Newspaper article International New York Times

Netherlands Losing Hold on Global Flower Trade

Newspaper article International New York Times

Netherlands Losing Hold on Global Flower Trade

Article excerpt

An auction system that helped make flowers as synonymous with the Dutch identity as windmills is being buffeted by a variety of forces.

Each weekday morning, the buyers descend on Aalsmeer, about a half-hour southwest of Amsterdam, arriving at an enormous warehouse covering some two million square meters.

They squeeze onto benches, glare at computer screens and, with the push of a button, bid on an encyclopedic array of flowers: everything from amaryllis, chrysanthemums and gerbera to kangaroo paws, roses and, of course, the famed Dutch tulips.

Then, from nearby Schiphol airport, the flowers can be sent across the planet. Today, more than half of the world's cut flowers are bought and sold at the auction here, which has been the hub of the global flower trade since the early 20th century.

But that system, which helped make flowers as synonymous with the Dutch identity as wooden shoes and windmills, is in the midst of an upheaval, buffeted by changes that are revolutionizing the business and upending traditions.

"We've had this system that has been very dominant for more than a hundred years that is more or less changing or disappearing," said Herman de Boon, the chairman of the Dutch Flower Wholesale Association.

Concerns about carbon dioxide emissions and the cost of jet fuel have steadily squeezed the global transportation network, even as more growers have moved from Europe to warmer, and less expensive, climates in Africa over the last decade.

Then there has been the growth of presales and direct shipping. Today, virtually anyone with an Internet connection and a buyer's license can bid via computer at the auction without actually having to come and inspect the stems.

"It was more fun 10 years ago," Marco Schouten, a buyer for FloriBizz who purchases roses for florists in Italy and Spain, said during a break in the bidding one recent morning. "There was noise and friendship."

Even so, the flower industry -- still more than 5 percent of the Netherlands' gross domestic product -- has been remarkably resilient, adapting to its changing climate far faster than many of its flowers have.

Geert Hageman, a veteran tulip grower, explained why, for instance, Triflor, his tulip business, had not suffered even during Europe's lingering economic troubles. Because people have less money to pay for vacations and evenings out, he said, they tend to stay home, where they crave a relatively cheap luxury in a time of austerity.

"In Europe, if you don't have flowers in the house, it just looks naked," Mr. Hageman said, surveying the work of a half-dozen workers pulling young tulips from movable flower beds at one of his greenhouses in Oude Niedorp, a tiny village about an hour north of Amsterdam. …

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