Dutch in Horticulture

It is impossible to be around the floriculture industry for any length of time without running into the Dutch. They are everywhere. Hang around with growers all over the world or visit flower trade shows in America, Africa, Asia, or Europe and you will always hear some Dutch accent somewhere in the room. This is the industry of the Dutch which we have exported to the rest of the world.

The Netherlands got into business over 400 years ago. In those days the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the West India Company (WIC)dominated the world trade in spices, furs, sugar and coffee. Turkey was an important trading partner for the Dutch and flowers native to Turkey made their way to European gardeners through Turkish-Dutch trade routes.

In 1593 the first collection of tulip bulbs arrived in Holland. A sultan in Turkey gave some tulip bulbs to the Austrian Ambassador, which gave it to his friend and scientist Carlos Clusius. Soon after Carlos Clusius got the tulip bulbs Carlos became chairman of Hortus Botanicus in Leiden (see also) and so Holland had there first tulips flowering in 1594. The Dutch liked the tulip and soon after that started the tulip mania, wealthy Dutch merchants outbid each other at auctions to make a quick profit. At the peak of the tulip mania, tulip bulbs could be traded for for the price of a canal house. In early 1637 the Dutch tulip market crashed, the bidding of a pound of tulips stared at 1250 Guilders. No one bid. Despite of the crash of the market the Dutch keep on working with their flowers and keep on dominating the flower world until today. Even though cut flower growing has been moving out of Holland for over a century first to the United States and later to countries around the equator, the Dutch still export new varieties, growing techniques and greenhouse technology. The Dutch also own the most patents on flower varieties around the world and setting worldwide prices trough the auctions.


In 2001 Erik van Berkum joined the flower industry and dedicated all his working time to chrysanthemum breeding and sales, Erik has been doing this work untill November 2007. Erik van Berkum has sold all chrysanthemum varieties on a global scale, for which Erik has to travel ed at least 100 days a year. In those 7 years Erik van Berkum has visited 35 countries. If you are interested in his whole career have a look at the Curriculum of Erik van Berkum. You can also have a look at Eriks’ world map for the places he has visited during his life.

Erik van Berkum Chrysanthemum things

Chrysanthemum breeding variety selection shift to production areas



The interaction between breeders and growers in major production areas can turn once redundant codes into gold. Redundant codes being all the individual plants assigned a number by a breeder in the initial stages of a breeding program, but which never actually achieve the final status of a commercial variety.

by Erik van Berkum

How often in the past have breeders chosen to throw away a coded plant during the selection phase because they were unsuitable for the domestic market? This number can rise into the thousands since, on an annual basis, of 2,000 plants produced and denoted by a breeding code, it is not unusual that only 5 to 10 coded plants ultimately achieve the status of a commercial variety. How often does a variety selected and tested locally fail to perform to the same potential under different climatic conditions? Are all growers around the world benefiting from the new selections and improved varieties? The internationalization of the cut flower industry does not allow breeders to ignore these questions. Coded plants not matching the demands of one region, for example, can be very suitable and profitable in other parts of the world. How can a breeder make sure selections categorized as waste are not gold to growers elsewhere?


The answers to these different questions have encouraged a higher level of breeder-grower interaction in recent years. As an example, the chrysanthemum breeding activities of Deliflor in the Netherlands have been extended to create a testing program in the most important chrysanthemum markets. Major production areas are Japan, Holland and Colombia while the worlds three major consumption markets are Europe, Japan and the United States. Commercial testing in Italy, Malaysia and Japan is complemented by the company’s own testing facilities in Medelli­n, Colombia. The latter location delivering varieties with a consumer preference in the United States and suited to the growing conditions in the Medelli­n climate.

