LET A MILLION FLOWERS WILT
Bloomberg Businessweek|April 20, 2020
As people everywhere cancel their weddings and big stem orders, the ripples are spreading to Dutch auction halls and the rose fields of Kenya
Zeke Faux, David Herbling, and Ruben Munsterman

WHEN MEREDITH DEAN PICTURED HER MAY WEDDING, she imagined her guests walking through a meadow of wildflowers. The bridesmaids would carry bouquets, the groomsmen would wear boutonnieres, and a circle of flowers would surround Dean and her beau as they exchanged vows. A wall of flowers would serve as a backdrop for photos. Vases of buds would run down the center of long dining tables in a barn in New York’s Catskills. Still more flowers would hang above the dance floor.

Dean had chosen the date so spring blooms would be at their peak: bright yellow daffodils, fragrant purple hyacinth, puffy peonies, hydrangea, and, of course, roses. She hadn’t set a budget yet, leaving it to her floral designer to decide how many stems to order. “It would be a lot,” she says.

As reports of U.S. Covid-19 cases mounted in early March, Dean, a 29-year-old who works in development at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, checked the news obsessively. When authorities cautioned against holding events for more than 250 guests, her colleagues told her not to worry—the wedding was still months off. And then on March 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Americans should avoid gathering in groups larger than 50 for the next eight weeks. Dean’s wedding was seven weeks away, and she was expecting about 100 guests.

There wasn’t much for her and her fiancé, David Bradley, a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company, to discuss. Neither of them would put friends and family at risk. The next day, her first working from home in New Jersey, Dean called her wedding planners and told them she wanted to postpone the celebration. She was calm on the call, but when she hung up, she sobbed. “I’m not ashamed of having feelings,” she says.

A delayed wedding is hardly a disaster during a pandemic that’s killing thousands of people a day, as Dean is quick to note. But in greenhouses from the highlands of Ecuador and Colombia to the shores of Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, growers were already stacking roses in compost heaps. Within days of the lockdown orders in the U.S. and Europe, as events were canceled, restaurants closed, and offices emptied, demand for stems evaporated.

The crash of the $8.5 billion global trade in cut flowers shows how quickly and distinctively the new coronavirus is disrupting supply chains, even in places where it isn’t yet pervasive. After only a few weeks of quarantine, Vermont farmers are dumping milk in manure pits because of canceled orders from schools. Crops are withering in Europe as closed borders prevent migrant farmworkers from harvesting them. American chicken wing prices cratered before what’s normally a March Madness-driven boom. In India, farmers are unloading ripening grapes at one-sixth the usual price. It’s an open question whether, when consumers start spending again, their former suppliers will still be around to sell to them.

One of the first people Dean texted after she postponed her wedding was her floral designer, Laura Clare, who works from the first floor of a quaint gray building with white trim in Bernardsville, N.J. Clare, who’s been in business for 20 years, sells bouquets during the week, and on weekends she designs elaborate arrangements for big events. Her wedding clients typically spend from $5,000 to $10,000.

Dean was one of the first brides to contact Clare after the CDC recommendation. Within a few days, all Clare’s clients planning April weddings were scrambling to pick dates in the fall. She had to tell brides that some flowers, such as cherry blossoms, might not be available then. Soon, as the number of Covid-19 cases in New Jersey passed 1,000, the governor ordered all but essential businesses to close. Florists didn’t make the cut.

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