Linda Killian

Taking the bloom off the free trade rose

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Linda Killian
June 29, 2008

WHEN I graduated from high school in Guilford, Conn., more years ago than I'd like to admit, I wore a yellow rose pinned to my gown that was given to me and all of my classmates by Pinchbeck's Rose Farm.

Pinchbeck's is a wholesale grower of cut roses that has been in business for 80 years. It's no small operation. They have the largest greenhouse under one roof in the country and sell 3 million roses a year to florists all over Connecticut and New York City. Back when roses were shipped by rail, Pinchbeck roses were also sold in Boston.

Pinchbeck's managed to survive the Depression and several wars but it can't survive the importation of cheap roses from South America. And yesterday, Pinchbeck's closed its wholesale business for good.

Just a few years ago there were a dozen wholesale rose growers in Connecticut, but according to Tom Pinchbeck, his business is the last of its kind in all of New England. The weak economy and rising energy costs, but mostly the competition from cheaper foreign imports, forced him to shut down.

Revenue for the company, which employs 30 people, is half of what it was in 1990. Back then imported roses were only about 5 percent of the US market. Now more than 90 percent of all the cut roses sold in the United States come from outside our borders, most of them from Colombia, which is the world's second-largest supplier of cut flowers.

What's happening may be inevitable, and it's a story that is being repeated in other cities and towns around the country. When a well-loved store on Main Street closes its doors or a locally owned manufacturing facility shuts down, the benefits and support it provided to its community can't be replaced by the economic upside of foreign trade.

In 2007, the US trade deficit was $700 billion, a sobering number.

Many people know a business like Pinchbeck's that has been forced to close and someone who has lost their job because of cheaper foreign labor. The benefits of trade can be less personal and more diffuse - lower cost goods for US consumers and the development of other kinds of businesses that can take advantage of US strengths.

But it can often be difficult to separate hard economic realities from personal stories when the factory in your town is shuttered and the folks you know are out of a job.

Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, recently announced a trip to Colombia, undoubtedly to draw attention to the stalled trade agreement with that nation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have put the brakes on consideration of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Pelosi has said domestic economic issues must be addressed before the trade agreement can be taken up, and she maintains that concerns about the effects of past trade agreements on the US economy are driving her decision to go slow.

The Democrats have also raised concerns about the treatment of trade unionists in Colombia, but mostly this seems like an effort to score political points with voters and organized labor in this country.

Colombian-produced goods like roses can enter the United States duty free, while American manufactured and agricultural goods exported to that country face stiff tariffs. The agreement under consideration would eliminate the tariffs on most US goods entering Colombia, and so ratification of the agreement should be a good thing for US businesses.

But with the American economy souring and voters in a somber mood, trade seems to be a dirty word.

Even if it were ratified, the treaty wouldn't help Pinchbeck's Rose Farm. Selling roses to Colombia would be like carrying coals to Newcastle.

Despite what's happening to his business, Tom Pinchbeck isn't bitter. "I tend to believe in free trade," he says philosophically. "Things are going to get produced where they are more efficiently produced. To me it just seems inevitable."

Linda Killian, a professor of journalism and the director of Boston University's Washington Center, is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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