The number of wholesale flower shops on West 28th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in Manhattan is steadily declining. One-quarter of wholesale flower and nursery stock shops have closed in the district’s zip code since 2013, according to census data.
The city’s flower district has struggled for years with soaring rents and an influx of hotels and traffic. The remaining stores that have weathered the pandemic must now navigate another challenge: farm consolidation.
While customer traffic in the neighborhood is recovering, the number of flower and plant growers in the United States is declining. Wholesale shop owners now have fewer farms to buy from and are losing out on plant varieties, quality and price negotiations they once enjoyed.
Fragrance Plants & Flowers Inc., a shop on West 28th Street that sells a variety of palms, ferns and orchids, sources 70% of its plants from growers in Florida. Farm consolidation is hurting plant selection, according to Kathy Tatem, the store’s manager. “It affects quality,” she said.
One of the store’s suppliers was acquired by Costa Farms, one of the nation’s largest plant and flower growers in Florida that covers over 6,000 acres globally. “The growing medium they use is cheaper,” she said, adding that “the sizes aren’t what they used to be, and how they’re planted isn’t the best. I’ve made complaints about certain plants,” she said.
Justin Hancock, a horticulturist at Costa Farms, said that the growing medium they use is a byproduct of coconut, which is more sustainable than using conventional peat. As for size, smaller and shorter plant varieties are easier to ship.
“If it’s going to allow us to save money for ourselves and the retailer by getting more plants on the truck, then we see that as a success,” Hancock said.
At the same time, Hancock said that the perception that Costa Farms is “buying up the world” is not the complete story. “These acquisitions are not hostile takeovers, rather other companies are coming to Costa Farms and asking if we are interested. We are not forcing them to sell to us,” Hancock said. In the past decade, two of Costa Farms’ four acquisitions have been a result of farmers retiring and aging out of the business.
The number of Florida nurseries fell by over 67% and 65% nationwide between 2017 and 2019, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The consolidation of plant farms in Florida accelerated as producers sought to boost production as consumers increased purchases for their homes during the pandemic.
“Customer demand quadrupled in 2021, so a lot of investment went into farms,” said Hayk Khachatryan, a professor of food resource economics at the University of Florida, who studies nurseries in the state. “Growers were asking me if they should double their production.”
Still, some specialty suppliers to Foliage Garden, a store that has operated in the flower district for 42 years, have gone out of business, according to Corey Finegan, the store manager.
A California-based supplier to Fragrance Plants & Flowers also closed, Tatem said. The state produces 80% of the nation’s flower supply, but floriculture operations are down 70% since 2017, according to the USDA.
Dan Sumner, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis, said costs and efficiency are behind the changes. “Cut flowers are capital and labor intensive,” he said, and nurseries with more efficient operations or younger family members are buying out older ones.
Exclusive deals have also all but disappeared for flower district shops. Associated Cut Flower Co., another retailer on West 28th Street, once was able to offer customers exclusive deals on plants that other stores couldn’t match because of its relationships with particular suppliers.
“Consolidation hurts you because they have a monopoly now,” said Nicholas Cassandra, vice president of Associated Cut Flower Co. “You can’t get the price you want. We used to front people the money and they would only sell to us, and you get equity and credit. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
A handful of smaller growers are doing well. Since 2019, Upstate New York farms with less than $20,000 in annual floriculture sales have increased revenue by more than 60%, according to the USDA.
Cassandra said he buys his flowers from farms in upstate New York that opened when more people embraced an agrarian lifestyle during the pandemic.
Finegan said having a local greenhouse in Long Island has allowed his shop to store some exotic plants.
But the seasonality of New York soil and costs of greenhouses prevent local farms from producing during the off-season, said Kristen Park, an agricultural economist at Cornell University.
Flower district stores are figuring out ways to help each other, such as sharing their surplus stock with each other, Cassandra said.
Despite the challenges, “vendors are working their way back,” Finegan said.