Chapter Twelve, Missed Wedding in Quito

John Pouw - a founding father of today's rose world and a novel in the making, from an old boys' industry to a competitive business.

By: JOHN POUW | 11-03-2021 | 44 min read
Floral Books

Sjef had a fear of flying, but a sense of where the industry was going. “Monkey countries” and “waste of time and money”, were Father Dré’s reactions to my announcement that Sjef agreed to participating in a flower show in Ecuador. “They are no members of UPOV, so we should let the propagators do the selling there and pay us the royalties,” was his more specific explanation. Still, Sjef was the boss and thinking of Big Anton’s ideas about the 50% share we were giving the V.R.V. members for their efforts, I started preparing the trip.

First, I sent a fax to Guy Bergdahl of Jackson & Perkins Roses. This American breeder had repeatedly asked for the Witte de Wit representation in Latin America. In the Yellow Pages I looked up possible Spanish courses in the area. My sister-in-law, ground stewardess with KLM, advised me to contact the navy hospital in Rotterdam to find out about vaccinations and other precautions. I checked the atlas and encyclopedia for the whereabouts and some basic information. I had a month to prepare. For my Spanish classes it would be best to do a crash course immediately preceding the trip, so that the accumulated knowledge would be put into practice instantly and thus find some vacant grey cells to occupy for a longer period. It took Guy a second fax and a telephone call to react. We agreed to arrive in Quito some ten days prior to the show, visit several farms to be well prepared, also physically—Quito being some three kilometers above sea level—for the show.

Armed to the teeth with pills and injections against yellow fever, malaria, diphtheria, tetanus, polio, smallpox, typhoid and cholera, 100 hours of crash teaching and homework, pocket dictionary: I was ready to conquer South America. Until Guy sent a fax a few days before departure. Important company matters had forced him to change and cut back the schedule. He would only be there for the show. I was lucky to be able to change my ticket, but decided to stay a few days after the show, if possible.

Anton Speelman, Dutch propagator and V.R.V. member, had approached us several times to collaborate in Colombia and Ecuador, but, because of the liaison with J&P, this was out of the question. Nevertheless, I called him and we agreed that he would introduce me to several farms after the show. J&P were out of their mind, he said, to think they could visit farms in the mornings and be at the show in the afternoons and evenings. All the farm managers would be busy with the fair and not be prepared to entertain visitors. It was hard anyway, he mentioned, to get into farms. And risky as well. Since he was also leaving at the eve of the exhibition, we had the time to meet and take the time to get to know each other.

I asked Uncle Piet about Anton Speelman. His plants were the best in Holland, at least the stentlings on Natal Briar rootstock he made at his propagation facility in the Aalsmeer area. This type of plants was intended for growers who grew on rockwool.

A week later I went to see Speelman. His facilities were spic and span, and he took ample time to show me around, and show the different types of plants before sitting down in his stylish office. He seemed to like shiny black. He commenced by explaining that he had nothing to do with the business of his brother-in-law Rein Haase who, after his most recent bankruptcy, was now working under his wife’s name: Haase Speelman International. Anton Speelman indicated that a lot of rejected half year-old bushes were obtained by Rein Haase by using the name of Speelman, never paid for, and sold into new production areas: South America, India, Morocco. Haase would charge an all-in price, giving his clients the impression royalties were included, but never paid a cent to the breeders. There were also some Israelis acting the same way. “Parias,” he called them, “benefiting from the hard work of the licensed propagators, promoting varieties, supplying decent quality plants and paying royalties to the breeders.” “You must understand me well,” he continued, “I am not asking for a higher commission, but a closer collaboration. Witte de Wit breeds, I propagate, promote, sell and collect the royalties for you.” I was not in a position to react to this, but I knew that this was not in the line of thinking of Sjef and Anton. “I arranged our stands in Quito to be side by side. What do you think?” “Well, Anton, a good neighbor is always better than a far friend, they say, so let’s see how the show goes. We need to learn more about what is happening in the world first.”

Speelman confided that he was setting up a local production of half year-old bushes in Ecuador. I assumed we could have this fit into the existing propagation license for Witte de Wit varieties. For the LAVAL varieties I did not know.

We kept in touch over the next week, with Speelman shipping flowers and posters for us, since he was shipping his own material as well and had done this before. Uncle Piet arranged for the best flowers of Eva®, Icon®, Leonardo®, and the newly introduced Pavarotti (a mutation from Leonardo®) and Apollo®, another promising star from the selection.

Before long, I packed for my first big trip and set off with Iberia via Madrid to Quito. The descent was spectacular, with first the icy mountaintops visible through the clouds, then the aircraft going through the clouds, breaking and turning at the same time to avoid the mountains, flying low over the city before landing. Later I learned that American Airlines pilots refused to land here and, later, would receive a bonus for landing.

