Bloom, Bust, & Echo: Chris Duyvestyn ran this Pitt Meadows greenhouse for more than 30 years but says the business is no longer viable.

How a local grower lost the war of the roses.

For the first time in decades, Chris Duyvestyn of Maple Ridge didn’t play Cupid to thousands of suitors seeking to woo their beloved with bouquets of roses this past Valentine’s Day. Instead of shipping thousands of blossoms to West Coast and Alberta retailers, Duyvestyn and his wife, Mieka, flew to Arizona and contemplated how their business, Kanaka Greenhouses Ltd., went from bloom to bust.

Duyvestyn cites increased competition over the past five years from Colombia and Ecuador, as well as high heating costs, as the two main reasons for hanging up the trowel. Kanaka, once one of the largest producers of roses in Canada, “just wasn’t profitable anymore,” he says.

Duyvestyn and Mieka began building their operation shortly after emigrating from the Netherlands to Canada in 1969. After growing vegetables for two decades, Duyvestyn, who inherited his green thumb from tulip-growing Dutch ancestors, switched exclusively to roses in the late ’80s. Eventually, his two-hectare greenhouse business was producing four million stems a year. Duyvestyn only shipped his roses to B.C., Washington and Alberta, ensuring that the blossoms arrived fresh. Kanaka became known not only for fresh flowers but specialty roses, selling exotic purple and blue blooms as well as the traditional pink, red, yellow and white. Profits were as fecund as the soil his roses grew in, and Duyvestyn looked forward to his son and daughter taking over the family business.

But as can happen in any operation, the kids became distracted by other interests. Then another thorn began to fester. Three years ago, as petroleum prices soared, Duyvestyn’s annual heating bill doubled to $650,000. At the same time, an increasing number of Colombian and Ecuadorean flowers, especially roses, sprouted on the Canadian market. Latin American growers enjoy several advantages: they have plastic rather than glass greenhouses thanks to the equatorial climate, and workers earn about one-seventh of what their Canadian counterparts earn. Duyvestyn could not increase the price of his flowers to cover escalating operating costs and still compete with Latin American growers.

Most flowers sold in Canada are from Colombia, which increased its flower exports in 2009 to $71.8 million annually, up from $55 million in 2004. Colombia and Ecuador are known for producing long-stemmed, large-blossom roses, carnations and alstroemeria, a flower with delicate pastel petals. (The alstroe­meria, predict local growers, will be the next to succumb to competition from Latin America.)

The Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA), which has been negotiated but has not yet been approved in Parliament, is expected to further increase Colombian flower exports to Canada. The CCFTA will remove the duty – up to 10.5 per cent for roses – currently imposed on Colombian imports.

As his profit margins wilted, Duyvestyn considered replacing his roses with another type of flower. He looked to his cousin, John Duyvestyn of Hollandia Greenhouses in Pitt Meadows, who enjoys a thriving business selling brightly coloured gerbera daisies. Gerberas don’t tolerate being shipped long distances, allowing John to secure a niche market safe from South American competitors. However, Duyvestyn says, he was disheartened at the setup cost: $600,000 to restock new cuttings.

As difficult as it was to contemplate, Duyvestyn realized that, with age 65 edging ever closer, it was time to bow out gracefully from a business that not only sustained his family but brought beauty and joy into people’s lives. Having retired comfortably, Duyvestyn will now have to buy flowers rather than just run out to the greenhouse to cut his own bouquet. Still, he has no regrets. “Flower growing isn’t sentiment,” he says. “It’s just business.”