It's a bloomin' traffic jam; Valentine's Day: Millions of flowers, especially roses, from Latin America are funneled to U.S. lovers through one airport.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI -- Overhead, the cargo planes come one after the other, tracing the same flight path that will be followed about 35 times a day, more than twice as often as normal. On the ground, trucks stand ready for dispatch to the fronts.

It is an airlift of massive proportions, equal parts military campaign and romantic folly.

All may be fair in love and war, but come Valentine's Day, it takes the techniques of the latter to celebrate the former.

The goal of this particular mission: to deliver millions of flowers from Colombia and Ecuador into the hands of Valentines across America, all on the same day.

"It's like trying to stuff a softball through an hourglass," sighed Tom Worley, one of thousands of floral industry personnel here working extra and often frantic hours to coordinate the comings and goings of all those carnations, mixed bouquets and, most important, red roses in time for V-Day.

The thin part of that hourglass is Miami International Airport, the major U.S. portal for the import of flowers because of its proximity to the largest producer, Latin America.

About $860 million worth of blooms landed at the airport in the past fiscal year for distribution to the rest of the United States and elsewhere.

With Valentine's Day the most flower-intense time of year, the cargo area of the airport and the warehouse district to the west have been in near-perpetual motion for about two weeks.

"It's nonstop flowers here," said Peter Cajigal, chief of cargo development for the airport.

"The flowers come in in the morning and hit the road."

Busy warehouse district

Few of the beach-bound tourists who land in the passenger terminals of Miami International ever see the cargo side or the warehouse district that is home to about 100 floral importers, warehouses and transportation companies.

But whether the blooms you receive Sunday were a last-minute, guilt-ridden pickup from the supermarket or a lavish arrangement from the choicest florist in town, chances are they came through here in the past week and were quickly put on a truck to head up Interstate 95.

"Say the flowers come into Miami early Saturday. By Sunday night, Monday morning, they can be in my hands," said Will Welling, assistant manager and rose buyer for Pennock wholesale florist in Baltimore.

"We'll receive the majority of our flowers Monday to Wednesday, and by Thursday we'll get them into the hands of [retail] florists. Then Friday and Saturday will be panic time for them.

"It's a really quick turnaround. The volume is just so large for a single day," Welling said.

"It's like thinking Santa Claus can really deliver everyone's Christmas presents in one night."

Highly perishable

Santa might be able to learn a thing or two from the floral industry, which faces an even greater challenge in delivering its presents: Flowers, unlike toys and sweaters, are perishable.

"We don't sleep, we don't eat, we don't see our families this time of the year," said Juan Pablo Luchau, a vice president with Aerofloral, a cargo service with a huge, hyper-chilled facility just west of the airport.

As the city enjoys yet another relentlessly perfect winter day -- 82 degrees and sunny, five palm trees in the Miami Herald's 1-to-5 weather rating system -- Aerofloral's warehouse employees are dressed in puffy parkas, gloves and an occasional ski mask.

For them, the high is 32 degrees, the low 22; humidity is as close to 100 percent as possible without starting a rainstorm.

That is the perfect climate -- say, five roses on a 1-to-5 scale -- to keep the cut flowers in a dormant state and forestall the inevitable wilting.

After their flight of several hours from Colombia or Ecuador, the flowers are immediately trucked to the warehouse for quick cool-down: Warm air that has accumulated in the flower boxes during the flight is drawn out and the flowers are chilled to the point that they go dormant, but not to where they'll get freezer burn.

All this takes place in high security under the eye of U.S. Customs and the Department of Agriculture, looking respectively for drugs or insects and disease.

Aerofloral workers must pass a background check, and 36 security cameras are focused on various parts of the operation for round-the-clock videotaping.

"We have our own Blockbuster [Video] here," Luchau said wryly, pointing to the stacks of security tapes in one part of the office.

Drugs occasionally have slipped into the country with the flowers.

