOITATION
Edwin Koeman e Nitsuhe Wolanios are trying to reach a balance between quality, local production and affordable prices. The Dutch couple has planted in a large piece of land in Cornaredo (Milano) 250 thousands tulips of 185 varieties: they sell them for 1,50 euro each to whoever wishes to pick them up, 7 days per week, from 9 am till 7:30 pm, until the end of the season (info: tulipani-italiani.it). And Giulia Giontella, the real Slow Flowers pioneer in Italy with her Flority Fair in Roma, sells bunches of local flowers that are delivered at home under subscription (9,90 per bunch).
How is it possible to arrive at such a low price without compromising quality, sustainable commitment and ethics? «Working by subscription: I only buy the quantities I have already sold from suppliers», explains Giontella. «And I decide what to put in the bunches: my customers trust my taste and accept the seasonality of the offer, which sometimes bends to market needs to keep the price under control. For example, white roses are seasonal in May and June, but they have exorbitant prices because it’s time for weddings, so I do not deliver them. I also save money on packaging and preparation: my flowers are delivered in paper bags. They are full of earth, bloom at home and last twice as long as the others. And to know how to clean and maintain them I created online tutorials».
Giulia – who is a lawyer – turned into a Slow Flowers seller after a career as a reporter for Bloomberg Business and SkyTG24, when she was travelling a lot and bought a bunch in every hotel she checked in, to make it feel like home. «The low cost side of my offer is fundamental. Because the subscriptions on the one hand served as the beginning for more profitable activities (courses, weddings, soon the Airbnb Experiences of which they are one of the ten testimonials of Rome) and on the other are creating a culture of the locality and the seasonality of flowers in my city.
I do not think I can change the world. But I would like to try to slow down – as much as I can – the process of globalization, give meaning to the small things that can make life more beautiful and full. And that, in the case of flowers, they literally grow under our noses».