Although I had flown to Toronto and Vancouver, this 15-hour trip was exhausting. The air conditioning on the longer flight had been malfunctioning. It must have stunk when the ground staff opened the door. My mind was set on showering as soon as possible. I took a taxi to the Oro Verde Hotel, in which the show would be held at the same time. In the lobby, I ran into Maarten Lens, director of Terra Blanca, who, as it turned out, had been waiting for me. The Dutch rose breeding scene centered in Aalsmeer, but Maarten was the odd one out with his southern Dutch accent, good looks and patience. Terra Blanca’s local representative, Enrique de Guzman, had instructed him to wait for me and direct me to a meeting room, where the Ecuadorian section of IRBO was holding a meeting. Maarten was unaware of its topics, but suspected it had to do with a delegation of excited agents that had just arrived from Bogota and insisted on an instant meeting with their Ecuadorian counterparts. I insisted on taking a shower first. Maarten agreed. He must have a good scent.

I was astonished to hear of an Ecuadorian IRBO. A week earlier, Bernd Solf, Arent Ruighaver, Piet Staphorst, Hans Schulz and I had met in Hamburg to set up a breeders’ platform as a joint effort to fight the piracy of our intellectual properties. We had decided to form the International Rose Breeders Organisation for which Ruighaver would act as candidate chairman and I as candidate secretary-treasurer. In November, when the flower world would meet in Aalsmeer for the ‘Bloemenvaktentoonstelling’, internationally known as the Aalsmeer Flower Show, we would have a meeting for which all cutrose breeders would be invited. It took me over 20 hours to get from my home to the Oro Verde, but somehow the intention to form a breeders group lead to an international association with national subsidiaries in no more than a week. The amazing world of roses.\

I checked in, was shown to my room, dropped the baggage on the bed, jumped in and out of the shower, put on some fresh clothes, went back to the lobby where Maarten was waiting. The receptionist handed me a message that was just delivered. When I was in the shower, I had heard the telephone, but assumed this was Maarten telling me to hurry up. The note was from Anton Speelman, who wanted to see me that night.

The conference room contained a dozen Latinos and one American, Guy Bergdahl, who briefly explained me that they just had the spontaneous inaugural assembly of IRBO Ecuador and could now start with the topic my presence was needed for, namely as Board member of IRBO. For this, both Colombians and Ecuadorians were present. The chairman welcomed me and the meeting was continued in Spanish. I was trying to wake up the grey cells filled with 100 hours of crash course but was only able to pick up bits and pieces. As far as I could figure out, there had been sudden developments on the Colombian front with respect to the breeders’ rights legislation. When suddenly everybody looked at me, I had not yet caught up and had no idea what the question was. My other neighbor saved me by not only repeating the question in English, but also by summing up the underlying information: “We think that we can get the law through Colombian parliament within a few weeks by immediately installing a lobbyist with the right contacts. My cousin is a lawyer there and he can do the job. IRBO is asked to contribute $ 25,000.” Afterwards, he introduced himself: “Enrique de Guzman, lawyer and representing Terra Blanca in Colombia and Ecuador. I am glad that IRBO turns out to be such a decisive organization. We are very excited and will not disappoint you.” I was not feeling entirely comfortable with the situation but found comfort with the fact that other breeders or their agents had also been present.

It was getting close to midnight. I was past any form of appetite and awake for 26 hours. Since the exhibition was one floor up and the opening scheduled for the next evening, I decided to have a look. Since this was the first show in Ecuador, the HHP (Holland Horticulture Promotion) organizers would have standard booths, only variable in size. The stand holder was responsible for flowers, promotion material and staffing the booth. The booths were ready: white walls, dark blue carpets and uniform signs with the names of the companies, of which I only recognized a few breeders: Von Bismarck, Rosen Vorbeck, Jackson & Perkins, Terra Blanca, Devor, Lebrun and Groupe Ferry. The arrangers were filling the vases with flowers. Loud music was keeping them inspired and, sure they were having a good time and even taking ample time to inform me of their schedule and the fact that the flowers had arrived from Holland in good condition.

Then Anton Speelman tapped on my shoulder. I had completely forgotten about him and apologized. He had heard of the meeting, but still needed to talk with me. It could not wait. Besides, early next morning I was to leave with Guy and his agent to visit some farms and in the afternoon, there was to be a meeting with the Ecuadorian Minister of Economic Affairs to also push for a breeders’ rights law in Ecuador.

Strolling between the half empty booths, Speelman told me that he had a customer waiting in the lobby who wanted an answer before the start of the show. “This owner of Emerald Farms wants to plant Premier Rouge® and do his own propagation. Litzman South America tells him that they represent the variety in Latin America, but so does Jackson & Perkins. I know there is discussion on the ownership between a Frenchman and an Italian on this, but one thing is sure: Witte de Wit holds the variety at least for Holland. The other issue is more concerning for me.” Anton Speelman looked worried. He was an intelligent man, concerned about the future of his business. “If you allow Emerald farms to do their own propagation, then where is my future? I worked hard to promote varieties with this client, provided good plants and service. But, I must be realistic, Emerald has the size and capital to make their own plants. You must help me here, John.”

I needed another shower, not to clean, but to wake up. News of the apparent dispute between Paul Schmidt and Agostino Crispi over the ownership of LAVAL had also travelled extremely fast. “You go down to the lobby, I’ll find a washroom and come down,” I said. “Monkey countries,” Father Dré had said, but for different reasons.

