Out of the many heartbreaking scenes to have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, one video in particular has an unexpectedly crushing effect.
On March 20, as the Dutch flower auction in the Netherlands is put on hold, workers come together in the town of Naaldwijk, South Holland to carry out the necessary process of destroying all the plants that would have sadly gone to waste.
Crates of flowers are unceremoniously dumped onto the pavement with clockwork-like efficiency, still wrapped in plastic, encased in multi-colored pots. The pile is then bulldozed and hoisted into bins. Auction workers had already donated a number of blooms to hospitals as a gesture of thanks to medical staff. But the rest—these roses and tulips and blossoms that were meant to brighten someone’s desk, lift a loved one’s spirits, or adorn people’s homes—all of these are to be disposed, while the resulting plastic waste is sorted and recycled. The process is quick and clinical, the workers’ faces somber and grim.
Michel van Schie, a spokesman for Royal FloraHolland, addresses the camera. “The Dutch auction already exists for more than 100 years, and this is the first time that we are in such a crisis,” he says. In the last two months alone, more than 400 million flowers in the Netherlands have been thrown away.
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Painful and difficult
On the other side of the world, in a small, discreet corner tucked into the OPVI Centre at Chino Roces Ave. Ext., Makati, a similar scene was unfolding. Antonio Garcia, design director of Mabolo, has been holding court in this mini-oasis for floriculture enthusiasts since founding the flower and home shop in 1996. But on March 16, after Luzon was placed under Enhanced Community Quarantine, he found himself going through their display, deciding which plants had to be destroyed and which ones could be given away.
“Flowers and foliage are maintained like salad greens,” he explains. “They need to be at an optimum temperature and stored in highly oxygenated water that is changed and sorted daily.” Knowing that all pending orders would now be canceled and that these fragile, perishable goods would soon be past their prime, Antonio was left with no choice. “We had gotten calls to prepare flowers for some people that had sadly passed,” he notes, “but then no capillas were open, much less allowed to have a proper wake.”
Antonio’s sister and business partner Gema suggested the potted plants be donated to the nuns at Assumption College in San Lorenzo Village. “They were thrilled,” he relates. Then they set about making phone calls offering flowers to friends and neighbors who might be willing to pass by and pick them up. Once that was done, the only task that remained was the most difficult and painful of all; majority of the stock had to be destroyed.
From early Dangwa to dark days
Antonio glows with pride when he talks about how he has watched the Philippine flower industry evolve and thrive. He recalls the Dangwa flower market of the early ’90s, with ambulant vendors setting up shop at 3am behind rented jeeps after loading buses with blooms gathered from the mountain province at midnight. “Stacks of flowers filled the sidewalks, all of course not sorted nor cleaned, and bucketed with fresh water,” he says, describing the chaos. “This is because at a certain hour, the selling area had to be clear… the 4am frenzy was amazing, magnetic, and quite fulfilling.”
Dangwa has since grown into a force to be reckoned with, a teeming market that garners media coverage on notable flower-filled occasions: Valentine’s, undas, and of course, Mother’s Day. “There is definitely a lifeblood here and it sustains many, many people who, to this day, are still heroes in my eyes.”
He goes on to list the components of a business that is resilient, vital, yet mostly under-the-radar (“We call ourselves the silent flower people,” he quips): farmers who fall under the category of non-traditional agriculture, growers of flowers and foliage. Antonio has done his part to uplift the industry by training the farmers and backyard growers who supply them.
“We teach them the value of caring for the land that they till—how not to abuse that land by using chemical infusions of pesticides, fungicides, and any nerve agent, as this is extremely detrimental to one’s health and eventually, the soil gives up,” he says. “It’s back-to-basics farming techniques, with an adaptation of modern thought processes.”
Now, his chest tightens when he thinks about how the farmers and suppliers who rely on them will navigate their way as the global economy takes a down turn, with many dark and uncertain days looming ahead. Data gathered between March 16 to April 17 shows that sales at Royal FloraHolland, the world’s biggest plant auction, had dropped an average of 50% each week compared to the same period in 2019. People are occupied with stocking up on food, medicine, toilet paper. No one is buying flower bouquets.
“Everything is on hold as there are no flights, no local travel, nor being able to get into the provinces where farms and growers are located,” Antonio says. As a florist registered with Royal FloraHolland, he is an active participant in the global auction, bringing in flowers from growers as far as Kenya, Israel, Australia, Colombia, and Thailand—all of which are now inaccessible.
And the flower export business is badly hit, too. The Philippines’ largest national farm, home to the world’s biggest bromeliad nursery, supplies plants to countries that include the Netherlands and Japan. So far, they have already had to cut half of their regular employees as they absorb massive losses to quarterly business. “Since the cancellation of flights and closure of provincial boundaries, there is zero export and even access to the local markets have collapsed,” Antonio continues. “With uncertain parameters for future business, they are preparing for even more staff, farm hands, and production managers to be laid off.”
On a more personal note, the pandemic has hit very close to home: “We had a dear friend in the industry pass away, and we couldn’t do anything about it,” he laments, “much less celebrate his life with flowers.”
A Mother’s Day proposal
With the country preparing to celebrate Mother’s Day this Sunday under quarantine, Antonio sadly admits that his small team at Mabolo will be unable to participate. “The reality is that we cannot even access local suppliers, much less imports,” he says. “It has been nonstop inquiries regarding Mother’s Day and I have to be honest and frank. And so, so many are really saddened and are even going as far as asking for other possible ideas to celebrate. My sister and I just look at each other and we are tongue-tied as we have no options available.”
Which is why he proposes an alternative: celebrate quietly at home with your mom this weekend, in a low-key manner befitting the unique circumstances we are living in. But please, order that floral arrangement she deserves once the ECQ has lifted, or make it a joint celebration come June, when Father’s Day rolls around.
“Hopefully, through this, we create an opportunity to acknowledge and express our gratefulness not just to our mothers, but also to our fathers and all parents,” he says. Added bonus: you will be able to lend much-needed support to the many small but valuable local businesses who have been badly affected by the freezing of commerce due to ECQ. “This gives everybody a chance to resuscitate and celebrate, plan ahead, recover, and more importantly, remain safe for the meantime at home.”
Antonio also points out that the flower industry, by nature, is one of the most hygienic around, long practicing the stringent sanitation measures everyone is now deeming the new normal. “The cleaning and disinfection daily of the entire shop is done to maintain sterility, including the water treatment system we use,” he says.