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To get fresh flowers to North America by Feb. 14, it takes thousands of workers, careful planning and a fast-moving supply chain. Here’s how it works

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A worker at a Colombian flower-sorting facility keeps a broken flower in her shirt pocket. Roses make up two-thirds of flower exports in Colombia, the second-biggest floral producer in the world.Photography by Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

The flower growers of Colombia like to say their business is half agriculture, half logistics.

It’s hardly a stretch, especially as they prepare for their biggest day of the year. For Colombia’s flower giants, Valentine’s Day alone accounts for 80 per cent of annual profit. “It’s huge,” says Augusto Solano Mejia, executive president of Asocolflores, the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters.

So is the effort to stock shelves with enough flowers for customers typically looking to buy on just two days, Feb. 13 and 14.

Colombia, the world’s second-largest flower exporter behind the Netherlands, ships about 650 million stems overseas for Valentine’s Day. Two-thirds are roses, the vast majority destined for the United States and Canada.

To keep the blooms vibrant as they move thousands of kilometres to supermarkets and florists across North America from greenhouses outside of Bogota, the industry stages what might be the planet’s most colourful airlift.

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A rose in full bloom at a sampling greenhouse.

In the weeks before Valentine’s, Colombia’s flower workers prepare the roses for shipment: snipping, sorting, dethorning and packing. Thorns are such an unwelcome feature that buyers place a genetic premium on varieties with fewer spikes.

Hue matters, too – in particular red, which makes up more than half of the Valentine’s roses exported by Colombia’s biggest companies. The current genetic champion of the Colombian-grown red rose is the German-bred Freedom variety, described as possessing a “true red” and “near perfect colour.”

Once the flowers are packed, they are loaded onto trucks, which make 13,000 deliveries to airports in Bogota and Rionegro (traffic jams in Colombia can threaten to spoil Valentine’s in British Columbia). Narcotics police X-ray each box before workers put them onto more than 650 cargo flights, most destined for Miami. There, cargoes are loaded onto trucks and dispatched across the continent.

A single Boeing 747 can carry nearly two million stems, and the volume of flower flights before Valentine’s roughly triples the country’s typical air-cargo movements. The extra flights fly south empty, ultimately adding to the price of the flowers.

Transportation makes up nearly a third of the cost of a Valentine’s rose, and the imperative to squeeze in stems means most flights leave after midnight, when cooler, denser air allows jets to take off with more weight.

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A box of roses destined for Calgary waits to be loaded on a truck.

The temperature inside is crucial. Roses travel best at between 1 C and 3 C. Any warmer, and blooms may wilt before the eight to 10 days of life the industry seeks inside the homes of Valentine’s recipients. That means moving fast. A single rose can be inside a Toronto distribution warehouse within five days of being snipped from an Elite Flowers greenhouse outside Bogota. (Elite is Colombia’s biggest flower exporter and supplies Loblaws and Costco in Canada.)

All of this requires huge numbers of people. Around Valentine’s, Colombian flower growers hire tens of thousands of additional labourers. The industry has been accused of making beauty out of exploitation by sucking unsustainable quantities of water from local aquifers and exposing vulnerable workers to carcinogens during shifts that can last 22 hours. Many hires are women, and labour-rights advocates have documented employers requiring pregnancy tests and birth control. Elite says it hires many people from conflict areas, paying them enough for Valentine’s and Mother’s Day work to sustain their families year-round.

Elite alone operates 1,100 hectares of greenhouses in Colombia, the equivalent of 1,500 soccer fields. Even that is not enough to sate Valentine’s demand, but expanding is tricky. A single rose plant yields about 15 flowers a year. Only two or three can be used at Valentine’s.

“If you plan everything for Valentine’s Day, it’s not good business the rest of the year,” says Alvaro Camacho, Elite’s manager of logistics.

“Nobody,” he adds, “understands what is behind making Valentine’s Day happen.”

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At Elite Flower in Facatativa, northwest of Bogota, a worker searches for roses ready to be cut. It is Jan. 24, three weeks before Valentine's Day. Timing is critical because the flowers have to be cut at full bloom, processed and sent to North America the same night.

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Elite operates 1,100 hectares of greenhouses, like these ones in Facatativa. The savanna around Bogota is ideal for roses thanks to stable temperatures and abundant year-round sunlight.

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Dozens of workers sort, de-thorn, pack and label the flowers. Elite employs about 16,000 people year-round, which grows to 24,000 in the Valentine's Day season.

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A worker builds a bouquet. By itself, Valentine's Day makes up 80 per cent of annual profit for the country's big floral producers.

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Showroom samples at Elite's facility in Facatativa. Freedom, the variety second from left, is considered the current genetic champion for its 'true red' hue.

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Once inspected for pests, the completed bouquets go through a tent to be strayed with pesticide. A bouquet from Elite, which supplies Loblaws and Costco in Canada, can be at a Toronto grocery store within five days of harvest.

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When the flowers arrive at El Dorado International Airport in Bogota, screeners inspect the boxes for drugs and contraband. These ones are headed for Miami.

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Workers push a pallet of roses toward a waiting Avianca Cargo plane. In the buildup to Valentine's Day, Avianca flies up to 15 cargo planes of roses every day.

Photojournalist Yader Guzman on The Decibel

Bogota-based photojournalist Yader Guzman speaks with The Decibel’s Menaka Raman-Wilms about how flowers became such a major Colombian industry. Subscribe for more episodes.

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