by John McQuaid, Smithsonian Magazine
Posted: Monday, January 24, 2011 at 3:23PM EST
In 1967 david cheever, a graduate student in horticulture at Colorado State University, wrote a term paper titled “Bogotá, Colombia as a Cut-Flower Exporter for World Markets.” The paper suggested that the savanna near Colombia’s capital was an ideal place to grow flowers to sell in the United States. The savanna is a high plain fanning out from the Andean foothills, about 8,700 feet above sea level and 320 miles north of the Equator, and close to both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Those circumstances, Cheever wrote, create a pleasant climate with little temperature variation and consistent light, about 12 hours per day year-round—ideal for a crop that must always be available. A former lakebed, the savanna also has dense, clay-rich soil and networks of wetlands, tributaries and waterfalls left after the lake receded 100,000 years ago. And, Cheever noted, Bogotá was just a three-hour flight from Miami—closer to East Coast customers than California, the center of the U.S. flower industry.
After graduating, Cheever put his theories into practice. He and three partners invested $25,000 apiece to start a business in Colombia called Floramérica, which applied assembly-line practices and modern shipping techniques at greenhouses close to Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport. The company started with carnations. “We did our first planting in October of 1969, for Mother’s Day 1970, and we hit it right on the money,” says Cheever, 72, who is retired and lives in Medellín, Colombia, and New Hampshire.
It’s not often that a global industry springs from a school assignment, but Cheever’s paper and business efforts started an economic revolution in Colombia. A few other growers had exported flowers to the United States, but Floramérica turned it into a big business. Within five years of Floramérica’s debut at least ten more flower-growing companies were operating on the savanna, exporting some $16 million in cut flowers to the United States. By 1991, the World Bank reported, the industry was “a textbook story of how a market economy works.” Today, the country is the world’s second-largest exporter of cut flowers, after the Netherlands, shipping more than $1 billion in blooms. Colombia now commands about 70 percent of the U.S. market; if you buy a bouquet in a supermarket, big-box store or airport kiosk, it probably came from the Bogotá savanna.
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