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A not-so-rosy Valentine's

A rose grower expects to feel the love but instead feels the freeze when snow hits New York City.

February 15, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The flower farmer climbed out of his refrigerated box truck, slogging through the snow and face-slapping wind. Only die-hard vendors like him would show up at the outdoor market in the middle of New York City's first major snowstorm of the season.

"Happy Valentine's Day," Michael Barry said with a frown. "This is terrible."

Winter storms slammed the Northeast and Midwest on Wednesday, but for Barry -- this state's last commercial rose grower -- the bad weather could not have hit at a worse time. He spends his days delicately rearing 50,000 hybrid tea roses at his Rose Meadow Flower Farm on Long Island. This week, his staff put in extra hours creating pink, red and orange bouquets to be sold at the Union Square Greenmarket on Valentine's Day, the most important day for flower sales all year.

Barry, 57, thought he would have no problem getting customers to snap up his roses. Then, like baby's breath, snowflakes began to flutter across Manhattan on Tuesday evening. With more snow coming, Barry worried. Would anyone show up at the market to take his tender petals home?

"It's going to affect my sales," he said. "People are not going to want to go out in the weather."

Buying a flower in February, Barry said, is like eating ice cream in the snow -- a show of faith that winter is halfway over. Last year, the flower industry sold $189 million in roses for Valentine's, according to Peter Moran of the Society of American Florists. But on Wednesday, shipments were canceled, shops closed and deliveries late because of severe snow and ice storms across the region.

Weather woes

Throughout the Northeast, wicked weather grounded hundreds of flights, kept thousands of students home from school and left families without heat or lights. Blizzard warnings were posted for parts of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and northeastern New York. In Manhattan, freezing snow and sleet snarled traffic, delayed trains and sent cars skidding.

For Barry, waking up to ice on Valentine's Day, after a mild New York winter, only deepened his despair over the fading U.S. flower industry. He knew Wednesday's storm would mean more money lost, more friends questioning why he ever left his entomologist job to grow flowers.

With the temperature hovering at 17 degrees at 5 a.m., Barry loaded 1,800 roses into the truck. He drove through the powder, braving salt-crusted icy roads, fishtailing at the Midtown Tunnel, sometimes slowing to 5 mph. He arrived at his flower stand just after 10 a.m.

For love of the flowers

Since 1983, Barry's life has been roses. He has laced together bouquets of blue ones for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, yellows for Andy Warhol and champagne-colored blooms for Prince Charles' wife, Camilla. But he is less patient now, embittered by having to compete with overseas growers. All the East Coast flower farmers he knew closed their greenhouses long ago.

Barry kept on because he loves the rose -- how vibrant it looks fresh off the stem, how sweet it smells as it unfurls, how perfect its petals are in bloom.

"What gives people goose bumps is to look at a rose the way Shakespeare looked at it," he said. "It's unbelievable because it's so magnificent."

But such adoration may not be enough to keep him in business. "Roses have, in general, been devalued," he said. "So I get thrown into the same barrel with them."

Lately, Barry has been considering shutting it all down. Some customers don't appreciate the long hours he works, without benefits or overtime. He plants his rose shrubs by hand, grooming, watering and watching them grow.

When someone asks why he charges $30 for a dozen long-stem roses when they can buy flowers at the bodega across the street for half the price, Barry responds: "What's that drink your drinking? A grande Starbucks latte? What did you pay for that?" His roses are freshly cut, he says, and customers won't get that in a shipment from overseas. Poor-quality flowers at a reduced price, he explains, are easy to find.

Imports account for approximately 70% of fresh flowers sold in the United States, with the top growers coming out of Colombia and Ecuador, according to the Society of American Florists. Thousands of U.S. growers have gone out of business, with 34 rose producers left in California, the most prolific flower-growing state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

"I can't afford to do this," said Barry, a father of two girls. "Retire? Sell my land? Maybe teaching? Play the stock market? Go out to L.A. to make movies? I don't know."

At the farmers market, a normally bustling outdoor affair full of vendors selling jam, chicken, shrimp, organic pastries and cider, only a few had shown up in the storm. There was one farmer with apples, another with pears, and Barry with his roses.

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