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Flight cancellations hurt flower industry from Amsterdam to Africa

Millions of tulips and other flowers are being tossed in the trash as the volcanic ash shuts down flights.

Imports represent about a quarter of the 12 billion flowers traded every year by the FloraHolland cooperative that runs Aalsmeer and five other auction houses, with an annual turnover of about 4 billion euros. Kenya is by far the biggest exporter, followed by Israel, Ethiopia and Ecuador.

“As of [today] we expect that the impact will go up to 25 percent of the total flower volume,” Claessen said. “The African growers have definitely had a bad day, because they simply have to throw away the flowers at their end.”

Traders are seeking to get around the northern European flight ban by using airports in southern Europe to bring flowers in from Africa, South America and the Middle East, and fly them out to markets in North America and Asia. But the ash-free Spanish airports are fast becoming bottlenecks and the delay can prove fatal in a trade where the freshness of the blooms is crucial.

“Over the weekend we have trucked some flowers to Spain to fly shipments from Barcelona and Madrid to the U.S.,” Hoogenboom said. “We’re doing everything we can, but that’s 10 to 20 percent of what we normally do … . Everybody wants to go through Spain now, so everybody is fighting for that limited freight space.”

The logjam is particularly galling for the exporters since besides the usual spring rush for flowers, this week is “Administrative Professionals’ Week” in North America, when many of the about 4.6 million secretaries working in Canada and the United States can traditionally expect a bouquet from their bosses.

The scarcity need not push prices up too much in the U.S, if the flight ban does not last much longer, since prices were low to begin with, Hoogenboom said. However, some prices were rising on the Dutch wholesale auctions Monday, providing a boon for local farmers who were able to fill gaps in the European market left by the lack of outside competition.

Hoogenboom said his company was left with about 25 tons of unsold flowers on its hands after the weekend, with a market value of up to $400,000. Most will have to be dumped, but the company is trying to find something useful to do with some before they wither.

“We’ve also donated flowers to a couple of hospitals, so at least we can make some people happy with the product on these days when we are feeling kind of sad,” he said.