Speed of improvement
Mother plants produced in El Carmen de Viboral, nearby Medellin, are used to source the disease free plant material for the growers; a major point of concern for the Colombian farms is that cuttings are not hygienic and can be full of diseases. A strict hygiene protocol is necessary; commercial varieties are tested twice a year for viroid and each selection has their own set of gloves, so that if one selection becomes contaminated the diseases will not be spread by the workers during the picking of the cuttings. The traditional supply of in vitro material from Holland has disadvantages of being slow and more difficult to handle compared to the locally grown cuttings. For these imported plants, over a year is required before it is in full production. Allowing for the time period required for the farm to propagate this material, the breeders will have made other new selections and improvements to existing varieties. This system can mean that the farms are more or less three years behind in the cultivation of the latest varieties, compared to growers that buy cuttings directly.

pick cuttings

The Dutch breeders make at least four visits a year to Colombia to see how the work is progressing and to remain familiar with the market. Trials undertaken close to the growers own farms does permit easy contact. The visits to the farms are a means of quick feedback about the performance of varieties. Any problems arising with a particular variety can be recognised and reacted to quickly. During these visits, there is also an opportunity to show and ask the grower’s opinion about potential new varieties. Advice is given to the growers if they specifically ask technical production questions, but otherwise this remains the responsibility of the many good technical engineers in the region.

A necessary boost
On a business level, the last three years have not been easy for the farms in Colombia. The quality of living has made enormous progress, but the appreciation of the peso with respect to the dollar is giving the farms some serious problems. The necessary investments are not commonly being made and instead of investing in new production methods and automation, many farms are forced to cut costs, with many negative aspects for the cut flower sector in general.

Flores sylvestres

Despite these developments, the future is very positive for the Colombian flower sector. America will keep on buying flowers and Colombia will keep on producing them. Air freight and labour costs will be the two biggest challenges to keep under control. Fortunately, the sea transport routes from Cartagena to Miami are relatively short, which offers many possibilities to save on transport costs. To save on labour costs, Colombian growers will have to invest in automation. In this respect, Colombian growers can learn a lot from the Dutch growers, but they will have to keep in mind the different circumstances in Colombia and search for practical solutions together.

From the online version of FloraCulture International July 2007 Page 34, 35

this post was earlier posted on: http://www.maripositas.org/index.php?title=Variety_selections_shift_to_production_areas

One Farm’s Decision to Change

Ernesto Velez, a U.C. Davis graduate in agronomy is president of Asocolflores’ Board of Directors and his wife, Lucie Velez, an Australian born nurse by training are the owners of Suasuque S.A., a flower farm in the Bogotá region. They have created a model for positive change in the area of labor standards and integrated pest management (IPM). Ernesto’s interest in IPM can be traced back to a 1993 conference in sustainable development that took place in Asilomar, California. Although his participation was scheduled at the last minute, when another speaker had to bow out, the conference resulted in the gradual transformation of his farming practices that is still ongoing.  Due to her nursing background, Lucie has a longstanding interest in health issues and has worked to develop programs that improve their employees’ living standard.


The Velez family credits their academic backgrounds and their willingness to experiment and take risks as key factors in Suasuque’s achievements. According to Ernesto, the process has been very rewarding, but it has taken a lot of time, work and effort. The first phase in this transformation included very rudimentary forms of insect and pest monitoring, aided by a university student conducting her thesis research on insect populations and native plants. Today Ernesto is able to identify, select, and reproduce beneficial insects for biological control purposes. He also uses some native plants as natural barriers for pest control and others to attract beneficial insects. In his farm, reliance on ground water was also reduced by recycling water and collecting rain water in reservoirs. In part, this was all made possible by the selection of particular flowers to grow, with Suasuque focusing on varieties that are in demand, yet more robust. Compared even to other growers producing the same varieties, though, Suasuque has a stellar record.


Since 1993, Suasuque S.A. has been gradually applying biological control methods for cut flower production and the results in some areas have been outstanding. For instance, from an industry average use of active chemicals of 150 kilograms per hectare per year, in 2003, Suasuque S.A., reduced its application level to 3 kilograms per hectare per year. This astounding reduction in the application of agrochemicals means lower production costs and reduced health hazards and environmental degradation. According to Ernesto, IPM can be very effective in flower production as long as growers make a strong commitment to and abide by IPM practices.


