It's true, Gertrude—"A rose is a rose is a rose"—but are all roses created equal? This is the question I posed to John Nevado, president of Nevado Roses, a Fair Trade and ecologically sensitive rose farm situated in Ecuador.
With Mother's Day right around the corner, and flowers making it to our top picks of gifts for mom, I wanted to learn how we could become the most conscious consumers of a trade that's otherwise negligent of the environment and human rights. With over forty years of experience in the rose industry under his belt, and having successfully established one of the most eco-friendly and socially responsible farming operations in the world, Nevado seemed the perfect expert to turn to. TreeHugger: I can buy a single rose for $2.50. In fact, I just purchased a beautiful pink one for my coffee table. Is there a story behind this rose that I may be unaware of?
John Nevado: A rose that you buy on a Thursday in New York probably was harvested on a Monday in the Andean highlands of Ecuador or Colombia, shipped via Miami and then trucked to you. Mostly the roses are harvested by ladies, who arrive at sunrise—leave their children in the day care center—and work until early afternoon. If you want to ensure your rose comes from an ethical provider you can look for any of the now commercially available eco-or social certifications, and if your vendor does not provide them you could ask him to do so.
TH: With Mother's Day approaching, what should floral consumers look for when purchasing roses? Are there any special organic and/or Fair Trade certifications to look for?
JN: As a grower I think the consumer should try to look at the products he or she buys in a holistic fashion, and ask oneself this question: "With this purchase, what can I buy that will bring the most good to those that are producing it and at the same time not harm the planet in any undue fashion?" Try to look for Fair Trade roses, called Transfair in the U.S. and available through Whole Foods for example, or Veriflora, a social and environmental certification readily available through online purveyors and several nationwide chains of shops. With so many certifications around, it may seem difficult making a choice, but at least consumers can have a better idea as to the effects the products have on those who produced it and the surrounding environment.
TH: What makes a rose Fair Trade certified?
JN: A rose can be labeled Fair Trade if it has been traded under the Fair Trade Labeling (FLO) International standards, which oversees the production and transport of the rose from cradle to consumer. In the case of roses, a certain set percentage of the final consumer price goes back to the workers to an account controlled by them. In the case of Nevado Roses, our people have built themselves a day care center, a dental center, an internet cafÃ©, and set up a micro financing bank, all with the money from roses purchased by clients in the U.S. and Europe. That is rather fantastic, that a little old lady in Milwaukee buying a rose can actually help set up an internet cafÃ© in rural Ecuador so that the kids growing up there can access the same information as a kid growing up in the same neighborhood as where the little old lady lives.
TH: I imagine it can't be easy growing as many roses as you do without the use of pesticides. What green technologies do you harness on the farm?
JN: On our farms we try to work with the soil and with nature instead of against it. We harness the power of natural herbi- and pesticides such as chamomile flowers, garlic and chili-sprays, and when possible we use animal blood and manure as fertilizers. Like in the olden days, just with scientific methods behind it.
TH: Ghandi said, "To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves." Do you think this speaks to your farming practices?
JN: Yes, as a business it just makes more sense for us to treat the soil so we can use it forever, rather than suck the living daylights out of it for a few years and then have to move on to a new patch. Over the past decades, farmers have had the tendency to forget that it is the soil that gives us the plants. Today we see the soil barely as a planting medium, when it should be more than that. The soil is a living, breathing, heaving cacophony of beings, organisms and energy—and should be treated as such. The soil needs tending to, replenishing, and needs to rest sometimes. I think that what Gandhi was referring to was that in our quest to become modern man; we must never forget our roots, and whence we came. In our little modest way, at Nevado Roses we try to treat the soil with respect, and use it as a renewable resource.
TH: On your website, it says that you export 30 varieties of roses all around the world. Where are you shipping your roses?
JN: The global rose industry is now truly a planet wide operation. There are some fifteen major rose producing nations, plus the fact that most countries have one kind of fledgling rose industry or other. We ship to over thirty countries, therein mostly to Russia, Spain, Switzerland and Japan. The Russians LOVE our long-stemmed, bigheaded roses and are prepared to pay for them as well. On the U.S. market we sell through the socially responsible company Organic Style, they purvey our organic and Fair Trade roses.
TH: Some may say your roses have a heavy carbon footprint from shipping. How would you respond? Do you purchase carbon offsets?
JN: We ship most of our roses internationally in the bellies of passenger aircraft that are flying to their destinations nonetheless, regardless of if we were shipping roses or not. So the "extra" emissions due to roses are minimal. However, as an industry, we do realize our role in trying to mitigate the air miles our products are responsible for. We are doing tests on shipping by sea in cool containers, and studying other methods to offset. I personally think this is a system-wide problem, where our whole global trading system will have to do a major re-think of how we do things, and we—as a flower producer—are trying to do our bit.
TH: Do you think Ecuador and the world-at-large has a burgeoning eco-conscious, Fair Trade flower movement in its midst or is there still a lot of work to do?
JN: I definitely think we are in the middle of an eco-trend, yes, and not only for roses. The question to me—and one can never tell when one is in the middle of a trend—is whether we are in the beginning of a paradigm shift in how we view our consumer goods, or whether this was—yet again—just a fad that had to blow over. Personally I think this time the "eco-trend" is here to stay. Not only thanks to Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, and others, but also because I really feel this time people, politicians, and companies finally get it. We cannot go on with business as usual, but need to rethink how we do things. In industry and architecture the leaders now talk about cradle-to-cradle thinking and I think that is a concept that should be taken out across the board. As for flowers we definitely see a growing demand for eco-conscious, fairly traded roses, a trend that has been going on for a while in Europe and is now finally catching on in the US as well.
TH: If one wanted to cultivate their own rose garden in their backyard, what organic gardening tips would you offer?
JN: If you feel like experimenting read Rudolf Steiners fantastic 1920s lectures on biodynamic farming and how the Universe affects the soil through a multitude of ways. If you don't feel so adventurous you can try substituting your RoundUp with garlic or chili-spray or try planting chamomile flowers next to your rose bushes. And for God sake—talk to the roses every day!
TH: What's up next for Nevado Roses? Do you have plans to expand the farm or and/or add any new green farming techniques?
JN: The next logical step for Nevado Roses, after perfecting sustainable and organic farming practices, is to try our hand at biodynamic farming. Without getting too serious or philosophical about it we know that it just works. It produces better roses and healthier soil.