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Outside/In: A Pandemic-Fueled Global Flower Shortage

Logan Shannon
Flowers for sale

Nearly every industry has been impacted, in some way or another, by the COVID-19 pandemic -- including the cut flower business.

To learn more about the impact of the pandemic on the flower industry, producer Taylor Quimby spoke with Phebe Robinson-Higgins, owner of Grace and Floral Co., a wedding and event floral company in New Hampshire, and Popped with Phebe, an online mentorship and coaching program for floral designers.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Taylor Quimby: You're like a florist whisperer, is what it sounds like to me.

Phebe Robinson-Higgins: Oh, I love that term. That's awesome.

Quimby: So, what happened to all of the flowers that I assume were ready to go out when businesses were shut down? Did all those just sort of wilt away?

Robinson-Higgins: Actually, yeah. Millions of flowers just went away, like poof, overnight. I mean, we were watching videos from farms across the country not being able to move their flowers anywhere. So, as a floral designer living in New Hampshire, I am sourcing flowers sometimes as far as South America, Holland, Japan, and I'm sourcing them from these very, very large farms. And they were facing a couple of things: not just they can't move their product, but now they don't necessarily have the people either.

Quimby: Oh, right. Because everybody is stuck home.

Robinson-Higgins: Exactly. And everyone stuck at home. So, once these farms began to downsize... that's really what led us to where we are in 2021, where we have a huge flower shortage right now.

Now, we are all out of place where we are opening back up, and now we have this greater need. And we're all reaching for all these fabulous blooms, and there are not enough blooms to supply us all.

Quimby: Let me paraphrase to make sure I'm getting this correctly. At the very beginning [of the pandemic], all of a sudden they've got too much product. So, they're having to trash it, burn it, get rid of it, and they're downsizing the staffing, and so they basically planted less. And now that demand is rising, there's just fewer flowers to go around.

Robinson-Higgins: Correct. So, as floral designers, we're having to pivot a little bit for the first time in my life -- and I've always had a green thumb -- I said, oh, my gosh, I've got to put some flower beds in.

I put in these beautiful garden beds, and I started a very small cutting garden, things that I knew that I would need, that I could have access to that were easy to grow. Many of us started doing that. The other thing that we started doing is to really work with our fellow local flower farmers.

But, gosh, what a year.

Quimby: What about just general consumer behavior because of the pandemic? You know, did you see any shifts in how people are buying flowers and when they want them?

Robinson-Higgins: So, as an event florist, it's a little tricky for me to talk about the retail side because I'm not brick and mortar, but I can speak from what I was seeing from my peers.

Last Mother's Day, I was so excited to see such a big win for floral designers across the country. People were saying that it was the biggest and best Mother's Day that they had ever had.

People were not seeing their loved ones. So, even more so, they wanted to spoil them with flowers. They wanted to see them on their tables. They wanted to send them off to people.

So the retail side of floral design and brick and mortar florists was actually booming. And I think it's still doing quite well. For those of us that are very focused in a specific niche, like events, whether that be weddings, baby showers, bridal showers... we really saw an instant drop, but retail florists did pretty well.

Quimby: It sounds like things have really started to shift. Where do you think things are going to go or is it too hard to predict?

Robinson-Higgins: Oh, it's still tough to predict. But if I had to, I would say I see a growing number of flower farmers. I see them expanding to have larger operations due to supply and demand this year.

I see more retail and more event florists relying on local and supporting local than we ever have in the past. I see a lot of us beginning to grow small cutting gardens to support our business. And I see there's going to be some struggle for some years to come when it comes to buying from these large distributors [and] our supplier wholesalers like South America and Holland and Japan and maybe even some of the farms in California.

I think we're going to get through it, and we're going to be okay. I always say to everyone that florists, we are resilient. Just think about how a flower grows and the conditions they grow in. That’s exactly how a florist grows and the conditions we have to grow in. Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes they're unpredictable, but we always get through it.

Taylor Quimby is Supervising Senior Producer of the environmental podcast Outside/In, Producer/Reporter/Host of Patient Zero, and Senior Producer of the serialized true crime podcast Bear Brook.
Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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