Thinking of this in the washroom, I splashed water on my face as an alternative shower. Although awake, I felt like a zombie, not knowing whether I could think straight. With the success of Premier Rouge® in Holland, indeed there was bound to be interest here as well and the ownership of the variety would be an issue at the fair. Although burdened with weird habits, Father Dré was a straight thinker. His ‘monkey countries’ referred to the absence of rights. “Always start with the legislation,” he always said when we sat down to draw up new contracts. “UPOV and national legislations come first, then contractual law. What you lay down in an agreement may not be contradictory to any of these.” Walking down the stairs I had an idea.

“Allow me to introduce you to each other,” Anton Speelman started, introducing the tall, slim, statesmanlike American with slight German accent and bright grey eyes as “Peter Daimler, President of Emerald Farms”. No doubt to impress Daimler, Anton promoted me to “director of Witte de Wit”. I left it at that. After the firm handshake Daimler took over instantly. “Allow me to be to the point. It is late, you had a long trip, and we all have a show to go. I want to stick my neck out and plant Premier Rouge®, one hectare to start with. I expect a fair discount on the royalty for this. There is some confusion over the ownership of the variety. I am one of the few to always pay my royalties, based on gentleman’s agreement and not a law, but I have no intention to pay twice. Also, despite the good relationship I have with Anton Speelman, I will make my own plants. The plants from Holland are expensive because of the transport, not always of good quality, and the Israelis I don’t trust.”

I tried to match his style in my reply: “Mr. Daimler, first, I appreciate your view on compensating the breeders for their R&D efforts. You are right: today there is no law for the Andean Pact, but these days we are making unexpected progress here and with a law in place, loyal customers come first. Second, I think Premier Rouge® will be a good choice. Prices in Holland are excellent and also its production is higher than we anticipated. As far as its ownership is concerned, the company LAVAL International was sold by Mr. Schmidt to Mr. Crispi, Mr. Schmidt then filed for a divorce from his wife, but Mrs. Schmidt did not approve of the transfer of the real estate. Crispi and Schmidt are in the process of sorting this out. In the Benelux, Witte de Wit is agent for both parties, so whatever the outcome, we hold the selling rights there.” I hoped in fact that this sounded too complicated to imply further. I continued quickly: “Since there are no rights in Colombia and Ecuador, we can base the marketing here on the Dutch rights through the propagation contract we have with Anton Speelman.” I had quickly done some calculating, relying on my memory of the recently adapted LAVAL contract, signed by Crispi and the old one, signed by Schmidt. “My proposal is as follows: You pay Hfl 1.10 per plant before the end of the year, the propagation is carried out under the contractual responsibility and supervision of Anton Speelman. Any compensation for Anton Speelman is our problem.” Daimler stood up. I quickly followed suit. “Agreed,” followed by a strong handshake. “We will talk more in the coming days.” He left, with a dazzled looking Anton in his stride, muttering “I will walk you to your car, Peter.” I was left alone in an empty lobby.

Two years before, I had to see the janitor for chalk to write on the blackboard. On my first trip to the Elzas I wanted to quit. Now this. In my first six hours in a ‘monkey country’ I had given the legislation a big push, claimed the sales rights of the LAVAL varieties and launched Premier Rouge®, selling one hectare. I did not know if this was a moment of glory or complete disaster. It felt very unreal.

I went up to my room. Worried about possible consequences, I decided to call Sjef. If I could get his blessing, I would be o.k. Nearly every morning Sjef would go to the Aalsmeer clock at 6 a.m. to look at the cut flower and pot plant prices at the clocks, talk to growers and have coffee with some auction staff. I looked at my watch, which was still on Dutch time: 8.30 a.m. I found Sjef in the office. He did not care too much about IRBO issues, but was fully alert on Premier Rouge®. He thought the set-up of the deal looked ‘pretty clever’. “If we give Anton Speelman Hfl. 0.10 for his role and Schmidt turns out to be the owner, then we must pay him 60% of the gross royalty of Hfl. 1.40. If it is Crispi, we pay him 50% of what we receive,” I continued. “So for this hectare it is either Hfl. 9,600 or Hfl. 30,000 for us, if I am correct.” For Sjef it was immediately clear, that Crispi should be the owner. “But what time is it with you?,” he asked when I wanted to hang up. “1.30 a.m., time to go to bed,” I replied.

When my little alarm went off the next morning, I had just fallen asleep, due to adrenaline and jetlag. The shower put me back in the present. In the breakfast room I ran into Bernd Solf of Von Bismarck, introducing me to his Latin agent, Herr Steng. Peter Daimler was sitting at the head of a big table, lecturing his companions on quality and marketing. When he noticed me, he invited me to his table. I politely declined, since I was to start the day with Guy Bergdahl, who showed up five minutes later, accompanied by Hector Larga, his local agent. Before long we set off for the Cayambe area, one of the three rose growing regions of Ecuador.

