Virus throttles Florida's lucrative ornamental plant industry

HOMESTEAD, United States – The palm trees that line many United States boulevards, the orchids sold in supermarkets, the bushes that form park hedges – many of these plants come from Florida. And sales have collapsed due to the coronavirus lockdown.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a sudden halt to this year's crop, throttling the industry just as it was reaching high season with the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere.

"This is the period that the hibiscus is blooming. If we don't sell them, we're going to have to eat it in our salad," said Francisco Gonzalez, the owner of Primavera Nursery, a small nursery in Homestead, just south of Miami.

Florida and California produce nearly half of all ornamental plants in the United States – plants sold to builders, landscapers, supermarkets, and Home Depots and Walmarts across the country.

Traditionally March – precisely when coronavirus lockdowns began in the US – is when American buyers begin to focus on landscaping and gardening.

"The whole year we've been waiting for this moment and we're faced with this calamity," sighed Gonzalez, 46, a native of Guatemala.

Across 6 hectares Primavera Nursery produces 70 different types of ornamental plants, including ficus, croton, clusia, and heliconia, hardly essentials for those in lockdown across the US.

"Sales for April are nearly 60% below where we should be," said Gonzalez, who had invested money to expand production for this season.

"We should be...about 125% above compared to last year," he said.

Rampant unemployment

Gonzalez has cut working hours for his 11 employees, hoping to extend their jobs for two more weeks. But he fears he will have to let them go if the market doesn't recover.

"With this disease, the last thing that people are going to worry about is buying these kinds of plants," said Antonio Tovar, general coordinator of the Farmworkers Association of Florida. "The whole market has collapsed."

As for ornamental plant growers, "90% of the workers have lost their job," Tovar told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

It is hard to know how many farmworkers have been affected in Florida because the vast majority are undocumented – an open secret in the agricultural world.

These workers are off the books, with no access to unemployment benefits or the emergency federal aid check for employees.

Since the coronavirus pandemic struck the US in mid-March some 22 million Americans have been left without a job.

Please fix your garden

Forty-five percent of the $4.7 billion generated nationwide in ornamental plant sales comes from just Florida and California, according to a May 2019 US Department of Agriculture report.

Agriculture is Florida's second most lucrative business sector after tourism.

Within that sector, the ornamental plants industry generates 28% of cash receipts, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

"Few people may be aware of the importance of this industry...because everyone relates Miami to Miami Beach and tourism," said Vanessa Campoverde, a University of Florida expert who gives technical aid to ornamental nurseries.

"But agriculture and the commercial ornamental industry is a huge economic impact driver, because it employs a lot of individuals," she told AFP.

Furthermore, with fewer workers there will be less care available for the health and quality of the plants.

"If it has maybe 1, 2, or 3 spots on some leaves or even on the flowers – you'll think twice" if you want to pay full price for the plant, she said.

The solution? Buy some plants and work on your garden. "Gardening can actually provide some mental health wellness during the isolation," she said.

And remember that behind every plant "there are farm workers, there are families that depend on their salaries." – Rappler.com