In regard to workers’ issues, Lucie has been at the forefront of a major industry initiative – Cultivemos Paz en Familia (CPF – Cultivating Peace in the Family). That program was created to train employees in alternative conflict resolution techniques. Colombia is unfortunately a country marked by heavy violence and that has seemed to transfer to the home environment and in some cases, to the workplace. CPF is a system of worker training that includes expert moderated sessions at work and items to take home, such as a conflict resolution coloring book, and work through with family members. The program is now sponsored by Asocolflores and has been spreading throughout the industry, with more than 20,000 workers trained.

Growers’ Resistance

Growers’ Resistance


Some of the growers are likely resisting improvements for tradition reasons – bad management skills, absence of necessary technical knowledge, unwillingness (or inability due to limited capital) to take the risks associated with a shift to integrated pest management, cost-cutting strategy that ignores employee and environmental needs, etc.  In some cases, however, growers resist actions because of a general antagonism toward the foreign pressure groups or a belief that they cannot maintain a competitive position if they pursue a high standards, high cost strategy.  


Some growers view the foreign pressure for change cynically, simply as an extension of the protectionist efforts of industrialized country agricultural interests that have targeted a host of agricultural commodities from less industrialized countries. This perception is supported by the participation of many industrialized country growers groups and labor unions, in the international campaigns. Those groups would clearly benefit from declining floral imports.[1]  The growers see wealthy, industrialized country interest brand them as members of the national elite, when often, they are simply people who had access to education and then started small farms that grew with the industry.


Further, many in the industry resent the fact that the foreign groups are unwilling to admit the positive aspects of the industry, nor do they report improvements that have occurred. For example, an ILO report points out that the flower industry pays above average wages and several firms provide benefits above the legal requirements,[2] but foreign pressure groups often report only the hourly wage and leave readers to compare that to wages in industrialized economies that are, not surprisingly, much higher.  The film that started it all, Love, Women and Flowers, continues to be shown even though it describes conditions that are seventeen years old. Websites and action materials contain references to studies done eight or more years ago.[3] On top of it all, the Colombians often find themselves lumped with Ecuador[4], a competing grower that they believe has substantially lower standards. Finally, they point out the fact that the pesticide problems are found in industrialized countries as well. In California, a major agricultural center with many different types of crops, 23% of all pesticide poisonings occur in the relatively tiny flower industry.[5]


            There is also resistance on economic grounds. The Colombians recognize that they have many national competitors including Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, Kenya, the Philippines, and Thailand. New competitor countries seem to be cropping up constantly, with India and Vietnam, which recently destroyed the market for another one of Colombia’s products, coffee, entering the flower arena. Growers argue that it is unfair to target their operations simply because they are a major grower; other countries, they say are at least as bad. Further, the evidence is clear – most consumers in wealthy countries are not willing to pay more for products that assure high labor and environmental standards. The Colombians feel that if they pursue a high-cost, high standard strategy, they will simply be forced from the market and be replaced by other low quality manufacturers.


Given the complexity of the situation, are there effective strategies available for effecting change in the industry?

[1]For an article on US Flower growers efforts to fight imports from Colombia, see http://www.jrn.columbia.edu/studentwork/reutersjournal/trade/pg33.html. An article noting Colombian’s cynical view: http://www.globalmarch.org/cl-around-the-world/accusations-in-full-flower.php3

It should be noted, though, that in some cases, foreign union involvement occurs because those unions are supporting Colombian unions’ efforts to organize flower growers. See for example, the International Union of Food Workers  http://www.iuf.org.uk/en/.

[2] http://www.ilo.org/public/english/dialogue/sector/papers/workcolb/129e4.htm#h5

[3]For example, see a compelling article that is unfortunately from 1995: http://pangaea.org/street_children/latin/flower.htm  that asserts the use of child labor in the industry, even though Cactus, the Colombian NGO, says that illegal child labor has been eliminated http://www.globalmarch.org/cl-around-the-world/accusations-in-full-flower.php3.

Another recent online article cites Love, Women and Flowers as if it were a recent production:

[4]For a clear example of the confusion of Colombia and Ecuador see http://www.campaignforlaborrights.org/alerts/2003/may14-flowers.htm. This is particularly a problem for Colombians who resent Northamericans’ (as they call US nationals) tendency to ignore even the obvious differences across Latin American countries.

[5] http://www.laborrights.org/press/flowers_ABC_Feb04.htm