Colombia had been in the flower business since the 1960s and Ecuador had started around 1990. The Colombian industry was a family business, the Ecuadorian farms were in the hands of investors from the U.S.A., Colombia and Europe and run by local management. In Ecuador it was roses only, on the Bogota savanna and in the Medellin area a wide variety of flowers were grown. Ecuador was relatively safe, Colombia had a lot of problems with FARC rebels, controlling the narco business and with a reputation of kidnapping foreigners. Nearly all flowers of Ecuador, Colombia and, in much smaller quantities, Bolivia went to the U.S.A.

The roads were bad and very dusty, traffic stank with old buses full of people pumping out black exhaust fumes at eye level. Some spectacle it was, with anything that could move on the road: from small old Indian women with calves or goats on a leash, to horses and carriages, stray dogs, school children in immaculate school uniforms, old trucks that hardly moved uphill, mopeds and four-wheel drive Toyotas, Chevvies and Mercedeses overtaking those overtaking the slowest moving, especially in bends without a proper view of the approaching traffic. Everybody was avoiding big holes and stones. Dutch traffic suddenly appeared over-organized and overtly disciplined. But then, ten times as safe.

There was more spectacle: steep mountains, deep ravines and the village life along the sides of the road. All sorts of dusty dirty small businesses constantly passed by: used tires, planks, soft drinks, all kinds of food prepared in the open air, car grills, telephone cards, etc. My eyes nearly popped out when we passed a line of butchers, smoking the pigs over small fires at the side of the road, in the dust and exhaust fumes with stray dogs occasionally ‘sautéing’ the pork.

After 1.5 hours we arrived at the first farm. That is, a big, closed gate with a sign ‘Rosas del Cayambe’, from which an armed guard appeared in a bullet proof vest. Hector opened his window and explained we had an appointment with the general manager. The guard disappeared, fence closed, to reappear after 15 minutes with the message that the ‘ingeniero’ was not there and nobody else was informed of the appointment. At that time, Dutch nurseries were very open. Everybody could walk in. Here, there was no other solution than to leave for the next appointment. Fortunately, this was the farm Hector worked for: ‘Flores Conchita’.

First a ‘Cafecito’ in the hacienda-style office: a mug of black coffee with plenty of sugar in the company of the ‘ingeniero’. With Guy not translating too much and no other bilingual present, I had ample opportunity to struggle with the Spanish. Next, we went into the packing area. On one end, the bundles of flowers wrapped in some sort of chicken wire, came in, in containers hanging on a cable line, pushed forward by small Ecuadorians, all in company overalls. Once in, the bundles were put in water. After some time, the bundles were taken out and per variety, flower by flower, given a quality check and assorted on length by holding the stem against a series of lines on the table, bottom half of the stem defoliated by hand and then put in bunches of 24 stems. The flower heads were at two levels for efficient packing and then a piece of corrugated cardboard was put around the flowers, with a little sticker with the name of the variety and length visible on the inside and a little sticker with the name of the packer on the outside. The most advanced European supermarkets were talking about tracking and tracing; in this third-world country it was already common practice. For the longer stems fewer flowers were put in a bunch and a big plastic sleeve was put around the bunch, so that the retailer could remove the piece of cardboard and have a finished bouquet. The stems were cut to the desired length and bound together by an elastic band.

The hall had some 50 packers, mainly good-looking women, all in company outfits, each with their own table, connected by a conveyor belt on which the bunches were put. Along one of the walls of the room were vases filled with flowers. Samples, I was explained, of earlier shipments, so the flower quality with the American retailer and consumer could be followed at a distance. These flowers had also been given a transport and retail simulation phase, to be as precise as possible. So possible quality complaints could be foreseen, and action taken if necessary.

At the end of the conveyor belts men were picking up the bunches, checking them visually and assorting them per variety and length in big containers filled with water. Here also were two little tables with two persons filling out lists with varieties, lengths, number of bunches and packers. Other men, wearing thick thermal suits, would hook on the full containers and drag them into the next section through an opening with hanging strips of thick transparent plastic. This next section they called the pre-cooling, where the flowers were cooled down to just above freezing point and after a few hours were packed dry in boxes with the name of the farm printed on top and sides and stickers with the name of the variety, quantity and stem length at the front and bottom ends. Boxes contained between 200 and 300 flowers, depending on variety and length. The boxes were then moved to the next section, again just above freezing point, put on pallets, ready for transport in refrigerated trucks to Quito airport.

I walked out impressed into the bright sunshine. I had not expected such professionalism and devotion to quality. We went to the greenhouses, neatly laid out on both sides of the central path with neatly trimmed grass along the sides and the central cable line with its little plastic covering over it to protect the harvested flowers against the rain. I noticed I was breathing heavily. “That’s the altitude,” Guy commented, likewise grasping for breath. “We’re at 2,600 meters.” I also noticed we were climbing. The post-harvest hall was at the lowest part of the farm, so the cable trolleys with flowers did not have to be pushed uphill. Each greenhouse, called ‘bloque’ had its own number. They were all wooden structures covered with a milky kind of plastic, with sides that could be rolled down by hand for the night. “Night temperatures can drop to around 4°C  here, so they try to keep the daytime heat inside. In the daytime the temperature rises quickly to some 24°C, so botrytis is a big problem,” Guy continued. Flowers getting brown spots and rotting, that is, I learnt during the show, caused by moisture due to temperature fluctuations.

