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Seattle's local flower wholesaler, Diane Szukovathy. Photo by Joshua McNichols.

Seattle's local flower wholesaler, Diane Szukovathy. Photo by Joshua McNichols.

KUOW News

Local Flower Wholesaler Budding In Georgetown

Joshua McNichols
01/24/2012

There are only three weeks left until Valentine's Day. So if you're a florist, this is crunch time. Most florists are taking orders now from online flower services. And they're packing their refrigerator cases with flowers. Chances are those blooms came to Seattle from halfway around the world. Now, local flower growers want to change that. KUOW's Joshua McNichols has more.

TRANSCRIPT

Deep inside the old Rainier brewery is a little concrete room full of flowers. It's called the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market.

The room is unheated. On this midwinter day, you can almost see your breath. But farmer Diane Szukovathy doesn't seem to mind. She's remembering a summer day on her flower farm.

Diane Szukovathy: "One time I was picking — something, what was I picking? Monarda. And it's a hummingbird–friendly plant. And I'm sitting there holding this bunch of monarda and this hummingbird came up and pollinated the monarda in my hand a foot from my nose. Actually it's a little bit intimidating. And I'm sitting there going, 'Am I really standing here? Is this really what I get to do for a living?'"

Szukovathy moves like a hummingbird. She had a TV crew in here recently, filming the wholesale market. They kept telling her to slow down. Otherwise, she'd just show up as a blur.

Szukovathy must have looked like a blur to the other small farmers in the Skagit Valley. She was new to the flower business — and she had all this energy. But the old flower–farming families were barely hanging on.

The region's wholesalers had stopped buying local flowers.

Diane Szukovathy: "As we started making more of a living off the land, we realized the obstacles we were up against."

The global flower market had shifted to South America. Cheap fuel and free trade made this shift possible. Today, most of our flowers come from Colombia and Ecuador. Those equatorial countries can grow red roses all year round. And they pay farm workers much less.

The only Skagit Valley farms that came out unscathed were the huge tulip and daffodil farms. Because you can't grow those flowers in hot climates.

Later, Szukovathy discovered a place where small, independent flower growers had not suffered in this way: Portland, Oregon. In fact, the flower growers around Portland seemed to be thriving. That's because of Portland's wholesale flower market.

Diane Szukovathy: "They've been in business since 1941. They're a powerhouse. Because of that, the Oregon farms — a lot of them have more muscle because they've had somewhere to sell for longer. So we wanted something like that in Seattle."

So Szukovathy started the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market. It opened less than a year ago. But it's already quadrupled Szukovathy's profits.

On this midwinter day, there aren't many customers at the flower market. The owners of Le Gourmand restaurant in Ballard have dropped by. Bruce and Sara Naftaly.

Bruce Naftaly: "We have one big focal point display in the restaurant. And we need to get beautiful things for it."

Joshua McNichols: "You could get flowers anywhere. Why are you here?"

Bruce Naftaly: "Oh, the local angle is really important to us. All the ingredients for the food, and for the visual elements too, you know the flowers and the branches and whatever — it's always much more fun to get things from around here, and things that are available right now."

They've never been here before. They weren't sure what they'd find. They were pleasantly surprised.

Sara Naftaly: "Having a fairly good idea of what's not really growing right now we were kind of curious to know what there would be available and it looks great. It looks fantastic."

It's definitely better than the place they used to go. Because that place went out of business.

Buyers like the Naftalys, who come from the local food movement, are a big part of this trend. That's according to Debra Prinzing. She just wrote a book about the local flower movement.

Prinzing says there's another advantage to using local flowers. They don't have to travel halfway around the world in a plane. So it's okay if they don't fit into a box, or if they're fragile. Prinzing says that gives florists more variety.

Debra Prinzing: "So all of a sudden you've been given a crayon box with 160 crayons instead of 24. And, you know, it's a great art palette."

Now, the grocery stores and the wedding industry are starting to notice.

Flowers are a luxury item. Luxury markets have taken a hit in the recession. In the flower business, some analysts say the only area for growth is "local."

Sara and Bruce leave the local flower market with armfuls of rugged quince branches, leafy green camellia branches, and some greenhouse grown lilies. At the last minute they spot a bouquet of roses. The variety is named — Sara.

Bruce Naftaly: "Its got your name on it. See? Turn them around."

Sara Naftaly: "Oh that's hysterical! It's spelled the right way and everything. It must be fate. Okay, we're buying them. I don't care anymore."

Bruce is hooked on the local flower market. He says he'll never go anywhere else.

For KUOW News, I'm Joshua McNichols.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

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