Floribusiness visited Alexandra Farms in Colombia, where they grow garden roses for cut flowers. cut roses. Jose Azout, owner of the nursery, is determined to be a good employer for all his employees. He got them involved in the improvement of the quality and the productivity in the processing area. “Our employees were able to spot details that weren’t noticed at a higher level in the company.”
By Arie-Frans Middelburg
We’re on our way to one of the three locations of Alexandra Farms and Jose Azout is telling us all about how he got into the floricultural industry. Had he always been dreaming of growing roses in Colombia? Azout had been working in the flower trade in Miami for many years when his family, owners of large textile company Lafayette, asked him to return to his homeland. They had purchased a rose farm, but couldn’t make it work. They had to put more money into it each year. Azout was given the task to change the farm into a profitable company. A few years later, he’s got the largest farm (20 ha) with garden cut roses in the world. Most of the roses are fragrant.
Azout tells us how, when he had just started growing roses, he visited Horti Fair in Amsterdam and spotted the David Austin roses. He expressed his interest in growing them but unfortunately, he was rejected. Someone was already growing their roses in Colombia and David Austin felt that that was enough. So, in 2006 Azout decided to test Freilander roses of German breeders Kordes Rosen and Rosen Tantau. They are very similar to garden roses.
Azout: “Customers told us: we can sell them, but you won’t be able to grow them. Growers told us: You can grow them, but you won’t be able to sell them.” However, their 2-hectare trials went very well. For a brief moment, Azout was afraid that someone else would get in there and start growing the same roses on a large scale, but that didn’t happen. “It turned out to be too much of a challenge. Most growers gave up after the first trials.”
The farm that we visit is called Finca el Jardin and it’s situated on the savannah, north of Bogotá. On this hot day, Azout makes sure we’re all wearing a hat to protect us from the strong sun, before taking us through to the greenhouses. Out of his three farms, this is the only location where Azout grows David Austin. After the initial rejection, Austin contacted Azout to ask if he was still interested in growing their garden roses. So, he now grows the David Austins, as well as roses from German, French, Dutch and Japanese breeders. Fifty varieties, divided over four collections. With a total acreage of 20ha, his nursery is the largest in the world with garden roses for cut flowers.
Three times a day
When we enter the first greenhouse, it looks like the roses are protected from the bright sunlight, too. But Azout, who named the farm after his daughter, explains that the covers we see on the buds are there to protect the roses against thrips and botrytis. He says that they harvest three times a day. The moment of harvesting is very precise: the flowers have to be cut when they’re ripe. If they’re cut too early, the flowers get damaged during transport or they don’t open. We see workers walking down the paths armed with a booklet, which lists all the exact harvest times for each of the cultivars.
In the next greenhouse, the roses were planted more recently. They’re grafted on a rootstock. Demonstrating his expertise, Azout teaches us how it’s done. “All our roses are grafted. We hire Ecuadorians for this job, they’re very good at it.”
When we reach the shed, we learn more about the processing of the roses. Workers are busy sorting, bunching and packaging. Under the watchful eye of happy consumers on the large posters on the walls and underneath the flags from all over the world that are hanging from the ceiling. Azout: “Our employees are standing at the assembly line all day, without knowing where those roses are going to and what happens next. We would like them to be aware of those things.”
So, where are the roses going to? The wedding market in the USA is very important for the garden roses, which are mostly scented. Russia comes second. “We’re selling more roses than ever to Russia, despite the rouble crisis. And for higher prices, too”, says Azout. Their roses are also shipped to Europe, for example through the Perfume Flower Company. And finally, the markets of South Korea, Australia and the Middle East are important, too. Japan, on the other hand, no longer plays a role since the devaluation of the yen.
Azout explains that the efficiency of the workers in the shed has strongly increased. All thanks to a committee of employees, who put a lot of thought into how this improvement could be achieved. “Our employees were able to spot details that weren’t noticed at a higher level in the company.” The committee was led by Alcira Rojas.
One of the problems they used to have was for example the fact that roses that were exported to Holland, lost their leaves because they were pulled from a large bunch. And the customers in Holland in particular, prefer stems with leaves. Quite a large number of roses was discarded, because they got damaged during processing.
Thanks to the new way of working, that’s all in the past. Bunches of roses are now put in front of the workers standing upright, so that they no longer need to pull the flowers from a large bunch, but they can simply take the stem that’s most to the front, without damaging the other stems. In the past, 7% of the roses got damaged, whereas now that’s only 2%. Two employees are keeping track of the numbers, they check the damaged roses and make notes.
The bunchers have everything they need at hand, in small compartments in a table. They never need to search the entire shed for an elastic band or a label any more. And the biggest win of the new system is that the workers are showing a higher productivity.
Just like most other Colombian farms, Alexandra employs mostly women, single mums in particular. According to Azout, the Colombian floricultural industry saves them from being unemployed. It gives them independence and it has brought prosperity to their villages. “In the past, there would be nothing more than a little café, but nowadays you can find fashion shops in the towns.”
Azout thinks that the fact that women work with flowers has to do with chauvinism, too. “A lot of men prefer working in the building industry, because they consider flowers as something feminine. And the women love working with the special flowers that we grow.”
There’s a lot of competition nowadays, from all sorts of industries that are moving from the city to the countryside. Many workers switch to other industries because they can make more money there, says Azout. He says that that’s one of the reasons why he wants to be a really good employer to his workers. In addition to the social requirements he has to adhere to in the context of the Florverde certification label.
We hear a loud buzzer. Time for lunch. Employees make their way from the greenhouse to the tables where food is being served. “Many of the workers used to eat poorly. They would bring some water and a piece of bread to get them through the day. Nowadays, we serve a healthy lunch, which we subsidise for 50%.”
In the van on the way back to Bogotá, Azout explains that he still lives and works in Miami. Their sales office is located in this flower hub. He visits the farms once a month. In 2014 and 2015 he and his family lived in Amsterdam. Back then, he travelled to Colombia once every three months. That also worked fine. “Because Skype is the saviour”, he concludes.