We entered ‘Bloque 12’. The pot-harvest area had some similarities to a Dutch grading and packing, where each flower was hung into a big machine and bunches rolling out at the other hand. Then, similarly, they were picked up by men, put in containers filled with water and in the cool store. The outside of the greenhouses was also alike in shape with plastic and wood instead of steel and glass. The insides were completely different, however. In Holland, the paths were of concrete, the plants at handling level in elevated cutters filled with rockwool and the plants managed in such a way, that all new flowers would start at the base of the plants. Here, no concrete, but soil only and muddy in a lot of places. The plants were in the soil, with the flower bud reaching two meters or more and cutting points around 1.5 meters. It must be hard for the Ecuadorians to decide whether a flower is ripe enough for harvesting. This was the Colombian cultivation technique, whereas the Dutch way originated in Japan. The Latin way would give more but shorter stems, the oriental longer and thicker stems, but lower production. That is, if put in the same climate conditions. With a cycle of around seven weeks, Dutch production per hectare was seventy per cent higher anyway. With capital investment and labor expenses very low, the Latinos could compete.

As a consequence of the auction system, in Holland a rose grower could specialize in one or two varieties, with mostly one hectare per variety. The Ecuadorians were supplying directly to the wholesaler or retailer and needed a complete assortment of some forty varieties. They would plant a variety at up to 10,000 plants a time, so one specific variety could be found in several places on the twenty to forty-hectare farm. Ecuadorians were specialized in ‘colors’, leaving the ‘reds’ to the Colombians. In every house, with each variety, there would be a sign with the variety’s name and a plastic folder containing lists on which the number of harvested stems were registered.

Every ‘Bloque’ on this farm measured one hectare and consisted of two houses with each a shaded spot in the middle with a big container. Harvested flowers would be bundled and put in the water. Every 15-20 minutes these bundles would be put in a trolley on the cable line and disappear to the post-harvest. The second house of ‘Bloque 12’ had several beds with numbered varieties, codes from Jackson & Perkins. This was the fun part of rose breeding: selection at a pre-commercial stage. After the pollination the hips with seeds start to develop. When these are ripe, they are harvested, sown, forced to hibernate, then taken in the warmth to assimilate spring. Then they come up by the thousands. This stage of selection is no fun. After several selection rounds, taking about two years, they are planted in commercial circumstances, with eight plants of one code to a full bed. At this stage, commercial characteristics come out and comparisons with existing varieties can best be made.

So J&P’s maternity room for Latin America was here. At that point I was too unexperienced to make any judgments. Then for me everything was beautiful. “Here’s where we plan to have your codes as well. What do you think?,” Guy asked. “I must say, and you translate this for me, please, that I am impressed with the professional setup of the farm.” After his translation for the ‘ingeniero’, I added: “But, this can only be a first impression. I have only been on the continent less than 24 hours and this is the only place we visited.” I had looked at my watch and noticed that it was past midday. The meeting with the minister was scheduled at 3 p.m. Guy read my thoughts and commented: “Don’t worry, we have plenty of time.”

In ‘Bloque 10’ Guy pointed out a section with plants that were supplied by J&P from California. “These were plants,” Guy explained, “which we grow in Wasco, together with the garden bushes. The garden plants are actually two years old when we sell them, for cut roses we dig them up after one year. See how big and vigorous they are. Just compare our plants against those coming from Holland or Israel.” We walked to the next section to see Israeli plants, which had big lumps on them. “Agrobacteria”, the ‘ingeniero’ indicated. Guy took over. Apparently, we were on his territory. “This is the problem with the Indica rootstock used by the Israelis. It’s infected. We use virus-free stock from our laboratory in Somis.” “If you don’t disinfect your scissors, it spreads all over the bloque and beyond that. Best is to pull out the plants, burn them and clean the soil with methylbromide.” The ‘ingeniero’ nodded when the disinfectant was mentioned but did not take such measures for economic reasons: the plants had been expensive, so was methylbromide, and it would imply losing a year’s production as well.

Walking outside again, I asked where the Cayambe was. In fact, the dormant volcano was relatively close, with the bottom part very clear, but the top invisible in the clouds. Hector had more details. It had a height of nearly 6,000 meters and its icy top became visible daily around 4 p.m., when the sea winds blew away the clouds.

We thanked the ‘íngeniero’ for his time. He was not going into Quito for the opening of the exhibition, but the general manager would be there. Going back, it seemed that the whole of Ecuador was on its way for the grand opening. We got stuck in a terrible traffic jam. By the time we arrived at the hotel, it was 3.30 p.m., and I was terribly nervous. You hardly ever have the opportunity to meet a minister, and then be late. I was dusty, my shoes, the only pair I brought, muddy. I ran out of the car, past Maarten Luns standing outside dressed up and holding a little bouquet, like a groom waiting for his bride. I shouted “hello”, got my key, unbuttoned part of my clothes and undid my shoes in the elevator, cleaned my shoes in the washing bowl, raced in an out of the shower, dressed and ran out again. On my way down in the elevator my armpit felt slippery. I quickly put my hand in and retrieved in with shower foam. 3.37 p.m. I must have set a world record.

