Comedian turned organic flower grower, Ramiro ‘Robin’ Peñaherrera, has been growing flowers, primarily Gypsophila or Baby Breath, in Ecuador for the last 23 years and, as he tells Rebecca Campbell, he has no desire to poison anyone with the use of pesticides.
‘When I first got into it [flower growing], the agronomists said that where there’s a pest, there’s a pesticide,’ explains Ramiro Peñaherrera, president of LatinFlor S.A, an organic farm in Ecuador. ‘It wasn’t just in Ecuador, California had a similar situation.’
Enjoying a cup of green tea in the spring sunshine at The Diplomat Hotel near Sloane Square, Peñaherrera explains how a problem with leaf miner fly saw $325,000 a year spent on Vertamic, a green-label chemical. ‘We went from using it twice a week to once a week to every other day.’
Reducing the cost and the infestation was achieved with the help of a parasitical wasp, which attacks the larvae of the leaf miner fly, and a process of vacuuming the farm with giant vacuum packs. Two years later leaf miner fly was under control, stopping the use of Vertamic.
‘This saved the Baby Breath industry in Ecuador. Eighty per cent of all Baby Breath grown in the world is grown in Ecuador and five or six thousand people depend their jobs on it.’
President of his farm and director of Flowers for Kids, it’s clear that Peñaherrera is passionate about what he has done for 23 years, dedicating his time by travelling to farms around the country.
‘I give presentations to all the farms that are part of this program, Flowers for Kids, explaining the importance of the flower industry and how it’s enabled people to live within their culture and with their families.’
Set up in 2004 by 24 Ecuadorian flower growers, Flowers for Kids is a floral education program teaching schoolchildren, educators and parents on the merits of flower care. Peñaherrera also travels to the United States training florists on how to give classes to children and parents.
‘Americans don’t buy flowers as much as Europeans do because flowers don’t last as long because they don’t know how to care for them. An educated American – and that’s not necessarily an oxymoron – is the best consumer in the world, but producers have to educate them.’
So, I ask, what’s the best way to care for flowers? ‘The flower food sachets, or use two tablespoons of sugar and one tablespoon of something sour for every litre,’ explains Peñaherrera.
Standing up for an industry that needs more positive recognition, Peñaherrera travels to Washington, lobbying to congressmen on the flower business. With 20 per cent of the Ecuadorian flower industry owned by American citizens, Peñaherrera believes that flower growers are the best ambassadors, showing America how they do business and that it’s not a corrupt enterprise. Last year Peñaherrera and 70 flower growers and the country’s floriculture association, Expoflores, organised the donation of 10,000 roses for Memorial Day at Arlington Cemetery. This year they will hand out 50,000 roses at Arlington and another 48,000 at 120 cemeteries across America.
The objective is to improve relations between Ecuador and the United States, but Peñaherrera says it’s a challenge. Another is the stigma the industry has been branded with. When he tells people what he does for a living he finds their response the same: labour and pesticide issues. While he agrees that there have been abuses, it has redeemed itself becoming the agricultural star of the highlands of Ecuador and Colombia.
‘Change.org did an article last year about how bad the flower business is and they refused to actually confront the situation,’ explains Peñaherrera. ‘When I said come down and see and talk to me about it they didn’t and a lot of people are affected by that.’
Today, the flower industry is showing a side that the media rarely report on: creating jobs, generating income, keeping families together, eliminating pesticide use and respecting workers. Women in the flower business make up 65 per cent of workers, but without the industry in Ecuador many would find themselves separated from their families, migrating to the United States or Spain. Peñaherrera tells me that the demand for flowers enables families to stay together to work in an industry that they are proud and happy of.
The benefits that they receive are testament to this: transportation, breakfast, lunch and dinner, pension plans, state pension plans and a doctor on call if there are over 60 workers on a farm.
‘It’s in the NGOs best interests to say that the flower industry is shite and because they like this whole politics of poverty. For a year I worked for an NGO program, but I saw how inefficient other NGOs are, and I find them basically ignorant.’
While poverty is one issue that many Ecuadorians face, particularly in the countryside, the flower business has changed this. Getting more children into education is another direct result of the flower industry with many children going to university thanks to their parents working on the flower farm and having enough money to pay for their food and education.
For Peñaherrera, though, it is an honourable thing to produce something. ‘Where there are flowers, there are jobs with dignity.’ Unfortunately, with the industry receiving negative press people avoid one farm in favour of another with a certified agency name behind it. Speaking his mind Peñaherrera calls them a scam.
‘You believe in Fairtrade chocolate or coffee and I think it’s a lovely idea, but it’s child labour. It’s challenging for a large cacao/coffee farm to be Fairtrade because it’s employing workers.’ According to Peñaherrera, this wouldn’t be the case if he owned a one-or-two-hectare farm, had no social security and had his own children picking cacao or coffee. ‘It’s a horrible paradox,’ says Peñaherrera.
As a result, organic farms have refused to pay Fairtrade or Flo-Cert to certify something that the farmers know is good, preferring to spend the money on their workers. ‘I like the relationship I have with the people I work with and I have no desire to poison anyone,’ says Peñaherrera. The pesticides they do use are completely organic. ‘Garlic, camomile and peppers seem to work really well on things. There are a lot of things out there and it’s fantastic.’
While his farm and others are using organic methods to grow flowers, does he think that people buy flowers on appearance first before they think about where they come from?
‘I would have said an absolute yes five years ago. Now, because of all the Valentine and Mother’s Day negative publicity toward the flower business it has actually stopped people from buying flowers.’
He raises an interesting point, as flower buyers are more likely to question whether the farmers were treated well and whether there were pesticides used.
As Peñaherrera says: ‘The media is always looking for a bad story.’