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Floral institute's Ecuador trip reveals a man from Missouri

by John S. Niblock | April 16, 2009
QUITO, ECUADOR -- George Staby thrust the temperature probe into the bucket of flowers as a hushed crowd of about 30 people encircled him. A rare smile flitted across his face a few beats later as he withdrew the instrument and read its dial.

"OK," he said. "Thirty-four degrees -- right as rain." The group let out a collective sigh and Victor Ponce, general manager at the Rosen Tantau flower farm in Quito, Ecuador, wiped a hand across his brow. He was only half- kidding.

The exercise was not academic. About 60 percent of the flowers from these and other farms in Ecuador are shipped to the United States, and many find their way into supermarket floral departments. Two growers in Ecuador, Jardines de Cayambe and Terra Nigra, are among those growing roses on contract for mass-market firms in the United States.

When it comes to flowers and the cold chain, Dr. Staby is from Missouri, the "Show Me" state. On a mid-February two-day Perishables Research Organization institute in Ecuador, he found many ways to put his morning lecture points into practical use as attendees from four countries toured five flower farms. Another random check, at a flower farm that raises several varieties of summer flowers, did not go as well. The water was not cool enough. Dr. Staby, the institute's founder, waved the probe like a teacher remonstrating a wayward pupil. "Not good," he pronounced. Heads hung low on that one.

Rosen Tantau, a century-old garden and cut-rose breeder and grower, had a testing room where varieties were checked for vase life. Dr. Staby pointed out approvingly that more than one flower from each variety was tested so results would not be skewed by an atypical flower. At Pyganflor, a grower of gypsophila or baby's breath, the institute head was positively exuberant when he took flowers out of a bucket just in from the field, turned the bucket upside down, and no water ran out. "Dry harvesting," he proclaimed. "It's important to minimize the time flowers are in solution at the grower level." Chalk up another win.

Dr. Staby's research shows flowers are actually better off and have longer vase life if they are not plunked in water immediately after being cut in the field. That causes them to continue to grow, he had explained to the class that morning, moving his shoulders to illustrate how the growing flowers jostle each other in the box. They should be precooled for 30 minutes and given enough solution to restore water levels but not enough to encourage them to grow. Dr. Staby's research indicates that 70 percent of the factors that determine vase life are set at harvest.

At another flower farm, Dr. Staby pulled a bunch of roses off a processing table and showed the group the bottom tie on the stems. Because they were tied low, he said, when they arrive at the supermarket the stems are difficult to cut for the all-important hydration before being set out for sale. "If you don't recut stems when the flowers arrive at the store, you lose 50 percent of vase life," he said. A redeeming feature: The farm's bouquets are shipped with flower-food packets, another Staby must-do.

Along the tour, the group saw various methods of pest control. They included dangling metal strips at greenhouse entrances to scare birds away; birdseed with chili spices at the end of every flower row to repel the birds (presumably after a few snorts they fly off in search of a drink of water); giant strips of yellow plastic flypaper to catch insects; and, at Pyganflor, a crew of 30 that does nothing except vacuum insects off every plant, every day. Bad insects are sucked to oblivion, while good predator insects are strained out by the mesh and released back into the fields.

At Rosen Tantau, chamomile, nettles and mint grow next to the greenhouse. They are ground to produce an extract that is sprayed on the plants and naturally repels insects.

The tour featured spectacular scenery, with volcanic mountains soaring four miles high, their steep slopes somehow farmed by ingenious natives. In Quito, gleaming office buildings loomed over squalid slums. At several meals on the farms, Ecuadorian shrimp and a signature treat, potato-and-cheese soup, were served. Attendees saw roses nine feet tall, and a state-of-the-art "clean room" where 500,000 hybrid roses a year are grafted by workers clad in smocks, plastic caps, nose-and-mouth filters and shoe covers -- a scene more like a hospital emergency room than a rose-growing facility.

The ultimate test, oddly enough, was related not to flowers, but to the equator, which runs through Ecuador near Quito. Dr. Staby visited a park where the equator is marked by a yellow strip of concrete. He had a bucket of water and basin in tow. His objective: To do a "show me" test on the premise that if water in a bowl circulates clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the southern, it should go straight down on the equator. His finding, contrary to reports of some researchers: Yes, on the equator the water goes straight down.

(For more on the Ecuador trip, see the April 6 issue of The Produce News.)