FLORES DEL ESTE (Flowers from the East)
Quality hydrangeas, full of love and universal charm.
By: Liliana Pérez | Photos: Liliana Pérez and courtesy of Flores del Este
«That’s my daughter’s voice! That’s Catalina, my daughter! «
Maria Eugenia Gomez and her daughter Catalina Arango are reunited because the universe wanted it that way. This is what Mariu firmly believes (as all those named Maria Eugenia are called Mariu with affection).
A woman who becomes a widow in 1995 and four years later, begins a hobby that ends up forming the company that today provides jobs not only to two of her children, but to 200 more people, and which among other things has become a bond of love and unites the people who work there.
The company is ‘Flores del Este’, the largest productive land of hydrangeas -planted on a single farm- in Oriente Antioqueño, the second largest flower producing region in Colombia, after Cundinamarca (where the capital of the country, Bogotá, is located). Colombia, the country as a whole, is also the second largest exporter of flowers in the world after the Netherlands.
Mariu tells us how it was that reunion came to be orchestrated by the universe: «When my husband died, I remained in charge of my children. When organizing everything I realized that this farm did not provide enough, it was of Holstein cows (for exhibition and very expensive) which did not provide enough to pay the property taxes. Then I knew that it had to change.
At that time the flowers were in full swing, especially the hydrangeas. I started very slowly to plant flowers without telling anyone. I sold a cow and with that money I bought flowers to plant and to do cuttings. I had only between four and five thousand plants at that the beginning… The first time I exported there were 150 flowers per week, only that!».
«One Sunday,» María Eugenia continues, «came the woman from Flor Andina (the largest distributor of hydrangeas at that time) who bought our flowers for export through a Cooperative that helped mothers that were head of household in all this region. She told me that she was taking a census so she could negotiate a better price with the person who bought them in Miami, FL and told me she would call her immediately. She actually called her and greeted her on the phone right there in front of me: «Hello, Cata how are you?» I got to hear the voice on the other side of the phone and I recognized that voice so I yelled: «That’s my daughter’s voice! That’s Catalina, my daughter! «
But how could a mother not know that her daughter worked with flowers in Miami, or the daughter not know that her mother was growing flowers in Colombia? Well, when Catalina graduated in International Business in Colombia and wanted to move to Miami, her mother warned her that she would have to do it on her own. Catalina left and whenever they talked she always told her mother that everything was fine, so Mariu never inquired about how her daughter was supporting herself in the United States. Catalina worked as a Purchasing Manager for USA Floral, the largest flower trader in the United States at the time, who bought flowers from five countries, including Colombia.
From there, everything began to evolve: they established the company and Mariu summoned Andrés, her son who had recently graduated from College. Later on, he took over as the company’s Manager and when Catalina returned to Colombia she became responsible for sales. Marcela, her other daughter, is a member of the Board of Directors, along with Mariu and other outsiders. According to her children, Mariu humorously says that her son «retired» her from the company, but they all recognize that she was and still is the soul of the company.
Today ‘Flores del Este’ produces between 9 thousand and 35 thousand flowers daily (5 million stems a year approximately) depending on the time of year; and has facilities and a human team with the capacity to produce up to 40 thousand flowers per day. It exports 100% of its production because there is no market for its hydrangeas in Colombia, given that they produce them with an infrastructure and processes that few crops dare to venture. They have focused on very high quality markets.
THE HYDRANGEAS OF ‘FLORES DEL ESTE’
After walking through the flower crops, a spectacle in itself beautiful, you open the huge door to enter the post-harvest and you’re stunned within a thousandth of a second. The first thing that came to my mind was: this is what all the clients and potential clients should see, because only by experiencing what I myself have just felt is enough itself to convince one of the quality of the facilities, of the meticulousness with which they work, of the cleanliness, the order and the care with which they process these hydrangeas.
It also feels like a healthy work environment, where people are concentrated on their work but at the same time you can breathe an air of joviality. The smell of flowers mixes with the reggaeton music that plays in the background. A very cheerful and friendly atmosphere to be well… in a factory after all! Mostly women, you see the employees happy, they smile at you as they continue with their tasks.
What is behind so much beauty?
We had some questions for Catalina on our first visit to the crop, which we hope will not be the last because it was absolutely enriching for all of the senses and emphatically, we would love to return.
What stands out at Flores del Este?
The most important thing about this farm is the quality, we focus on high quality market niches.
It shows… but what does that imply?
That means that you put a hydrangea from another farm next to one of ours and it may look the same, but the base life of ‘Flores del Este’ is much longer. That’s because when a farm has two workers per hectare, we have nine; when a farm does not have a cold room, or the post-harvest that you are seeing today, we have them… It is a farm that has consistency, that is, that the buyers do not have to open the boxes every time they get them, because they already know that all our flowers have the same quality, because we control the processes from production until we ship them. We are certified Flor Verde (counterpart of Global G.A.P. in Europe, which certifies good agricultural practices) and Rain Forest Alliance (standards of environmental, social and economic sustainability). We have 1,009 «why buy from us» advantages over other flower crops.