I knew I was invited to the meeting as representative of IRBO. Other participants were a delegate from Expoflores, the Ecuadorian association of flower exporters and one or two breeders’ representatives. I inquired at the reception. Nothing was known there. There were no messages for me. The I remembered Maarten at the hotel’s entrance. I walked out and he was still there, looking miserable. “Your bride hasn’t shown up, Maarten?”, I joked. “I feel like an idiot schoolboy,” he reacted. “First Enrique told me to get a bouquet, then he tells me to stand here and wait for a minister. I have been here since 2.45 p.m., but no sign of a minister, nor of Enrique. I’ll kill him.” I was relieved. The minister had not shown up. “Have you tried to call Enrique? I asked.” “Enrique told me not to leave the spot, not even to go to the washroom. A minister should always be received. And the worst is, that I had a fight with Elisabeth to get this bouquet and it turns out to be for nothing.” My puzzled look made him explain. “Elisabeth is my fiancée. She works for HHP as one of the arrangers of the show. They finished all the booths at the end of this morning, then went to bed. Then I got her out of bed to make me a bouquet.” I burst out laughing and apologized for that, explaining my anxiety of the afternoon. “I will stand here with the flowers; you try to get in touch with Enrique. I think we have been wasting our time and energy, and that of your fiancée. I am looking forward to meet her and will explain.”

Maarten went in, no doubt making a pit-stop at the washroom first. He re-appeared after a while. “The meeting has been postponed until later this week, the minister will do the opening tonight and apologies from Enrique. He said he asked the hotel to inform you and me.” “Well, that gives us time for a drink and talk, Maarten,” I reacted. I realized I had not eaten anything since breakfast and, actually, all these monkey adventures had put me on a diet so far. Therefore, with the drinks we had some snacks. My face and neck felt hot. Maarten noticed and said I was sunburnt. “You do not notice the radiation at this altitude so much, but you find out afterwards.” Maarten had no horticultural background. His father worked for Shell in the Middle East. He studied international business and ended up with Terra Blanca for an internship since they were owned by the Finnish multinational Kemira. Somehow, the flower world appealed to him, Piet Staphorst had made him a nice offer, he returned after graduating and became the general manager a few months ago. “And I am making sure that he stays in the west.” Elisabeth had joined us. I recognized her as one of last night’s arrangers. She was in good spirits. Maarten explained about the minister and I added that he made a hell of a loyal bridegroom. We ate together. That night Maarten and I attended the formal boring opening, after which only whiskey was served. After the show, we would visit some farms together.

The next three show days were very interesting. Breeders and propagators had booths, but also a fair number of growers, some providers of greenhouse equipment, such as plastic, irrigation systems, and fertilizers, and some transporters, such as Martinair and KLM, which indicated that there also was a future for the flowers in Europe. Ninety-five per cent of the live products were roses. Others were gypsophilia, hypericum and carnations. In the early hours there was plenty of time to talk with other stand holders and look at the products. I took note of the names of the farms that were displaying Witte de Wit varieties and tried to find out more about quantities planted and suppliers. Not only did only few of the persons present at the stand prove to speak English, and Spanish being too complicated for me on this topic, but also were they very reluctant to give information. One exhibitor, Marguerita Rosas, bluntly affirmed that they had half a hectare of Leonardo®, but felt no obligation to pay any royalties. Visitors at the show were farm owners, general managers, ‘ingenieros’ and a fair number of American flower importers, all operating out of Miami. A representative of Love Bouquets proudly stated they were selling Leonardo® from Marguerita Rosas to a big retailer in the U.S., who were very happy with the variety. When I mentioned that they were illegal flowers, he reacted that this was not his problem. We should sort that out with Marguerita.

What had not struck me when visiting Rosas del Cayambe was the size of the flowers in comparison to the Dutch. I had been proud of the flowers at the first evening: Holland’s best. But now, when seeing Ecuadorian Leonardo® alongside the Dutch, ‘Holland’s best’ were only half the size. “That is because of the difference in day and night temperature,” Peter Daimler explained. “You lose in production, but you gain in head size.” The Ecuadorian flowers were spectacular in the beginning of the show, but at the end the majority were hanging unopened or full of botrytis. ‘Holland’s best’ were all open and straight up. If somehow the best of both worlds could be combined, I wondered.

The day after the close of the show, with Guy already on his way back to Medford, Anton Speelman’s local agent, a retired army officer, picked us up to visit some farms. He definitely was a very good choice of Speelman. The ‘general’ did not know a lot about flower production or propagation, but guards would immediately salute and open gates. Although a republic, the military was a dominant influence on Ecuadorian politics, which ultimately was controlled by a few families. Actually, the army was the country’s biggest producer of broccoli and even possessed several rose farms.

