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Organic Flowers

Posted Oct 21 2008 12:13am

As the lavender and calendulas bloom wildly in my garden, I got to thinking about organic flowers and their commercial availability. That led me, of course, to Organic Bouquet, the market leader in organic flowers. Organic flowers are a sign of a trend fueled by those interested in both environmental and health issues. Our nation’s surge in organic flower production over the past couple years is a result of the realization of damage that pesticides do to the land and to flower farm workers, plus, let's face it, the gorgeous offerings from Organic Bouquet and the effective marketing effort it has done to reach mainstream consumers ready to make a difference with their dollars.

What's more, Organic Bouquet offers 28 different bouquets that donate 5% of the sale price to non-profit organizations dedicated to social justice, wildlife conservation, animal rights and environmental protection. There's something for everyone, and these charity bouquets let you truly "spread the love." To date, Organic Bouquet has donated more than $200,000 to charities that consumers choose themselves.

I requested an interview with Gerald Prolman, Organic Bouquet Founder and CEO recently and was requested to put questions in an email so Mr. Prolman could answer them after hours. I sent them off to the netherland of corporateness. Sometime during the night, I received four pages worth of answers from Mr. Prolman, his passion for what he does evident in almost every response. Have you gotten a response like that from a CEO lately?

Rather than attempt to paraphrase Mr. Prolman, I'd like to share with you some of his answers. I know this is a long post, but I found these answers quite illuminating and I hope you do, too.

Was there a defining moment when you decided to start Organic Bouquet?

It probably started with a thought a long while back when I was courting my wife. I was going to a particular florist in San Francisco each day to make a spectacular bouquet. I wanted to get her attention and let her know just how much I loved her. The flowers helped me to conquer her heart.

I enjoyed picking out the flowers for those early bouquets way back then and remember thinking to myself "what a nice job it is to be working with flowers" that thought surely went out to the universe and came right back to me 17 years later like a boomerang. I still bring home flowers all the time and she loves them everytime.

The seeds to start this business were planted a long while ago. I had always wondered why horticulture had been overlooked by the natural products trade. Most people don't realize that a significant amount of chemicals are used to grow flowers and that organic is a viable alternative.

I wanted to create a model where we could afford to pay the correct price to the grower for producing their crops in a responsible manner and offer a direct from farm experience to consumers at a reasonable value. I saw the internet as a great way to bridge the supply and market.

I have a fundamental belief that all farm products should be grown by sustainable methods. As there are laws against littering, the same should apply to how we treat the land that we live on.

People gravitated to organic products initially for personal health concerns over pesticide residues in their foods but there is more to organic than healthy foods. Organic is an environmental farming method that applies to all areas of agriculture weather it is tomatoes, cotton or flowers.

What has been the most surprising or rewarding part of your succes s?

To finally see orders pouring in after six long years in development.

I was deeply moved about a year ago when I attended a Breast Cancer Fund event in San Francisco. We had donated the flowers (Tulips from biodynamic bulbs) and I stopped by to check on the arrangements.

I found myself in the midst of more than a 100 brave woman who had survived cancer. Although everyone is surely interested in finding a cure, many of the speeches that night were focused on the root causes of cancer and I learned that this organization provided education and information to help woman eradicate a host of carcinogenic products from their everyday surroundings i.e. chemical cleaning products, non-organic- foods, conventional cosmetics….

The appreciation for our organic flowers was deeply expressed to me by many of the woman and this was quite a touching acknowledgment and a most rewarding moment for me personally.

Another fun event was when Organic Bouquet was named "official florist" for the United Nations World Environment Day, a historic event that took place in San Francisco June 1-5, 2005. In addition to the many organic floral arrangements we provided for all the events during the week, we sponsored and produced the official theme song for World Environment Day, written by gospel legend Edwin Hawkins (4x Grammy winner, "oh happy day"). We flew in a number of gold and platinum Gospel artists from around the country to record the song. It was a most happy day.

In addition, Organic Bouquet produced the closing ceremony on "Flower Power Day" Sixty seven mayors from major cities around the world had signed the historic San Francisco Urban Environmental accords, then they then walked a "green carpet" in front of city hall. Waiting for them was a 300 voice mass choir conducted by Edwin Hawkins, with celebrity gospel artists singing in front including Edwin Hawkins, Walter Hawkins, Tramaine Hawkins, The Three Bridges-from Nashville, Nona Brown and San Francisco's own-French Jazz superstar-- Raquel Bitton (my wife) It was a spectacular event, the mayors, dignitaries and guests were enthusiastically clapping and singing along with great joy. I then presented the song entitled UNITED NATIONS, TOGETHER WE CAN, to Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP and to the Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom.

In conjunction with the United Nations World Environment Day events that took place in San Francisco on June 1-5, Organic Bouquet organized and sponsored a Symposium entitled: Eco-Flower Power; Sustainability Trends for the Floral Industry, June 3, 2005. This was a private event for journalists, international dignitaries, environmental and floral industry experts.

