'Heart-wrenching': Canadian flower farmers forced to throw out months of work amid pandemic

'Heart-wrenching': Canadian flower farmers forced to throw out months of work amid pandemic

Some Canadian flower farmers are grappling with the unimaginable: throwing heaps of flowers and months of work away as COVID-19 restrictions lead to an unprecedented drop in sales at a time when business should be booming.

After non-essential businesses were closed across Canada in March due to the pandemic, adjustments to allow garden centres to open were made in Alberta, B.C., Manitoba and Quebec — but not all provinces have followed suit, leaving some in the flower business struggling.

Farmer Jan Van Zanten says he'll be lucky to sell just 30 per cent of his main spring crop; the rest he's either giving away or tossing out.

"It hurts," said Van Zanten, the owner of Van Zanten Greenhouses in Pelham, Ont.

Van Zanten and his employees planted ornithogalum, also known as sun stars, back in September. There is a three- to four-week window to sell them in the spring. After that, the flowers' blooms are too open to sell.

He sells most of his flowers to greenhouses, which then combine and distribute them as part of bigger orders.

A drastic drop in demand at this critical time for Van Zanten means he may not earn enough to keep the family business alive next year.

"If nothing changes, then I don't know where I'll be, but I won't be here," said Van Zanten.

Submitted by Jan Van Zanten
Submitted by Jan Van Zanten

On Saturday, Ontario announced it would be allowing community gardens and allotment gardens to operate in the province, calling them "an essential source of fresh food for some individuals and families, including those who face food insecurity."

"Local medical officers of health will provide advice, recommendation and instructions that the gardens must meet in order to operate, such as physical distancing, and cleaning and disinfecting commonly used equipment and surfaces," the province said in a news release.

The update doesn't apply to retail garden centres, a Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson told CBC News on Saturday. However, late last week Ontario Premier Doug Ford said that the sector should expect some good news in a day or two.

"I understand the situation they're in, and our government's going to act on that," said Ford, but so far there have been no details released on what the province is planning.

Seeking clarity on garden centres

When dealing in perishable products such as flowers, any delays or disruptions can be costly.

"We're very concerned that without help we may see many flower farmers lose their businesses," said Andrew Morse, the executive director of Flowers Canada Growers, a floral industry trade association.

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The associations says a lack of clarity over which businesses are and are not essential has resulted in fewer places to sell flowers, and some the essential businesses that have remained open have reduced their purchases.

"Garden centres are a key piece of the puzzle in selling flowers, and their status in Ontario specifically means that many businesses are unsure if they will be able to operate this year," said Morse.

Plants, flowers available at grocery stores

Grocery stores are still able to stock and sell flowers and plants, but the Metro grocery store chain says demand was down when the pandemic first hit, as shoppers were initially more focused on stocking up on basic household items and food.

Loblaw says demand has also been lower than at the same time in previous years, but it plans to open its expanded garden centres as usual on its properties this spring. Some locations are already open, and the rest will open by mid-May.

"[We] will be implementing similar safety and social distancing measures to those that have been introduced in our stores. We also ask that if customers are interested in garden centre items, to add them to their weekly shop rather than making special or more frequent visits to our stores," said Loblaw spokesperson Aly Vitunski.

Home Depot says some of its garden centres across the country have already opened, in accordance with physical distancing requirements and other safety measures, but Home Depot stores in Ontario, including its garden centres, are limited to curbside pick-up and delivery.

"While we've developed plans for various reopening scenarios [in Ontario], the situation remains fluid as we continue to partner with the government and follow public health guidance in the coming weeks and months for the health and safety of our customers and associates," said Paul Berto, director of corporate communications for The Home Depot Canada.

Independent business owners in Ontario, such as stand-alone garden centres and florists, have had to figure out creative ways to adapt while working within the province's guidelines.

Florists find ways to bloom

"This has taken a lot of reorganization on my end," said Christina Curry, the owner of Keith's Flower Shop in Uxbridge, Ont.

Curry is currently the only person inside her store — receiving plants and cut flowers from vendors, creating arrangements and then jumping in her car to deliver them.

"Usually I have two part-time employees, a third casual, and we also have delivery drivers," said Curry.

She's using social media to let people know she's still selling products, but because she's working alone, she's not able to sell as much as usual.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about Mother's Day. It is a big floral holiday. I'm wondering if I should just sleep here," she said with a laugh.

Online and phone sales only

Davenport Garden Centre is a seasonal retailer with three locations in Toronto, but it opened just one location on April 1 as a makeshift distribution centre for its website.

"Those businesses that have been able to show their product online and offer curbside [pick-up] and delivery have been able to find a way of improvising around this," said one of the store's owners, Carla Rose.

Submitted by Carla Rose
Submitted by Carla Rose

Rose says she's getting lots of inquiries from people interested in growing their own food, some who are getting plants for the first time, and many looking for vibrant colour to brighten up their space.

"The plant people and the gardeners would call us an essential service," said Rose.

Critical spring season

Flowers Canada Growers says 60 per cent of its members' annual sales of flowers and plants typically come between Easter and Mother's Day. If garden centres don't fully open across the country before that period is over, the situation could become dire for some.

"The lost sales already experienced are creating significant financial difficulties for many farms, and some may not have sufficient resources to continue operation of their business for much longer," said Morse.

Andy Kuyvenhoven of Kuyvenhoven Greenhouses is hopeful the Ontario government will open up garden centres soon, but says financial help from the federal government is likely to fall short.

"This is just catastrophic. It's just not going to be enough," said Kuyvenhoven.

Andy Kuyvenhoven
Andy Kuyvenhoven

Kuyvenhoven says Easter sales for his potted mums and calla lilies dropped by half compared to previous years — a loss far greater than the $40,000 interest-free business loan offered by the federal government.

Kuyvenhoven says he gifted some of his excess plants to local hospital workers, but the rest were thrown out.

"Heart-wrenching is an understatement. My entire body is reacting to this in a way that I've never had myself react," said Kuyvenhoven, who has been in the flower business for 40 years.

He's also worried about his ability to access more credit in the future if other growers like him fail, and the banks downgrade the value of his operations.

"All of that is looking down a dark tunnel — we see a light at the end of it, but we really don't know," said Kuyvenhoven.

Calls for more help

Van Zanten says the federal wage subsidy doesn't appear to be useful for him, as he already paid his workers to help with planting and growing the flowers months ago.

He needs help, but because he operates on small margins, he worries about taking on debt that he can't pay back in the future.

"I don't expect a government payout to make it a banner year, but I would love it if I could still grow flowers next year," said Van Zanten.

He's hopeful he'll still be able to sell his phalaenopsis orchids in the coming months, but plans for his winter crop of lavender trees are still up in the air.

"We're debating how much we want to do, because that confidence isn't there at the moment," said Van Zanten.