Each weekday morning, the buyers descend on Aalsmeer, about a half-hour southwest of Amsterdam, arriving at an enormous warehouse covering 200 hectares.
They squeeze onto benches, glare at computer screens and — with the push of a button — bid on an encyclopedic array of flowers: from amaryllis, chrysanthemums and gerbera, to kangaroo paws, roses and the famed Dutch tulips.
Then, from nearby Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, the flowers can be sent around the planet.
Today, more than half of the world’s cut flowers are bought and sold at the auction here, which has been the hub of the global flower trade since the early 20th century.
However, that system, which helped make flowers as synonymous with the Dutch identity as wooden shoes and windmills, is in the midst of an upheaval, buffeted by changes that are revolutionizing the business and upending traditions.
“We have had this system that has been very dominant for more than a hundred years that is more or less changing or disappearing,” Dutch Flower Wholesale Association chairman Herman de Boon said.
Concerns about carbon dioxide emissions and the cost of jet fuel have steadily squeezed the global transportation network, even as more growers have moved from Europe to warmer — and less expensive — climates in Africa over the past decade.
Then, there has been the growth of presales and direct shipping. Today, virtually anyone with an Internet connection and a buyer’s license can bid via computer at the auction without actually having to come and inspect the stems.
“It was more fun 10 years ago,” Marco Schouten, a buyer for FloriBizz who purchases roses for florists in Italy and Spain, said during a break in the bidding one recent morning. “There was noise and friendship.”
Even so, the flower industry — still more than 5 percent of the Netherlands’ GDP — has been remarkably resilient, adapting to its changing climate far faster than many of its flowers have.
Geert Hageman, a veteran tulip grower, said why Triflor, his tulip business, had not suffered even during Europe’s lingering economic troubles.
Because people have less money to pay for vacations and evenings out, he said, they tend to stay home, where they crave a relatively cheap luxury in a time of austerity.
The cooperative FloraHolland represents Dutch and international growers and runs auction and distribution centers. It says that from 2008, when the financial crisis started, to last year, its membership dropped to 4,600 growers from 5,100.
At the same time, profits grew to 4.5 billion euros (US$5.6 billion) a year from 4.1 billion euros, in transactions for 12.4 billion plants and flowers each year.
While that total has remained relatively consistent, the number of items traded at the Aalsmeer auction has actually decreased. This fall, FloraHolland stopped sending its cut flowers to the Aalsmeer auction rooms, to keep them fresher for longer.
Not long ago, such a move would have been inconceivable. As recently as a decade ago, virtually all cut flowers sold to wholesalers were sold here. Last year, only half were.
Hageman estimated that 40 percent of his tulips were now sold before they were grown and harvested, which he said helped him plan for peak periods like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
He rarely goes to the auction now, he said. Instead, he follows the action from a terminal in his office, which shows the clock and the price his tulips fetch in Aalsmeer, about 48km south.
Still, “the auction clock is really important,” he said. “It will stay with us.”
He said that it gave him and his colleagues a benchmark to set prices for new varieties.
Likewise, more of the flowers, particularly roses, grown by producers who have migrated to Africa or elsewhere never actually see the auction hall.
“The energy cost and the labor cost are the main reason that the roses are grown in Africa these days,” said Arie van den Berg, a second-generation Dutch rose grower who has shifted the bulk of his production to Kenya and China.
His company, Van den Berg Roses, still tends to grow its exotic and valuable flowers in the Netherlands, where daily shipping to the auction center is less challenging.
Hoever, cheaper roses are mostly grown in Africa and sold directly to big retailers, such as the German discount chain Lidl or the British supermarket giant Tesco, which prefer fixed contracts to the daily fluctuation of the auction clock.
Such changes are challenging the status of the Netherlands as the center of the flower trade. And still more are on the horizon.
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