Farming is in the blood

For American Flowers, a third generation family business with a perishable product and reputation to maintain, export containers carry more than just the product.

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American Flowers' fern exports comprise 60% of the total business. 1:33

As a child, Jennifer Thomas would get out of bed on weekends, long before the sun was up, to join her father on the ­family’s macadamia farm in Guapiles, Costa Rica. She and her sister would play while her dad worked or just follow along in his footsteps.

Jennifer Thomas’ father did the same when he was a boy, following his father around the farms they owned in Florida and North Carolina. The grandfather moved the Thomas family to Costa Rica in the 1960s, and later to Panama, bringing his five children into a business that would become American Flowers.

Today, Jennifer Thomas runs American Flowers with her husband, Matt Parsons, with assistance from her father. The couple and their 19-month old daughter, Lily, live next to the company’s 65-hectare farm in Volcán, in western Panama, in the heart of the country’s food producing region.

“The truth is, I didn’t expect to be here. I have a degree in biology. But I ended up working on a farm in the United States and thought to myself, why am I farming for someone else when this is what my family does,” says Jennifer Thomas. “It’s a heavy responsibility, carrying on the family business. Matt and I are trying to continue what my family built, the farm’s reputation for quality, and also make our own mark with new products and new customers.”

Reputation is everything
American Flowers grows a wide variety of flowers and fresh produce, all of which are sold locally to markets and restaurants in Panama City.

However, leather-leaf ferns are the farm’s specialty and also its one export. Row after row of the frilly, waist-high green plants cover the majority of the farm’s area. A canopy of white plastic helps the ferns grow big, shielding them from direct sun and the heavy rains of the region’s rainy season.

American flowers
Jose Samudio (center) is the Head of Logistics for American Flowers and came to the farm in 2000. He was just a boy when his parents worked on another farm run by Jennifer Thomas’ grandfather in another part of Panama.

Add this to a dedicated, attentive staff and you have the reason the fern quality is so high and the farm has the loyal customers it does in Europe, the United States and as far away as Japan.

“Our fern exports comprise 60% of our total business. We have a handful of fern customers and they mean everything to us. We cannot afford to lose them or jeopardise the American Flowers name with a bad product,” says Matt Parsons.

A partner they can trust

Maersk Line has been the primary carrier of American Flowers’ ferns since the 1980s. What the company wants in a shipping line is straightforward: a refrigerated container, fast and reliable vessel transit, and good communication. According to the farm, Maersk Line has not been perfect but it has been the best at meeting those expectations.

“Fresh exports out of Latin America are a very important business for Maersk Line. American Flowers is a good example. They have a valuable, perishable product that loses value over time, so to compete with airfreight we can’t simply be cheaper, we need to be better,” says Ariadna Fuentes, Sales Executive at Maersk Line Panama.

“Much of this region is going through a tough period economically, but the growth potential for fresh exports in the region is very big and we want customers to know we’re committed to serving them.”

American flowers
Matt Parsons and Jennifer Thomas, owners of American Flowers.

American Flowers says the new service Maersk Line launched early in 2016 is a great start. Fast and direct, it connects Balboa, Panama and other ports on the West Coast of Latin America to all the biggest Asian ports, including Yokohama, where some of American Flowers’ important customers are.

A family of 138 to support
As American Flowers’ latest generation of owners walk the farm together, their faces beam with pride. They stop to examine leaves and to talk to the employees who are cutting, weeding and cleaning the ferns.

The farm has 135 workers, all of them local and most of them indigenous to the area. In this small, rural region, American Flowers is a big employer. Many of the employees have been with the farm from the beginning, suggesting the good reputation of the farm is not only about the ferns.

“It means a lot to us that we have so many long-term employees. It feels in many ways like the farm is a big family,” says Jennifer Thomas. “We want to see this farm grow and continue to succeed so we can continue to have that role here, and to support our future and that of our daughter, Lily. One day, she might be the fourth generation.”