But the most important thing are our employees, our people. Staff turnover is very low compared to other farms, it is on the order of 2.5% (compared to more than 70% within the industry) due to everything we do for the employees: good pay, a good organizational climate in the company, among other things.
Why only hydrangeas?
Because we like specialization. When you specialize in a product, you become the best.
What is the process of production and post-production for hydrangeas ?:
The hydrangea takes about eight months to grow. First they are cut in the field, where we have ten hydration points, because the most important thing for the hydrangea is that it is in water. The word hydrangea comes from ‘hydra’ which means ‘water’, and ‘angea’ from ‘angeon’ which means ‘vessel’. Field employees receive weekly training on how to cut hydrangeas, as this is one of the most risky phases in the process.
After the cut, comes the part that I call the pre post-harvest that has two functions: the first one, is that the flowers drink water for at least 24 hours; and the second, they go to a quality review to verify that they don’t have any disease.
Then they go to the post-harvest phase where each flower is measured (its stem, leaves, petals) and are classified according to size, to then have a container attached to their stem with a special solution and finally get to be packed in the final box. And finally, they remain a short time in a cold room that slows the process of decomposition and the opening of the flower, before being shipped.
All this process is not in vain, since the hydrangeas of ‘Flores del Este’ have been flying high, as Mariu tells us:
«This flower has a social status, it is expensive. It can cost between 9-10 dollars per unit. That is why we are targeting influential sectors. For example, the Arab sheikhs. They not only decorate with a flower arrangement, they flood the whole space they want to decorate. Through the buyers in the United States we’ve learned that the hydrangeas from ‘Flores del Este’ have come to adorn events such as the marriage of Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, a birthday celebration for Jennifer Lopez and another for Celine Dion.
THE FLOWER MARKET
Fun facts about Colombia as the second largest exporter of flowers in the world:
- Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, after Brazil.
- Colombia has the largest variety of exotic flowers and types for export in the world.
- The rose is the main species exported and followed by the carnation.
- The United States continues to be the main country of destination for Colombian flowers, with a 75% share in volume, followed by Japan.
- 5,300 million stems are produced in Colombia for export per year.
How is the flower market today?
Catalina: very competitive, in a sector where competition is getting tougher, producers compete for the same customers and it is turning into a price war
What is the biggest challenge for this business?
On the one hand, natural resources such as water and climate; and on the other hand, that the younger generations do not want to work in the field.
And how do you manage to make the work environment so good in such a difficult sector?
On the one hand, the salary in ‘Flores del Este’ is above the average of the other hydrangea farms; and on the other hand, we have many benefits, among them a program called «Déjate Querer» («Let yourself be loved») with many benefits, for all the 200 employees we have today. We also have many women [more than 30% of the total number of employees] and more than ten women working in the field, doing jobs historically carried out by men, which is not usual in this business. If it were for my brother Andres, there would only be women working here! (laughs).
And speaking of women, tell us about Mariu, your mother, the woman who started everything?
My mom is a very simple woman, very low profile, but she is a supremely intelligent woman.
We wanted to talk to Mariu to learn about her experience as a woman in the flower industry.
Mariú: When my husband died I inherited land dedicated to coffee production and others to livestock, I faced the challenge that when I took over and started to control things. everyone said to me, «you can’t come and work here, you have to send a man». There was someone who resigned, telling me «I don’t work with women». Others believed that they could manipulate me and in fact, manipulated me a lot… So from the cattle and coffee businesses I had learned a lot, so when the flowers came, I had no problem. It was in those other sectors that I found things very difficult.
What women influenced you in the love for flowers?
My mother never lacked an acanthus or a hydrangea. The acanthus is the flower of my mom… In her house the flowers never wilted. Years later, I made flower arrangements and I started bringing them to the office. Always wanted to start a flower arrangement business, but no one supported me on that (laughs!).
What do you think was your biggest contribution as a mom in your children?
The desire to get ahead, the push, the desire to work… I’ve never been lazy to get up early, to be on the farm working, I’ve never be afraid of any situation, I always have an attitude of «let’s go forward!». And when my children Andrés and Cata were in charge, I always supported them.
Why do you think Andres gives such importance to women?
Andrés has been surrounded by women, he grew up with women. His father died sadly at an early age so his upbringing was more influenced by women. He has that sensibility and knows and values that women are more careful, faithful, intelligent, hardworking, and that women invest more in the family. Women are definitely smarter, more disciplined.
That’s why we have women in the field. That is beautiful! Young women, doing men’s work… In ‘Flores del Este’ employees are loved, we say that they are family, they have a voice and a vote. It is a horizontal working scheme, not a pyramid one, we work for the welfare of all. Over these 19 years we have distributed small profits. First are the employees, we want them to do well. The family came together to help the people and that is the greatest satisfaction not only for me but for the whole family.
We leave with a very full heart after getting to know this company from the point of view of the mother and the daughter who, hand-in-hand with a man with very humane attitudes, have filled not only my heart, but the hearts of more than 200 families and many more through their product: the splendid hydrangea of ‘Flores del Este’.
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