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California flower growers wage buy-local campaign

Cheaper imports have shrunk the U.S. share of the cut-flower market. To fight back, an industry group is touting advantages of buying blooms from the Golden State.

November 26, 2009|By Alana Semuels
  • "It's a tougher business than it was -- we're hitting the wall," says Rene Van Wingerden, owner of flower company Ocean Breeze of Carpinteria, Calif. "We need to grow stuff they can't grow economically," he says of foreign rivals. Van Wingerden no longer grows roses but is still competitive with gerbera daisies, which are delicate and hard to ship.
"It's a tougher business than it was -- we're hitting the… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

"Buy American." Marketers have used it to sell cars, clothing and toys. Now an association of flower growers is using the slogan to remind consumers to purchase U.S. blooms when picking up their Thanksgiving bouquets.

"Rather than buy flowers shipped in by 747s, you can help beat back the recession and drive jobs here at home," said Kasey Cronquist, executive director of the California Cut Flower Commission.

The commission kicked off a buy-local campaign this month in supermarket flower sections, starting in Vons and Safeway stores. California products bear "hint cards" boasting that Golden State flowers are America's freshest.

It's just one more way flower growers in the state are struggling to keep and create jobs in the face of increasingly fierce competition from overseas. Twenty years ago, U.S. growers supplied two-thirds of the nation's cut flowers. Today domestic producers account for just 25% of that business, in part because of free-trade agreements that opened the U.S. market to flowers from low-cost foreign growers.

Imports from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru blossomed after the 1991 Andean Trade Preference Act, which aimed to create economic alternatives to drug trafficking. U.S. flower farmers now worry that the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, which has yet to be approved by Congress, would further trim their sales in the $12-billion U.S. cut-flower market.

California grower Rene Van Wingerden has abandoned some lines of business. His Carpinteria company, Ocean Breeze, no longer grows roses because he can't match the rock-bottom prices of Latin American competitors. Van Wingerden said he needs to sell his roses wholesale for 40 cents each to turn a profit. The South Americans can do it for 30 cents each, he said.

The rose greenhouse the company built in Nipomo in San Luis Obispo County now stands half empty as Van Wingerden decides what, if anything, he can plant there that the growers in Ecuador can't grow more cheaply. He's planning on cutting his chrysanthemum production in half after Mother's Day, which could cost 15 workers their jobs.

"It's a tougher business than it was -- we're hitting the wall," said Van Wingerden, walking between rows of red, orange and white gerbera daisies in his greenhouse. Nearby, workers clipped flowers, placing them gingerly on racks, arranged by bright colors.

He can still be competitive on gerbera daisies, he said, because they're delicate and difficult to ship. He picked a pink daisy, looking closely at a slightly dented petal. Pointing to its wrinkle, barely noticeable, he threw the flower away.

"We need to grow stuff they can't grow economically," he said of his foreign rivals.

California farmers also need to capitalize on consumers' growing consciousness about the environmental and social effects of the products they're buying, said Dan Vordale, a commissioner at the California Cut Flower Commission and vice president of sales and marketing at Ocean View Flowers in Lompoc. Multinationals that operate flower plantations in Latin America have been criticized for paying workers poorly and exposing them to harmful chemicals. Shipping flowers thousands of miles by air contributes to global warming.

"We want consumers to know they have a choice, and we hope they will want the freshness of California," said Vordale, whose farm specializes in larkspur and delphinium.

The California industry employs 15,000 people on 250 farms across the state, creating a $10.3-billion economic impact, according to the commission. Three-quarters of all flowers grown in the U.S. are cultivated in California.

To help protect their industry, Golden State growers are planning a transportation hub that they hope can reduce the number of trucks on the road and cut shipping costs by as much as 30%.

But other expenses, including water, keep rising, said John Krist, chief executive of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County. Cut flowers were the fourth-biggest crop in Ventura County last year, with a value of $51 million.

"For the flower growers in Ventura, and those that grow other commodities as well, this is a very expensive part of the world to do business," he said.

Much as with fashion, fresh merchandise is crucial to survival in the flower industry, said Joseph Goldberg, president of sales at Nipomo grower Skyline Flowers.

"You change what you're growing, you're constantly looking for new products to grow," he said.

Eufloria, a Nipomo rose farm, has started focusing on rare varieties that are difficult for foreign competitors to ship. It has targeted the wedding industry and emphasizes how it can get products to market faster than its competitors.

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