First stop was La Tolita Investment, the Ecuadorian farm of Peter Daimler. Peter walked us around at high speed, stopping regularly to talk with the staff on site. Everybody greeted Peter and Peter knew everybody by name. Incredible, given the fact that he employed some 400 people there, but also had farms in Colombia and Peru, his own airline named Contender and a head office in Miami, all under the name Grupo Emerald. The farm was extremely tidy, well-organized, flower quality superb. I was impressed. It was good that the Premier Rouge® discussion had taken place before getting to know La Tolita and Peter, otherwise I would have been tempted to give the variety away for free, feeling it as an honor to work with this man. Peter himself decided on varieties and loved to go through breeders’ codes in Holland at the time of the Aalsmeer Flower Show, in the beginning of November. I invited him for a tour of the showcase and also the breeding in Benthuizen.

After the customary Cafecito, the general drove us to Anton Speelman’s project: a big stretch of land which was still being leveled on one side, drip irrigation being installed half-way and plants in the soil at the other side. When we arrived at the plant-end we saw four Dutchmen from Limburg budding the plants. “Dutch half year-old bushes made in Ecuador,” Speelman proudly revealed. This was totally unexpected for me: hearing southern Dutch accent in the middle of Ecuador and local Dutch style propagation in a monkey country. The legal part puzzled me most. The contractual construction for Hilsea’s supervised propagation of Premier Rouge® could prove to be not just incidental. The Limburger showed me name of the variety he was budding on the box with stems: Premier Rouge®. “Holy shit,” I thought, “how are we going to put this in an acceptable framework with Crispi and Schmidt?” Anton Speelman added that “first they do the budding season in Limburg and then they come here for three weeks to do my budding. For them it is like a paid holiday and I get the expertise I need. This way everybody is happy.”

“You know this is illegal propagation?” I said to Anton. “That’s why I am showing you this, I don’t want to hide anything from you,” Anton answered somewhat guiltily. “I had to move forward,” he continued, otherwise I would be out of business before long. People are learning that importing plants is very expensive and finding out it is not very difficult to do your own budding.” “Still, I think you should have asked us before starting,” I reacted. “Dré and Piet would never have agreed”, he claimed. I know he was right. “I will discuss it with them when I get back”, I finished the discussion. “Before I go back, you need to give me exactly the names of the varieties and quantities you are propagating here.” “Of course,” he said. “I have them right here.”

We had a big and excellent lunch at Casa Fernando, the favorite midday hangout for the Cayambe rose scene. Speelman pointed out the local agent of Dutch propagator Bontekoe at a table with a farm manager, showing pictures of varieties. Another table had one of the Colombian owners of Grupo del Prado with the local management. In the washroom I noticed Anton Speelman’s well-known black name stickers at Ecuadorian eye level above the urinals.

After lunch, the general dropped Speelman off at the project and drove me to the nearby El Floral, where Speelman had arranged a visit for me. The general would wait in the car. The general again was a big help in getting in. Any guard first asks for your passport, but I was told never to give this and always keep it in the safe of the hotel and so I did. I had given my business card and the guard did not seem convinced until the general showed his I.D., the guard jumped to attention, ran into his little office and returned with the message that the ingeniero was on his way.

Over the Cafecito I inquired about their assortment and, when showing our catalogue, the ingeniero indicated they had planted Leonardo® half a year before but were having problems with the plants. Haase had been the supplier who had been paid but refused to come and have a look. The ingeniero hoped I could give technical advice. When I asked him for a copy of the license or invoice, he suddenly became less talkative, went out and returned with the general manager.

Later I found out that, especially in Colombia, the person in charge of flower production was called the ‘ingeniero’ and the general manager of the farm ‘doctor’, irrespective of educational background. The person in charge of post-harvesting did not have such a title, presumably because this person was in charge of the flower for just a few hours, whereas the ‘ingeniero’ had looked after them for 12 weeks. But then, 50% of the quality of the flower was dependent on post-harvest handling.

I shook hands with El Floral’s general manager, doctor Alvarez, and repeated my previous question, indicating that of course we would give any assistance if we could, but only to clients. The general manager left and came back with a copy of the invoice from Haase Speelman International. I quickly noticed varieties from other breeders that had been supplied besides the 15,000 Leonardo®. I had what I wanted. We went to have a look at the plants and although I was absolutely no expert, I could see that these were of a very poor quality. The invoice said they came from Holland, so no doubt these were plants from Limburg that had been rejected by V.R.V. members. I understood why Anton Speelman sent me here. I took some pictures and promised to show them to the company experts and report to them by fax within a week after my return to Holland.

Anton Speelman never asked about my visit to El Floral and I never mentioned it. We understood. That night we had a light dinner in the hotel. Casa Fernando’s carne had been very filling. Since I would not see Speelman any more during the next days, we agreed to meet in Holland as soon as possible to discuss the pending items.

The next morning the chauffeur that Enrique sent arrived early to pick us up and take us to the second biggest production area: Coto Paxi. To my surprise, we found another Dutchman in the car: Joost, who was employed by Enrique and his partner Hans Klepper as ingeniero to run their farm and set up a propagation unit for Terra Blanca. Joost had been in Ecuador for three years and had a limp as a result of a motorcycle accident he had a year ago. In this, he ran over a drunk Indian on a Friday night, when traditionally all farm workers get paid and then drunk. Being a foreigner, he was found guilty and had to support the dead man’s family for the rest of his life. His advice to the increasing number of Dutch that started working in Ecuador: “When you get involved in an accident, get the hell out of there and, if necessary, send in a lawyer afterwards, but never reveal your identity.”

