Flight cancellations hurt flower industry from Amsterdam to Africa

BRUSSELS, Belgium — “When it’s spring again, I’ll bring again, tulips from Amsterdam …” except, that is, when a giant cloud of volcanic dust shuts down Europe’s air space.

Dutch flower traders have been among the companies hardest hit by the flight ban across Europe that has blocked the export routes of their highly perishable products.

Millions of tulips and other blooms that, at this time of the year, would normally be winging their way across the Atlantic from the flowerbeds of Holland have been grounded. Exporters have being forced to throw them in the trash.

“This is the time of all the spring flowers, so it’s affecting us even more than 9/11 did,” said Paul Hoogenboom, managing director of Holex Flower, the leading Dutch air freighter of cut flowers.

“At that time [after 9/11] we could not ship flowers for a week, but that was not the busy time of the year of us, so this is twice or three times as bad,” Hoogenboom said in a telephone interview.

It’s not only Dutch exporters whose trade is wilting under the fallout from the Icelandic volcano. Blooms from around the world are bought and sold in the vast international market at Aalsmeer and smaller auction houses around the Netherlands that serve as the sector’s international hub.

East African nations have been hit particularly hard. In Kenya, thousands of workers in the horticultural sector are being laid off and tons of flowers destroyed. That is a severe blow to a country where the flower sales are the second biggest foreign exchange earner after tea, bringing in a much-needed $500 million a year to the economy and employing up to 60,000 people.

(Read about how Kenya is coping as flowers wilt and fruits and vegetables rot.)

The Kenyan flower industry estimates it’s already had to dump 3,000 tons of roses and other blossoms due to the closure of its biggest markets in Europe.

“We have handled drought, El Nino and the post-election violence, but we have not seen anything like this,” Stephen Mbitihi, chief executive of the French Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, told the Daily Nation newspaper in Nairobi.

Almost 70 percent of Kenya’s flower exports pass through the Dutch flower exchanges on their way to markets across Europe and beyond.

“Today was the first auction where we could see the effect of the volcano and the ash in the air on our business,” said Marcel Claessen, managing director of the Aalsmeer market, the world’s second largest building.

He said volume was down by between 15 and 20 percent on Monday as the flight ban chokes off the supply of flowers imported from outside Europe.

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.