September 29, 2018, outside Quito, Ecuador — “Oh Rose thou art sick” may be the only line of poetry I remember from my English class on William Blake. I also remember what our professor, Hazard Adams, said about that line: It’s rooted in reality; roses do get sick easily and often. And then Blake and the class wandered off into Los, Urizen, Oorthoon, Enitharmon and other fantastic Blake’s poetry and artwork.
The “Rose thou art sick” is stark reality based on my piddling rose-growing experience, mostly black leaf spots, spindling vines and little adherence to trellises.
So imagine if you had 99 acres of flowers to keep healthy so you could pick 50,000 blossoms a day. That would be the business of Merino Roses, outside Quito, Ecuador.
There are 422 companies growing flowers in Ecuador, most of them started in the few decades. The country is perfect for growing roses: the daylight on the Equator is consistent at 12 hours a day all year long, the weather is mostly the same. So now the country supports 700,000 acres of greenhouses.
The Merino company’s greenhouses each cover about one acre to grow 69 different flowers — 17 devoted to red roses. The greenhouses control the humidity and ultraviolet rays that can cause variation in blossom colors. Birds and beetles are kept out, and even pollinators such as bees are verboten since these hybrids want no natural you know what. Bamboo fences keep out the wind.
New plants take about four months for the first cut of blossoms, then two more months for the second cutting. After that, the plants can produce every 75 days. Those that don’t measure up go to the compost pile.
The blossoms are harvested, washed, climatized for seven hours, kept in a cooler for five hours and cooled slowly down to the temperatures in the planes that will take them to Europe, the USA and Japan.
The roses are cut according to each specific market. Some markets want short stems, some want longer ones — and the longest goes to . . . Russia. Six feet long and very leafy.
About three weeks before February 14 — Valentine Day — the 50,000 blossoms per day gets kicked up to 110,000 buds per day. The 175 employees are joined by about 50 percent more workers keeping the plant in operation 24 hours a day during this busy time.
The average wage in Ecuador, according to Maria, our Alexander & Roberts guide, is about $376 per month. The rose factory tops that by about $150 to $200 more. Plus workers get two meals per day, except for one on the half day on Saturday. Money for social security and hospitalization is withheld at 8.9 percent, and the employer also pays into the fund. The best thing about the job, says Maria, is that people don’t have to leave there community and move into the cities for jobs.
There is no room for slackers or slowpokes in this factory. Those on the lines sorting and packing flowers move quickly and efficiently to keep up. And the roses hold up very well compared to all they are put through in packaging.
The flower industry is much bigger than I would have thought until I read a New York Times article about what would happen when Britain splits from the European Union. Twelve billion flowers and plants are sold through Royal FloraHolland near Amsterdam — more than one third of the worldwide trade. One billion dollars of that goes to Britain, now with no tariffs, no custom inspections and no sanitary inspections. But Britain’s exit from the European Union is fast approaching and that could mean all the incumbrances to free trade listed above. As one flower shopkeeper in London said in the article: “People aren’t buying as much as they used to.”
With this much disruption in the bloom business this could be the