SADENA, California—In 1890, when the boosterish leaders of this Los Angeles suburb founded the New Year’s Day Rose Parade, the whole point was to use fresh-cut California flowers to show Americans in colder climates why they should come for a winter visit or move here.
One hundred and sixteen years later, the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl football game still thrive. But since the United States began allowing flowers from Colombia and Ecuador to enter the country duty-free in 1991, the vast majority of the flowers used on the entries in the parade have come from those countries—even though they are grown on tropical plantations with cheap labor, their environmental standards have been questioned, and they don’t promote California.
But in this year’s parade, the California Cut Flower Commission made progress in its campaign to remind California and the nation that the U.S. cut-flower industry is still alive in 39 states and ready to provide flowers to Americans around the country throughout the year.
The industry is also trying to bring its awareness campaign to the nation’s capital, particularly the White House.
Three of the 40-plus floats in the Rose Parade were independently certified “California Grown,” meaning that at least 85 percent of the flowers and greenery on them came from California.
The National Park Service launched its centennial celebration by entering a horse-drawn stagecoach from Yosemite National Park that was certified 100 percent American Grown because it was decorated with roses grown in California.
“We are proud to showcase beautiful American-grown flowers and greens with our equestrian unit,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.
The antique cars carrying Rose Parade Grand Marshal Ken Burns, producer of a documentary on the national parks, and other dignitaries, were also certified California Grown after being decorated by FTD florist Keith White, who said it had been “my pleasure to use locally grown flowers.”
The certified California Grown float makers—the California State Polytechnic universities in Pomona and San Luis Obispo, Miracle-Gro, and the California Milk Advisory Board—also had their own reasons for using California flowers.
Miracle-Gro said it wanted to show people “the beauty you can create even in a small container” during the drought. The milk group said it sees a connection between its campaign to encourage Californians to consume “real” California milk and dairy products, and the flower growers’ campaign to convince people to buy American-grown flowers.
California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said at a certification ceremony she feels “blessed” that she is surrounded “not only by the bounty of what we eat, but by the beauty of what we grow.”
The flower growers have already gotten some help from Washington, but they think that the Obama administration could do more.
Kathleen Merrigan, the first Agriculture deputy secretary in the Obama administration, expanded her “Know Your Farmers, Know Your Food” initiative to “Know Your Farmers, Know Your Flowers” at her departure reception in 2013. Her successor, Krysta Harden, helped convince the White House to use only American flowers at the state dinner for French President Francois Hollande in 2014.
But since the Hollande dinner, the White House has not said it used American flowers exclusively at any event. The office of first lady Michelle Obama declined to comment on its flower sourcing, but officials have said privately it is a matter of cost and availability.
“The White House should be all American-grown,” Kasey Cronquist, the executive director of the California Cut Flower Commission, said in an interview.
Just as the White House lists where in the United States the wine and food comes from, the menu at the state dinner with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on March 10 “should say ‘roses from California, leatherleaf from Florida, peonies from Alaska, and dahlias from Virginia,’” he added.
The Senate passed a resolution last Mother’s Day supporting the American growers, and the bipartisan House Cut Flower Caucus wrote President Obama in 2014 urging him to use American flowers.
It would be complicated for the White House to have an American-grown flower policy. The elimination of tariffs on Colombian and Ecuadorian flowers started with a policy in the George H.W. Bush administration to move farmers in the Andean countries away from cocaine production. The U.S. Agency for International Development has poured millions of dollars into the development of the Colombian flower industry.
Individual flower-growers are still bitter about the U.S. aid to the South American industry, but flower-grower groups now emphasize the positive. California cut flowers “meet the strictest growing standards in the world, were raised in a world-class year-round environment,” and “were probably in the field just 24-48 hours ago,” Cronquist said.
Harry Van Wingerden, a Carpinteria, California rose grower, and Mel Resendiz, a San Diego area protea grower who provided flowers for the Miracle-Gro float and rode on it during the parade, noted that each flower farmer has an entrepreneurial story to tell. Van Wingerden’s family came to the United States from the Netherlands in the 1960s to grow flowers and Resendiz, a Mexican native, worked in the fields of a farm established by a South African doctor before establishing his own.
“I just love what I do,” Van Wingerden said, as the judges gave the Miracle-Gro float an award for the best depiction of life in California.