Caixin
Feb 02, 2021 05:45 AM
ECONOMY

In Depth: China’s Flower Growers Suffer Amid Lunar New Year Pandemic Resurgence

Kumquat growers in Guangzhou offer plants online through livestreaming.
Kumquat growers in Guangzhou offer plants online through livestreaming.

Before every Lunar New Year, residents of the southern city of Guangzhou follow the tradition of shopping for plants and flowers at a fair on downtown streets. But not this year as the city canceled the fair amid a resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This has been devastating for the region’s flower growers. In his 2.5-acre greenhouse, Li Wenxing said he felt a chill looking at his 120,000 blooming orchids. Orders for the holiday season account for 90% of his annual sales. Usually at this time, he should already have sold half of his orchids. But with this year’s holiday coming Feb. 12, he’s sold only about one sixth of the crop.

Flower growers like Li are explored selling flowers online, but the result is not promising as the costs of packaging and logistics eat into profits. And shopping for plants and flowers at the fair with families and friends is a festive activity, an experience online flower shopping lacks, said Huang Xiangfu, president of the Guangzhou Flower Industry Association.

The Pearl River Delta is China’s main growing region for potted flowers. According to the 2019 Guangdong Rural Statistical Yearbook, the province had 433,000 flower farmers and 122,000 flower industry practitioners in 2018. More than 80% of the flower farmers are small-scale family growers who rely on offline distributors to sell their products to flower markets.

Li said he usually sells his orchids in wholesale lots of 2,000 to 5,000 plants. Now he has to try to sell to retail customers at prices even lower than wholesale. Some growers in Foshan, another major flower-growing city in the Pearl River Delta, said they would accept a 50% discounted price just to cover part of their costs.

In Shashui village in Foshan, about 700,000 peach trees are in bud. Once in blossom, the pink flowers will wither in less than two weeks, a villager said. “Red peach blossom” in Cantonese is homophonic to “grand plan,” making it an auspicious decoration for households and businesses during the Lunar New Year.

The town of Chencun in Foshan has more than 3,000 growers of kumquat, a small tangerine-like plant that is particularly popular during the Lunar New Year as its Chinese name, translated as “gold orange,” symbolizes prosperity. The town produces 3.5 million pots of kumquat plants annually, accounting for 80% of China’s output and generating revenue of 3.8 billion yuan ($587 million) in 2019.

As it takes three to five years for a kumquat tree to bear fruit, growers usually plan their crops three years ahead of the selling season. If they can’t sell the plants before the Lunar New Year, three years of hard work will rot in the ground, a grower in Foshan told Caixin.

This year, a 20-inch kumquat plant sells for 30–40 yuan. After pot and plant shaping costs of 20 yuan, and land, labor and fertilizer costs, growers can hardly make any money.

Local governments and trade groups are actively exploring new selling channels for farmers, including cooperation with e-commerce platforms, organizing community and enterprise group purchases and setting up temporary selling sites, according to Liang Judong, vice president of the Chencun Kumquat Association.

But for many of these farmers, e-commerce is still “too high tech.” Most of the kumquat growers in Chencun are 50 to 60 years old and have never tried e-commerce, said town official Liang Jiali.

Ye Qing, a 60-year-old kumquat grower in Chencun, is resistant to the idea of selling plants online. Choosing a kumquat plant is all about pleasing the eye when a customer actually sees the plant, Ye said.

“Just look at a picture online and decide to pay for it, how can you choose the perfect kumquat plant this way?” he said.

Orchid growers are actively exploring e-commerce. In Foshan’s town of Lishui, some growers set up cameras in their greenhouses, trying to sell flowers through livestreaming. Outside the greenhouses, some were carefully packaging the delicate orchids.

Li said he has tried e-commerce, but the results were disappointing. He sold 2,000 pots of small orchids to a flower e-commerce platform Jan. 10 at a discounted price, but he also had to pay the platform a rebate of 2 yuan for each pot.

Another orchid producer complained of the high risks and costs of logistics. He said orchid packaging needs air-filled protective bags, cotton, non-woven cloth, preservatives and insulated boxes, which eat up about a third of the selling price. For each fallen bud, he has to compensate 3 yuan for each broken branch, five yuan, he said.

Li Wenxing said he still prefers the physical store approach. He recently invested 600,000 yuan to lease a 10,000-square-foot shop in a flower market in Guangzhou.

“It’s close to the end consumers, and I can directly deal with the customers,” he said. Li said he can sell about 1,000 orchids a day. As of Jan. 27, he still had about 100,000 orchids in his greenhouse.

Contact reporter Denise Jia (huijuanjia@caixin.com) and editor Bob Simison (bobsimison@caixin.com).

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