But improved security measures have made it more difficult, said Cajigal, the airport cargo development chief.

"In the past, they used to poke these huge probes into the boxes to see if cocaine was in there," Cajigal said.

"But that caused a lot of damage to the flowers. Now we have X-rays, and the crooks know it."

On refrigerated trucks

Once the flowers pass inspection, they're ready to be trucked across the country.

The trucks, also refrigerated, back straight into the chilled warehouses so the flowers are never exposed to Miami's famously warm winter air.

Floral industry people call it "the chain of life," this procession from one refrigerated place to another.

But as with every chain, one link can break the flowers' pampered path toward the final destination.

The plane could be delayed; the truck can break down. Or the recipient will fail to baby the blooms by cutting the stems, placing them in water and using the flower food the florist provides.

"One year we had a blizzard, and I had refrigerators full of flowers but no way to deliver them," Welling recalled.

La Nina intervenes

This year, nature played a role as well, but at the start of the chain: La Nina weather conditions delayed the harvest of roses in Colombia, the major exporter of that signature Valentine bloom.

"It was cloudy and rainy when it was supposed to be hot," said Herbert Jordan, president of Queen's Flowers, which imports flowers from its own farms in Colombia.

"This is my 12th Valentine's in Miami, and every year it's been different."

"Jan. 20 is usually when the harvest starts, but this year, it really just started Feb. 1," said Alvaro Varela, president of the importer Agriflora Corp. and of the industry group, the Association of Floral Importers of Florida.

As a result of the delayed harvest, importers have even less time than usual to process and dispatch the flowers in time for Valentine's Day.

Few are complaining, though.

"Most people in the flower industry live for Valentine's Day," said Steven Armellini, whose Miami-based Armellini Express Lines trucks about 60 percent of the flowers making their way to destinations throughout the country.

An outsider can hardly tell that the focus of all the hubbub surrounding the airport is millions of flowers.

"They arrive in boxes, they leave in boxes," said Varela, a one-time pharmaceutical official who came into the floral business 20 years ago with so little knowledge of the product that, en route to the job interview, he stopped at a grocery store to look at the label on a can of Carnation brand milk.

Hidden in boxes

The flowers come off the planes not in the expected breathtaking burst of color but in flat cardboard boxes.

Occasionally you'll catch a peek of a blossom through a box's ventilation hole, or perhaps a whiff of the roses' sweet perfume, but otherwise this is simply cargo.

Or rather, commodity.

"Welcome to the pit," said Worley, sales manager at Premium Flowers Corp., where he and other employees work the phones taking orders and selling flowers that have landed.

Most of those flowers that arrive, however, are already committed -- buyers ordered in December, locking in on a price for delivery in February.

Some buyers, though, will play the market, not committing early in the hopes that prices will go down before February.

As the flowers pass from hand to hand en route to America's sweethearts, the price goes up and up: Earlier this week, an importer in Miami said he paid $12 to $15.60 for a dozen roses and sold them for about $36 a dozen to wholesalers.

By the time they got to Baltimore-area florists, the charge doubled again: $75 a dozen was a common price, with some lower, some higher.

While the flower import market has grown in recent years as foreign growers take ever bigger shares from domestic farmers, much has remained the same when it comes to Valentine's Day: The flower is the rose, and the color is red.

Red is dominant

More than 103 million roses will be sold this Valentine's Day, according to industry estimates, and three-quarters will be red.

"It's the love flower," Don Howe, Premium's vice president of mass marketing and an avid gardener.

"It means a lot to a woman to receive red roses on Valentine's Day."

Howe's wife, however, will probably get a different kind of flower Sunday, if any, since her husband has spent the past couple of weeks surrounded by roses, roses, roses.

"If I get her flowers, when I get them home, I'll have to process them," Howe said with the weariness of a man who spends his work hours processing flowers.

"If I do get her roses, I'll probably go with yellow or pink. Or maybe daffodils if I can find them."

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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