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There's A Good Chance Your Valentine's Flowers Come From Colombia

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

If you are so lucky to happen to receive a bouquet from your sweetheart today, the flowers probably came from Colombia. It's the No. 1 supplier of roses, carnations and other flowers to the United States. The pandemic had Colombian growers fearing their industry would collapse, but they quickly adapted to the crisis. And as John Otis reports, flower production in Colombia is once again blooming.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: This worker is clipping roses at a flower farm near the town of Tocancipa, just north of Bogota. The farm's commercial manager, Claudia Fuentes, says they come in nearly every color.

CLAUDIA FUENTES: We have light pink, hot pink, medium pink, then red, yellow, white, lavender...

OTIS: How many different colors of roses?

FUENTES: Thirty-five.

OTIS: Next, Fuentes takes me into the farms processing plant. Here, workers strip leaves from rose stems, then pack the flowers into boxes. Next, they'll be airlifted to Miami.

FUENTES: So this bunch is for the United States.

OTIS: That's a dozen roses, a dozen red roses.

FUENTES: That’s a 25-stem bunch.

OTIS: For a while, it was unclear whether this farm would even survive until Valentine's Day.

JOSE RESTREPO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Amid the pandemic, Jose Restrepo, the farm's co-owner, thought he might have to rip up flower beds and lay off workers.

RESTREPO: We start hearing about the first lockdown, cancellations of flights, big customers, big wholesalers in the U.S. shutting their operations. And at that moment, we didn't know what to do.

OTIS: But the flower industry was among the first in Colombia to put in place social distancing and other safety measures to protect workers. That helped convince the Colombian government to allow flower farms to operate amid a tight economic lockdown. What's more, despite the cancellation of weddings, graduations and other celebrations, overseas demand rebounded.

AUGUSTO SOLANO: People are being isolated. So you cannot hug someone, or you cannot show your smile or something. And maybe a bouquet of flowers is a way to expressing that feeling.

OTIS: That's Augusto Solano, president of the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters.

SOLANO: People realized, finally, that flowers are food for the soul, food for the spirit. And that's why they kept buying flowers.

OTIS: That's also why, even as Colombia's unemployment rate doubled last year, nearly all of the country's 140,000 flower workers kept their jobs. Among them is Flor Rodriguez, a single mother who has worked on the farm near Tocancipa for 14 years.

FLOR RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken)

OTIS: When her eldest daughter lost her accounting job during the lockdown, Rodriguez says her steady salary clipping carnations helped the family get by. Claudia Fuentes, the farm's commercial manager, is also thankful that the industry survived COVID.

FUENTES: After a year. For us, it's almost one year off of having, like, a lot of problems with the COVID. It was like, again, like, a hope, the start of a new, like, time.

OTIS: But the flower workers here won't have much time to celebrate. Pretty soon, they'll be gearing up for a crush of orders ahead of Mother's Day. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Tocancipa, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.