Flower District copes with nationwide farm consolidation



A flower shop on West 28th Street and Seventh Avenue.

The block of flower shops on West 28th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues is still open for business, but barely.

The historic flower district has struggled for years with soaring rents and an influx of hotels and traffic. But the remaining stores that have weathered the pandemic must now navigate another hurdle: farm consolidation. 

While customer traffic has steadily resumed in the neighborhood, the number of flower and plant growers in the United States is dwindling. Store owners now have fewer farms to buy from and are losing out on plant varieties, quality and price negotiations they once enjoyed. 

Kathy Tatem of Fragrance Plants & Flowers Inc. on West 28th Street sources 70% of her plants directly from Florida. She says farm consolidation is hurting plant selection.

“In my opinion, it affects quality,” said Tatem, who sells an array of palms, ferns and orchids.

A smaller nursery that Tatem used to source from was purchased by Costa, a major plant and flower farm in Florida. “The growing medium they use is cheaper,” she said about Costa, 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.

Foliage Garden has been in business for 42 years in the flower district. Corey Finegan, the store manager, said he sources most of his plants from Florida where growers increased production due to the nationwide demand for plants during the pandemic.

“Customer demand quadrupled in 2021, so a lot of investment went into farms,” said University of Florida economist Hayk Khachatryan, who researches nurseries in Florida. “Growers were asking me if they should double their production.” 

Despite the surge in plant production, some of the specialty suppliers that Finegan used to source from are now out of business. The number of Florida nurseries fell by upwards of 67% nationwide between 2017 and 2019, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Even Tatem’s California supplier has gone out of business, she said. California produces 80% of the nation’s flower supply, but floriculture operations are down by 70% since 2017, according to the USDA. 

Dan Sumner, an agricultural economics professor at the University of California, Davis, said costs and efficiency are behind the changes. “The number of farms tends to decline with farm consolidation. Cut flowers are capital and labor intensive,” he said, adding that nurseries with more efficient operations or younger family members are buying out older ones.  

Exclusive deals have also all but gone for flower district shops. 

Nicholas Cassandra of Associated Cut Flower Co. on West 28th Street once enjoyed exclusive deals on plants that other stores couldn’t buy.

“Consolidation hurts you because they have a monopoly now,” he said. “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.” 

Finegan, too, has seen a loss in exclusive deals from suppliers. “It’s hard, but I can’t blame them,” he said. “It’s nice to have something on the street that no one else has, but the people next door want to copy what we do.”

But there is a small subset of smaller farms that are doing well. 

Since 2019, small upstate New York farms making less than $20,000 in annual sales have increased their revenue by over 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 expert in agricultural supply chains from Cornell University.

Despite the challenges, “vendors are working their way back,” said Finegan. And flower district stores are figuring out ways to help each other, such as sharing their surplus stock with each other, said Cassandra, a perk that store owners often keep to themselves, he added.