Pandemic and war in Ukraine hurt Thailand’s orchid industry

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Nakhon Pathom (Thailand) (AFP) – Thai orchid farmers, already weary after two years of being battered by the pandemic, brace for further blows to their livelihoods as war in Ukraine and changing weather conditions further cloud their future .

Once considered a popular pastime among Thailand’s elite, orchid cultivation has become a multi-million dollar industry, and the kingdom is the largest producer and exporter of cut orchids in the world.

But the pandemic has seen one in five farms close recently, according to the Thai Orchid Exporters Association.

“No one has the heart to buy flowers, and the transportation is very complicated,” said Somchai Lerdrungwitayachai, looking despairingly at the sea of ​​purple at his orchid farm west of Bangkok.

He grows Dendrobium Sonia orchids, a hybrid variety with delicate white and purple petals. Popular in Japan, China, and the United States, they are used for everything from religious ceremonies to college graduations.

At his 20-hectare property, workers treat cut flowers with a special solution before pruning the stems and fitting them with a small vial containing vitamins and nutrients, to keep them looking fresh for up to two weeks.

But times are tough: Somchai has been drawing on his savings for two years to continue paying his fifty employees.

John SAEKIAFP

Covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have driven up the price of fertilizers and pesticides by 30%, he said.

Adding to its woes is the dramatic drop in sales: before the pandemic, China bought 270 million orchid stems from Thailand each year, a figure that fell to 170 million last year.

Once accounting for 80% of Somchai’s export revenue, China has been hit by coronavirus lockdowns in a number of cities, including the biggest: Shanghai.

Transporting the orchids to the key market by road used to take up to three days, but the same journey can now take between eight and 10 days.

In the flower business, time is money, and wilted orchids are often thrown away before they can ever reach a Shanghai customer’s house to be admired.

“Hurry up”

While Somchai ships its products directly overseas, the majority of orchid growers in Thailand rely on large Bangkok-based exporters.

Thailand is the world's largest producer and exporter of cut orchids
Thailand is the world’s largest producer and exporter of cut orchids Lillian SUWANRUMPHAAFP

Air freight costs have tripled or quadrupled in recent months, depending on the destination, said Wuthichai Pipatmanomai, vice president of the Thai Orchid Exporter Association and co-owner of Sun International Flower, a major exporter.

Before the pandemic, the company delivered 3.6 million orchids per month to China, Japan, Vietnam and the United States.

Today, only 1.2 million flowers leave the warehouse and he had to lay off half his staff.

“We asked the authorities for financial support, but we did not receive anything,” Wuthichai said. “Hurry up.”

The 20% increase in its selling price led several importers, especially those in Europe, to abandon it to focus on more local flowers.

The only hope is that sales in Japan remain stable and those in the United States increase with the start of the wedding season, he said.

Covid-19 and Russia's invasion of Ukraine have driven up the price of fertilizers and pesticides, while transport costs to deliver fresh-cut flowers have tripled in recent months
Covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have driven up the price of fertilizers and pesticides, while transport costs to deliver fresh-cut flowers have tripled in recent months Lillian SUWANRUMPHAAFP

However, in the long term, changing weather patterns are also troubling for growers.

“We are increasingly experiencing the effects of climate change,” Wutachai said, pointing to a recent surprise cold spell in early April in which the temperature dropped sharply from 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) to 21 degrees Celsius in only 24 hours, affecting the production of orchids. .

“We are concerned that these situations will occur more and more frequently.”

Withered Fortunes

Thailand’s coronavirus restrictions have also affected domestic sales – a lack of tourists has led to restaurant and hotel orders being reduced, and gathering bans have affected Thai Buddhist ceremonies.

As well as a drop in exports, vendors at Bangkok's biggest flower market say domestic demand for orchids has also suffered due to covid restrictions
As well as a drop in exports, vendors at Bangkok’s biggest flower market say domestic demand for orchids has also suffered due to covid restrictions Lillian SUWANRUMPHAAFP

And despite the kingdom’s international reopening, local demand remains lukewarm.

While Bangkok’s biggest flower market looks busy – wholesalers can be seen scurrying down the colorful aisles laden with large woven baskets containing flowers – vendors tell a different story.

Than Tha Win, who patiently waits for customers at his orchid stall, said his income has dropped by 70%.

“Everyone is still scared to come to the market because of Covid-19,” the 21-year-old said.

Meanwhile, Waew, a 45-year-old saleswoman, said she had around 600 unsold orchids left a day and was trying to stem her losses by tearing off the petals and selling them as a separate product.

“Stop working with orchids? Impossible, I don’t know how to do anything else,” she said.

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