Arava - Eyal Toueg - February 2012
A rose farm in the Arava. Flower production is 3% of what it used to be. Photo by Eyal Toueg
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For the first time ever, Israel will need to import flowers for Valentine's Day as a result of the drastic drop in locally produced flowers due to foreign competition.

The industry has contracted 97% since its peak in the 1970s and 1980s when Israel produced 1.5 billion flowers a year, including 600 million roses. Many of these flowers were for export. Today the country grows only 20 million flowers a year, said Haim Hadad, head of Israel's Flower Growers Association.

Growers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and other countries have seized a growing share of the export market because of their low labor and water costs with which Israeli growers can not compete

Most of the workers on Israeli flower farms are Thai, and receive minimum wage - about $41 a day. In Africa, workers receive about $2 a day. In addition, many of the African farms receive free water and nearly free land, due to government programs designed to encourage the industry.

A large number of the African farms are Dutch owned, while a few are owned by Israelis. Much of the knowhow comes from former Israeli farmers.

Hadad said the sharp increase in local production costs was partly to blame for the destruction of the country's flower industry. Farmers face a lack of workers, taxes, and higher energy and water costs, he said.

For the first time, local farmers could not fill all the orders for Valentine's Day, he noted. As a result, flowers are being imported from Holland and Germany, he said.