Covid-19 hit the global flower trade hard. Losing $1.5bn in 2020, leading flower farming countries such as Kenya and Colombia were unable to export, leaving an industry of workers unemployed. And, in Australia, the downturn was also severe.
“We went out of production for a few months in 2020,” says Robert Piccolo, who runs Queensland’s Basilisk Blooms with his wife, Heidi. “We couldn’t send stock to Sydney or Melbourne because of the borders closing. It was dire at first.”
Although the Piccolos’ family-run farm struggled through 2020 – and business did not pick up again until borders reopened around Christmas – they say fewer imports are now leading people to source their plants locally.
“It really helped us get through hard times,” Piccolo says.
He expects local rose growers’ sales will be 30-40% higher this Valentine’s Day. A similar spike in demand hit local growers around Mother’s Day last year.
The Flower Industry Australia chief executive, Anne Jabour, estimates that, pre-Covid, 10m red roses were imported into Australia every Valentine’s Day. This year, however, she says, things are different.
“What I’ve heard from every rose grower I’ve spoken to is that they’re run off their feet,” she says. “It’s really brilliant to hear.”
When contacted by Guardian Australia, a rose grower and florist in the Sydney suburb of Dural said: “We are flat out doing orders for Valentine’s Day.”
However Jabour says “the impact of Covid on the local growers industry is different for everyone”.
Kristy Tippett is the owner of Soho Rose Farm, in Dean, Victoria, which specialises in fragrant roses for weddings and events. She has been selling flowers for Valentine’s Day from a pop-up shop in Ballarat.
“We had to think out of the box, for how else I can move and sell my flowers?” she says.
About 95% of Soho Rose Farm’s work pre-Covid came from weddings and events. With Covid restrictions causing the cancellation or downsizing of major events, demand for Tippett’s roses has shrunk tenfold, the farm making only a quarter of its usual revenue in 2020.
Originally a business of seven staff members, Soho Rose Farm is now running with two.
However, Tippett is trying to look on the bright side.
“[Covid] has opened consumers’ and florists’ eyes to buying local flowers,” she says. “Now that florists are unable to locate supplies from cheaper overseas imports, they’re having to look internally.
“I just hope in the long term that the relationships florists and consumers are establishing with local growers in this quieter time will stick around in the long term.”
Consumers and florists, she believes, need to be educated on what they are buying, where it is coming from and who is growing it.
Angus van der Zwet, from the family-led growers of Maxiflora in Victoria, echoes this sentiment.
“It comes down to education, which, with imports majorly reduced, has improved in the face of Covid,” he says.
New bodies are pursuing education and regulatory improvement, including Jabour’s Flower Industry Australia. Though it is the largest organisation supporting Australia’s florists and flower growers, it is only a year old, formed during the pandemic by florists and scientists to urge the public to see value in locally grown flowers.
“If people can buy locally grown flowers, they will,” says Van der Zwet, stressing the importance of country of origin labelling – an initiative Jabour is pushing with Flower Industry Australia in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture.
“If you walk into Woolworths, food produce will be labelled as either locally grown or imported. But with flowers, they don’t have to do that.”
He says that the kangaroo paw Australians see and buy, for instance, although originally a plant native to Australia, is actually imported from Israel.
“It’s an issue because people think they’re buying locally grown produce when they’re not.”
Beyond lax measures to tackle pests and diseases, imported flowers’ toll on the environment “must be realised”, Jabour says.
“Covid is the perfect opportunity for bodies like Flower Industry Australia to inform people of the problems with flower imports, and the benefits of local growers,” Van der Zwet says.
Jabour says that she is seeing a change in consumers, florists, nurseries and wholesalers.
“They’re starting to ask where their flowers are from, and are supporting the Australian flower industry in doing so.”