The car had to climb a fair deal to reach the Cotopaxi region. At some point, the active volcano became impressively visible, and we were getting closer and closer. Joost provided the details of the scenery: “Cotopaxi is Ecuador’s highest active volcano at nearly 6,000 meters, rising from the 3,500-meter surrounding plain, covered by a glacier as from 5,000 meters in the form of a symmetrical cone. The crater is some 700 meters in diameter and several hundred meters deep. More or less once every ninety years it erupts, the next one being within ten years. This would end all flower production in Ecuador, except for the south. One eruption is said to have ended the battle between the Spaniards and the Incas around 1500. In 1975 the volcano awoke for a short time but did not erupt. In the last few years, however, there has been increased activity causing part of the ice to melt.” Joost knew all this, because he tried to climb the Cotopaxi four times, but had to return prematurely each time. “You can go a long way by car, to 4,600 meters. Then you first climb to a hut at 4,800 meters. There you spend some time with mainly groups of Americans and Canadians. Then, in the middle of the night, with a guide you start the climb for the summit.” He paused, seemed to gasp for breath and continued: “It really is risky. You do not take any oxygen with you, so at some point, strange things start to happen in your head. And then the unpredictable weather conditions at the top. We had to return three times because of snowstorms. But, one day ...”

By that time, we had arrived at the hacienda of the De Guzman family, and we could see the farm a little higher at some distance. This place was absolutely unique: the characteristic hacienda with stables and adjacent ring, beautiful horses and black bulls in the nearby fields, no vegetation besides grass, moss and some shrubs, mountain tops around and the Cotopaxi seemingly within reach. I walked a little further up to enjoy the view but was out of breath instantly. “Tonight, you will probably have a headache.” Enrique had come out to greet us. “Please be careful. Tell me if you get dizzy. It takes time to get adjusted. Remember that a few days ago you were at some 10 meters below sea level and now 3,500 above.” A grey, middle-aged gentleman had joined us. “Hans Klepper, pleased to meet you,” he said in Dutch. His presence made the others noticeably nervous.

We walked to the hacienda for coffee and on our way Klepper told me in Dutch that his farm Rosa Paxi was the highest in the world, producing the world’s best quality exclusively and at premium prices for his shops in the U.S.A. and Canada under the name Roses Only. “We don’t need these intermediate wholesalers who only fill their pockets and don’t pay their bills.” Klepper had been involved in projects in Africa, but “you can never trust these blacks, especially those corrupt tribal friends in government positions”. He lived in Belgium, with its amiable tax climate and spent half of his time between his farm and his shops. He had just taken on the agency for Terra Blanca.

After the Cafecito and a tour of the authentic house we walked through the gigantic roses. I had never seen such massive roses. Both stems and flowers were incredible in size. This trip I had learned about production cycles. Here it was 19 weeks, which explained it all. By the time a new Cotopaxi flower could be harvested, an Aalsmeer grower was nearly harvesting his third. But impressive they were, perfectly fitting in their surroundings.

Lunch followed in the dining room with its oak floor, thick white walls with tapestry and big fireplace heating the room. Enrique’s parents and some relatives had joined us at the table. The family radiated importance, but in a very relaxed way. The wine was beautiful, the meat, the entourage. Time had not stood still here but was completely absent.

On the way back, Maarten and Joost talked about Klepper. He was bullying everybody around, sometimes firing people on the spot. There had been another fight between him and Enrique a few days earlier. No doubt, as before, they would make up, but both agreed, that at some point the De Guzman family who owned the property would interfere.

The meeting with the minister never took place, but there was another IRBO-section Ecuador meeting during which Enrique reported on the situation in Colombia. All MPs had been approached by the lobbyist and the passing of the bill was just a formality and would take place within six months. We all received copies of the text with an English translation. Enrique had not had the opportunity to read it, but his cousin affirmed that “UPOV members would be baffled. This is the most comprehensive breeders’ rights law in existence, with more protection for the breeders than in any other country.” Father Dré would be very skeptical but would instantly read the text and spread the word within CIOPORA. It was also revealed that, while publicly supporting the legislation, prominent Asocoflores members had secretly tried to bribe the civil servants working on the text to include the farmer’s privilege. Asocoflores was the Colombian association of flower producers. The farmer’s privilege, which was still in the Spanish law, for instance, allowed growers to self-propagate plants with only the obligation to pay royalties for the first plants received. “But,” Enrique ensured, “my cousin got air of this and prevented such an amendment.” Nobody asked how, but I guess that $ 25,000 had allowed for some creativity.

Continue to Chapter Thirteen, A Bush Pilot's Dream
Start the book from page 1.
John Pouw profile picture
John Pouw

Rosa’s Secret is the result of (1) a promise to my Canadian buddy, Burke ‘Bruno’ Cullen. We share the love of myth, beauty and Stroh-inspired story-telling. And (2) my grandfather Jan Pouw, who set up his own flower growing business a hundred years ago and who taught me never to give up on a dream, work hard and discover and tap your talents. Today, I divide my professional time between teaching and developing Viking Roses.



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