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Inflation is the thorn in this year's Valentine's Day roses

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now. Valentine's Day is just around the corner, and Americans will spend about $26 billion on dinner, chocolates, wine and, of course, roses. It will be hard to escape the red rose for the next few days. They will be everywhere. But these little blooms have been on a big journey. And as it turns out, the whole global economy can be wrapped up in a single rose. NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith has the story.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Chances are your Valentine's Day bouquet began life near the equator in Ethiopia or Colombia or Ecuador, maybe even at Eden Roses. Maria Fernanda (ph) and her family have been farming flowers in the mountains of Ecuador for more than 35 years.

MARIA FERNANDA: We are in a small city called - it's called Cayambe, surrounded by mountains. So everything you see is mountains on nature and a lot of flowers.

VANEK SMITH: About 2,500 different kinds of roses, all being grown in the Andes Mountains, about 10,000 feet above sea level. The altitude apparently makes the roses very vibrant and tall and plump. Ecuador grows some of the finest roses in the world. But Fernanda says this year was rough.

FERNANDA: It's hard, probably was one of the hardest times. We don't know what will happen.

VANEK SMITH: Eden Farms makes about a third of its money for the year on Valentine's Day. And Fernanda says this year, inflation has been devastating. Labor costs are way up. Electricity costs are way up. And the war in Ukraine has hit the flower industry hard. Russia is one of the top producers of fertilizer in the world.

FERNANDA: It's harder to bring fertilizers here. We have an increase around 50 to 100% of the price.

VANEK SMITH: And then there are the transportation costs for fuel and also airfare. Most roses will be packed into crates and loaded into giant, hollowed-out airplanes headed for the U.S., Australia, or 6,000 miles away to one of the floral centers of the world, Holland. About a third of the world's flowers go through Holland every day.

MICHEL VAN SCHIE: Hi, I'm Michel van Schie. I'm spokesman for Royal FloraHolland.

VANEK SMITH: Royal FloraHolland is a giant flower clearinghouse. They have a warehouse the size of 220 football fields. Workers ride bicycles across it.

VAN SCHIE: Not to be modest - the biggest one in the world.

VANEK SMITH: The biggest. How many flowers and plants do you deal with a year?

VAN SCHIE: Eleven billion last year.

VANEK SMITH: Three billion of those were roses. But Van Schie says this has been a rough Valentine's for the rose business, the biggest day of the year for the cut flower industry. Van Schie hears from rose growers all over the world like Maria Fernanda. And they're all saying the same thing, that costs are rising for everything. And at the same time, more people are watching their spending. So the price growers are getting at auction - about $0.40 per rose on average - is not enough to keep up with costs.

VAN SCHIE: For that reason, some growers have decided to stop producing. And that influences, of course, the number and also the quality of the roses.

VANEK SMITH: Van Schie says a lot of growers have just thrown in the towel. They're done with roses. In Africa, Europe and South America, way fewer roses are being grown. But don't panic, Van Schie says. There's not a rose shortage. But...

VAN SCHIE: I would say don't wait until the afternoon of Valentine's Day, because maybe then you are too late.

VANEK SMITH: By then, he says, prices will be higher, and quality could be very hard to find. The average cost of a dozen roses in the U.S. is up to about $80 this year. It's a lot more in some states. Which sounds pricey, but consider that by the time you see the roses, they have been picked, packed into crates, flown across the world, unpacked, put into buckets, displayed and sold at auction, packed back into crates, flown across the world again, trucked to a shop, unpacked, dethorned, trimmed, rolled into a bouquet, loaded back into a truck and delivered - to your valentine. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.