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Ernesto Velez, a giant figure in the Colombian floral industry, died Sunday, March 21, of pancreatic cancer. He was 71 years old.

The owner of Suasque, a flower farm near Bogotá, which he founded with his wife, Lucie de Velez, in 1980, Mr. Velez had been president of the board of directors for Asocolflores, the Colombian grower association, for the past seven years. Memorial services were held March 23 in Bogotá.

"Mr. Velez was known not only for his initiatives in the areas of social responsibility and implementing environmentally friendly practices but also for his drive, his business vision and the strength to endure through the toughest of times," Asocolflores said in a March 23 announcement of his death.

"Ernesto had a great impact on the floral industry, and we are all better people for having known him," Christine Boldt told The Produce News March 24. "He will be missed. I worked with Ernesto for more than five years during my tenure as the executive vice president of the Association of Floral Importers of Florida."

Mr. Velez adopted biological fertilizers and integrated pest management practices several years ago and soon had the lowest levels of pesticides and fertilizers among Colombian growers. He inspired other growers to do the same, while his wife, a nurse and psychologist, developed a family violence prevention program on conflict resolution which has reached 30,000 flower workers and their families throughout Colombia.

Mr. Velez also employed management techniques unusual for the floral industry, such as time and motion studies which enabled him to offer bonuses to employees who met production and quality standards. This enabled him to have fewer employees while paying them above industry norms, leading to lower employee turnover, he told The Produce News in an interview last year.

Mr. Velez was well known in the U.S. floral industry for representing Colombian floriculture as a member of the board of the Society of American Florists, the American Floral Endowment, the Flower Promotion Organization and other groups. He also served as a consultant for the World Bank and for the Inter-American Bank on farming development projects in Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Paraguay.

In September 2008, Mr. Velez and his wife received the Paul Ecke Jr. Award from the Society of American Florists for their commitment to environmental and social progress.

The couple also was honored at the 2009 Proflora trade show in Colombia as floricultural industry role models. In January 2010, Mr. Velez, who held a bachelor's degree from the University of California-Davis and a post- graduate degree from the University of Florida, received an outstanding alumnus award from the University of Florida's Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences. The award was presented by Terril Nell, professor and head of the university's environmental horticulture department.

Mr. Velez is survived by his wife, two daughters in graduate school, and two sons -- one of whom, Daniel, is general manager of Suasuque.

"Ernesto's passing represents an irreparable loss, not only for his family but also for Asocolflores and Colombian floriculture," Augusto Solano, president of Asocolflores, said in a statement to The Produce News. "Ernesto dedicated most of his time to Asocolflores, being proactive by fueling ideas and putting forth proposals. He represented Asocolflores with great dignity at both national and international levels."