Korea’s floral exports are blooming. Less than two decades ago, exports of Korea’s indigenous flowers — the full-petaled, snow-white Baekma, the enticing scarlet buds of Pearl Red and many more —totaled just US$2.4 million. Today, that figure has soared to more than US$100 million. Korea’s flower industry can thank excellent research and development, aggressive overseas marketing and a dose of good, old-fashioned hard work.
Korea began exporting flowers less than 20 years ago. As it so often is, the Korean government was soon at the center of efforts to boost this fledgling industry, opening a wholesale flower market in Yangjae, Seoul, in 1991, and designating flowers and plants as “promising export items.” As a result, total flower exports surged from just US$2.4 million in 1992, to US$5.5 million in 1994, and then to US$28.88 million in 2000. Exports continued to soar in the last decade, reaching US$52.15 million in 2005, US$76.2 million in 2008, and almost US$100 million last year.
Perhaps the greatest single factor in this success has been Korea’s vigorous development of new species. Among the most popular Korean floral exports today is the Baekma chrysanthemum, which Korea’s Rural Development Administration (RDA) developed in 2004. A snow-white, heavily petaled flower, the Baekma is hardier and easier to breed than many conventional species, making it ideal to export. Today, it accounts for more than 40 percent of Korea’s chrysanthemum exports.
“Conventional chrysanthemums when cut typically last no longer than 15 days, but our Baekma lasts twice as long,” says Kim Won-hee, a researcher in the RDA’s flowering plants department. “Since we started distributing it in 2007, exports exceeded a million dollars in 2008 and 3.5 million last year, making it a real treasure of a flower.”
“The Baekma grows well and flowers almost immediately, meaning shorter growing times. This makes it very beneficial to farmers,” explains Go Gwan-dal, manager of the horticulture product department at the National Institute of Horticultural & Herbal Science (NIHHS).
“Baekma has already become a major export item to Japan. Japanese buyers import more than 10 million bunches of Baekma every year, making it almost impossible for supply to fully meet demand.”
EXPORT KINGS: CHRYSANTHEMUMS AND ROSES
Korean roses are enjoying similar levels of success overseas. Two decades of research have yielded around 150 domestic species, including Pearl Red, Pinky and Magic Scarlet, whose vivid colors and longevity after being cut have made them a big hit with foreign buyers.
At the International Flower Expo 2009, the scarlet-colored Pearl Red fetched 100 yen (US$1.20) per stem, confirming Korea’s place among the elite of flower-producing countries. From US$15.56 million in 2009, exports reached US$30 million last year — a growth rate of more than 80%.
Another big hit on global flower markets has been the Magic Flower, whose petals change color in different lights or temperatures. Despite selling for four to five times the price of normal roses, the Magic Flower has also seen stellar rises in its export numbers, more than tripling from US$2.3 million in 2009, to over US$7.35 million last year.
By developing new species in Korea, producers are not only able to cater to specific market niches, they can also make big savings on royalty payments by cultivating fewer varieties from overseas. With roses alone, the Korean flower industry reduced such payments by more than 50% between 2005 and 2010, from 7.7 billion won to 3.8 billion won. Domestically developed species accounted for just 1 percent of all roses grown in Korea in 2005; last year, that figure was 18 percent, and by 2012, it’s expected to be more than one quarter.
he same trend is true for domestic chrysanthemums, whose overall share grew from 1 percent in 2006 to 15 percent last year, with forecasts of 26 percent by 2012. Thanks to this, overall royalty payments are expected to fall from 12.4 billion won in 2006 to less than 8 billion in 2013, meaning yearly savings of 4 billion won.
“Superior species that can help boost exports will be nurtured and distributed in order to replace more than 50% of roses grown in Korea with native breeds,” says Go. “We’re making huge efforts to sell fine Korean breeds to foreign markets and bump up our own income from royalties, too.”
THE WHIMORI WAVE
In 2004, the Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corporation, or aT, unveiled Whimori, a catch-all brand name for Korean agricultural and horticultural exports. Meaning “the fastest, most energetic Korean rhythm,” Whimori was intended to help standardize and enhance the quality of Korean agricultural produce, improve its image through effective marketing strategies, and ultimately to increase exports.
With a logo conveying the idea of “the apex of quality,” the brand embodies the will of Korean agricultural producers to capture a larger share of the world market, as household names such as Zespri or Sunkist did in the past.
The Whimori brand is only applied to goods that have passed stringent quality and safety tests, and to companies with extensive export experience that are equipped with the latest technology and commodity management skills. Even after gaining the right to use the name, companies will be subject to frequent government inspections to ensure they are maintaining the highest standards in safety and product quality. At present, some paprika, pears, king oyster mushrooms, kimchi and winter mushrooms bear the Whimori brand, as do flower species including the Magic Flower and Baekma.
Under the Whimori banner, Korean roses and chrysanthemums have been making major inroads into the world market. Along with Korea’s Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Agricultural and Fishery Marketing Corporation, 14 Korean flower producers participated in the 2010 International Flower Expo (IFEX), held in Tokyo from November 28 to 30 last year. IFEX is Asia’s biggest flower exhibition, attracting more than 1,100 related organizations and enterprises from over 30 countries. By setting up both the official Korea Pavilion and a separate promotional booth, Korea’s representatives did much to heighten awareness of the Whimori brand.
“Besides those activities, we are actively promoting in Japan, the biggest market for Korean flowering plants,” says Shin Jae-hun, an assistant manager at the Agricultural and Fishery Marketing Corporation (AFMC). According to Shin, the AFMC last year held several promotional seminars in Korea and Japan aimed at Japanese flower sellers and producers, while in September the Corporation participated in the Moscow International Flower Exhibition, where it succeeded in signing long-term export contracts with several, large-scale import and distribution companies. In Shanghai, the AFMC helped organize Whimori Flower Day, paving the way for the Magic Flower to enter the Chinese market.
orea’s flower industry has undoubtedly come a long way in 20 years — but there are still many mountains to climb. For one thing, its exports are much too focused on Japan. From January to November last year, exports to Japan brought in US$64.49 million dollars, more than 80 percent of the US$80.64 milliondollar total. China was second in that list, with exports of US$12.35 million dollar, leaving major markets such as the United States, Russia and Australia largely untapped.
“Currently Korea’s floral industry is highly focused on exporting to Japan and China, which are both geographically close and have similar interests and preferences in terms of flowers,” says Shin. “Also, the strength of traditional flower exporters such as the Netherlands makes difficult to export to Europe too.”
On the flip side, however, this means there is still enormous potential for Korea’s flowers to take root further around the world. To take a story from the cactus industry, between the late 1980s and 2009, Korea succeeded in shifting its entire cactus crop to domestically produced species. Today, Korean cactuses are exported to more than 30 countries, including the Netherlands, the United States and Australia, and account for more than 70% of the world cactus market. By dancing to the Whimori rhythm, Korea’s roses and chrysanthemums will hopefully be catching up with its cactuses soon.