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By   /   Sunday, December 7th, 2008  /   Comments Off on Region

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After years of losing ground to foreign competitors, cut flower growers in the Tri-Counties are hoping a new presidential administration will help them expand their market share.

They are California’s largest producers of cut flowers, contributing more than $770 million a year in business activity to the region and accounting for more than 7,000 industry-related jobs, according to a report from the California Cut Flower Commission scheduled for release on Dec. 5.

“In Santa Barbara County, if you didn’t have the cut flower industry, the unemployment figure would double,” said Kasey Cronquist, the commission’s Carpinteria-based executive director. The Commission provided an advanced copy of the report to the Business Times.

Newly armed with detailed information about the industry’s economic impact, cut flower advocates are optimistic that President-elect Barack Obama’s administration might amend trade agreements that have let South American growers capture 75 percent of the U.S. market.

“It’s very hand-to-mouth right now for all flower growers,” said Eduard Van Wingerden, owner and president of Carpinteria-based gerbera grower Ever-Bloom. “Everybody is sort of hanging in there, waiting for things to change.”

Van Wingerden said that as a businessman, he welcomes competition. But the competition has to be fair, he said, especially when it comes to considering the environment and workers.

“We can’t have [foreign growers] spraying pesticides that are illegal in the U.S. and then importing. We can’t have us paying $12 an hour and then have them paying $5 day,” Van Wingerden said. “It does look like Obama is going to give us a hand when it comes to that.”

That helping hand would benefit California, which supplies 80 percent of domestic-grown flowers and whose cut-flower industry generates $10 billion in economic activity each year, according the flower commission’s report. “We’re really the last stand in terms of what’s being grown in the United states,” Cronquist said.

Van Wingerden, who employs about 50 workers, emphasizes that the jobs created by California pay well and often come with benefits. Because of greenhouses, employees work year round.

“It’s very steady on the work force,” Van Wingerden said. “We have people who’ve been with us for years and years.”

Cronquist’s group is trying to help growers capitalize on the California brand. About 85 percent of consumers say they don’t know where their flowers are grown, but 55 percent say they would buy California flowers if given a choice, according the industry group.

“We need to really get specific during these tough times and really tell people to pay attention to where their flowers come from,” Cronquist said.

Branding aside, California growers have responded to foreign competition by staying a step ahead. They have switched to flowers the South Americans can’t grow as well.

Ever-Bloom, for example, grows more than 240 kinds of gerberas and ships about 50 million flowers a year from its 15 acres of greenhouses.

The flowers are grown hydroponically with a closed-loop water system that ensures no waste water or pesticides leave the facility.

The greenhouses themselves are engineered to retain energy and are heated by cleaner-burning natural gas. But Van Wingerden and others have located in the Tri-Counties in part because the region’s weather lowers energy costs.

“We just open the doors and let Mother Nature do the work,” Van Wingerden said.

Increased competition also means going back to the time-honored principle of putting in a little extra effort to make life easier for customers. Ever-Bloom will fill complicated mixed orders for wholesalers where foreign growers pile flowers into a cargo ship and leave it to the wholesalers to sort.

“We’re local. We don’t have to worry about Homeland Security holding up a shipment,” Van Wingerden said. “There are customers who are looking for that extra value, and then there are those who are just looking for a cheap deal. You have to find the ones you want to deal with.”

Generally speaking, Van Wingerden said, recessions are good for the floral industry because consumers pull back from big-ticket items such as fur coats and jewelry and move toward flowers and cheaper gifts.

“But obviously, if people have to pick between bacon or flowers, they’ll go to bacon,” Van Wingerden said. “If this turns into depression, then we’ll be in trouble. Then I’ll start selling mayonnaise with my flowers.”

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