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The small farmer's survival guide to exporting plants to the United States

I started the Plants Without Borders Cooperative in May of 2021 with no prior experience or knowledge in agriculture or international trade. Since then, our global marketplace has achieved +1000% growth in average monthly sales compared to last year.

Our online marketplace has successfully connected suppliers from Thailand, Indonesia, and Ecuador to growers and retailers all across the United States. By next month, we will also be featuring growers from Colombia and Guatemala.

This guide is a summary of what we have been fortunate to learn from both small farmers and large corporations all around the world, over the past year.

Exporting perishable and highly regulated commodities across entire oceans can be potentially very lucrative, but has many risks. I hope that we can help you on your journey to export ornamental plants to the United States.

Legal Requirements:

United States

For shipments of 12 plants or less, the Buyer does not need an Import Permit

For Shipments of more than 12 plants, the Buyer does need an Import Permit. Import permits can be obtained by individuals and companies in the United States. The instructions can be found here.

Before plants can enter the United States, customs officials require a phytosanitary certificate from the plant quarantine office of the exporting country. Here is an example of a phytosanitary certificate.

Exporting Country

Every Country has different rules and regulations concerning the export of ornamental plants. The agricultural department of the country, in addition to the plant protection division of the agricultural department, is usually involved.

Below are examples of documents from the government of the Philippines. Both procedures need to be completed in order for plants to be exported.

Bureau of Plant Industry - a division of the agricultural department

Department of Energy and Natural Resources


Next, business processes for ensuring compliance with regulations must be created. This is both to check that Buyers have the required documents, and also to ensure that your own organization is in compliance.

For the United States, plants can only be imported bare-root. This means that finished plants can not be shipped into the country and immediately resold. This is different from Europe, where finished plants can be directly imported and immediately sold as a finished product.

US government inspectors can destroy entire shipments due to pests or other reasons. Small mistakes can lead to large losses.


Before Cooperative Members can sell on our platform, they must decide who will be handling the shipment of their goods. There are many options, and it will all depend on what type of product you will be shipping, and in what quantities. There are two types of shipping:

Small parcels: shipments weighing less than 45 kg 

Freight: shipments weighing more than 45 kg

There are many types of logistics providers:

Couriers: these are companies that specialize in delivering shipments of less than 45 kg door-to-door. Examples are UPS and FedEx.

Customs brokers: these are companies that specialize in presenting customs documentation to government agents and physically moving the shipment from the inspector's facility to where it needs to go next. Generally, one would use Customs brokers with freight shipments that are large and high-value.

Freight brokers: they coordinate the connection between shippers and carriers but do not handle freight directly.

Freight forwarder: actually takes possession of the freight, and often stores, packs, and ships it.

You will want to find a logistics provider that serves your specific needs. Preferably, they will have experience in perishables, specifically live plants.


Who will buy your exported product, and why? How will you make them aware of your product and comfortable enough to make a purchase?

The supply chain for plants in the United States is complex and has many levels—starting with large-scale commercial growers, wholesale nurseries, retail nurseries, plant shops, at-home plant business owners, to individual consumers that are not business owners.

We recommend partnering with an organization or individual that has experience marketing to the different segments of the industry.


Who will be selling your product to customers? Will your in-house employees make phone calls and send emails? Or will you sell through a distribution partner?

Hiring a salesperson in the United States can be costly. An average corporate salesperson can cost $75,000+ year in just base salary—that is not including commissions and benefits.

Sales Operations

How will the transactions take place from a mechanical standpoint? How much will you get paid, and when? Cross-border business can be very risky, because the company you are trading with may have the option to just walk away at any moment, leaving an exporter with little to no recourse.

Customer Service

Customers often have questions about the plant before buying, during shipment, and after delivery. For customers in the United States, buying wholesale plants in general has risks. That means that buying them from a grower in another country is seen as even riskier. Having a customer service strategy that proactively addresses potential issues is extremely important, especially with shipping live plants.