Brennan Van Dyke, Director of UNEP North America opened the symposium and the panel included Katherine DiMatteo Executive Director at that time of the Organic Trade Association for North America, Jorge Chiriboga, Vice Minister of Agriculture for Ecuador (also, the worlds first organic rose grower) and a host of international flower industry leaders.

At this symposium held at the Ferry bldg. in San Francisco, Verilfora, the new sustainable floral standard was announced. I am proud to say that Veriflora, the standard Organic Bouquet initiated, is now in the process of becoming a national standard for the fresh cut flower trade.

What matters to you most about Organic Bouquet, and how do you keep your "eye on the prize" as the company continues to grow?

I want to quickly see organic supplies increase and the market support its growth. This will benefit farm workers, the farm owners, retailers and consumers. It is my hope that as soon as possible sustainable practices become the standard; that the floral industry completely eliminates the use of harsh chemicals, the well being of farm workers is first and foremost and that the growers who take these steps will be rewarded by a market that supports them.

Mission accomplished is the day when there is no tolerance for any agricultural product that is not responsibly grown and when you walk into any retail store or florist that you will see a sustainably grown certification on each bouquet.

Have you considered partnering with small local farmers so that people can keep money in their communities and support their local organic farmers?

Yes. That was a key objective since the beginning but has been much harder to accomplish than I originally anticipated. That said, things are finally changing and we are working with increasing numbers of local farms.

Although we strive to support small and local farmers as a priority, our primary mission is to protect the planet and improve farm worker safety by eliminating large quantities of toxic pesticides from agricultural usage. A necessary step in this process has been to encourage major flower growers to initiate certified sustainable production. Since 60-70% of U.S. flowers come from Columbia and Ecuador, we are working with growers from these countries to develop sustainable production sources.

Moreover, we look to smaller growers for higher end specialty products that require extra care in production and work with larger growers for more common type varieties that are conducive to production on a larger scale.

Following is a description of my journey in the process to develop supply sources of earth friendly flowers.

Six years ago- with the goal to establish a national market for organic flowers, I started a quest to find or develop sources for organically grown flowers.

Initially, I hoped to find all the supply I needed locally in California but after spending more than a half of a year trying to persuade growers to start new greenhouses, especially around the time of the energy crisis in California, I was unable to develop the volume that was needed to be able to service a national market.

Part of the problem was when I did finally get a grower interested to consider to look at what was involved to go organic, access to information and sustainable materials to grow flowers organically were not easily found.

The fact is that there are significant challenges commercial growers face like pests and fungus that can easily wipe out entire crops, so a grower cannot blindly start an organic system with out the proper tools and information to address the many real crop threats that growers face.

As the majority of flowers sold in America were coming from Colombia and Ecuador, the next phase of my search for growers went there. I felt that their were more benefits to start organic production wherever flowers are grown than to not do it all.

Through research I learned that there were several ongoing flower certification programs that to varying degrees addressed social and environmental concerns including the Flower Label Program, the Rainforest Alliance, Max Havellar and Florverde.

I visited a number of highly skilled agronomists and progressive farming operations in Ecuador and Colombia who had introduced comprehensive social programs for their employees and were working towards continuous chemical reduction.

I felt that growers who had these programs in place were a good starting point for Organic Bouquet to encourage them to go fully organic, but realized that matters relating to the flower trade were much more complex than just focusing solely on organic production, given social concerns and what it might take in reality for a grower to go fully organic.

I realized that, a new standard for the North American market needed to be developed, a standard that could make a clear and simple claim of "sustainability" verifying good management practices concerning the environment as well as social conditions.

So, having known about Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) an accomplished certification program developer, I approached them to see if they would take on the task of developing this standard for the fresh cut flower trade.

I then helped to organize a group of industry leaders including growers, wholesalers, retailers, and industry experts, to serve in an advisory capacity providing guidance in the creation of the Veriflora standards. Four years later there is now a comprehensive standard that accomplishes our objectives.

The Veriflora standard provides a bridge to help growers to transition their farms to fully organic systems over time as well as address social and ecological issues that are related to floral production.

It was my intent to bring industry leaders together to agree on the need to bring forth a credible, unified standard deemed "sustainable" for the environment, and safe and fair, for the people who grow the flowers. This happened and Veriflora is now gaining momentum on a global scale.

This has created a large pipeline of suppliers in the process of bringing their farms to fully organic systems.

Click here to find out more about Organic Bouquet

For those interested in truly local organic flowers, check out your farmers markets, or grow your own. Put in a few perennial seeds or plants every year and watch them multiply. I like to make bouquets of herbs mixed with a few edible flowers. To me, it doesn't get much prettier.

* Note: this interview appeared previously on my other blog, Stone in the Pond.
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