Rose growers look beyond Valentine’s Day


Issue Date: February 6, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Chris Neve, a third-generation grower, looks over a greenhouse at Neve Bros. in Petaluma. This flower farm largely got out of the red-rose business in the face of a rising tide of imports, which opened the door for Neve to focus on a wider array of colors for weddings, special events and other occasions year round.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Neve Bros. employees work among a pile of roses awaiting shipment in one of the coolers at the Petaluma flower grower. Neve Bros. grows many varieties, including spray roses with multiple blooms per stem.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

As Valentine's Day flower shoppers run for the red roses, California rose growers such as Chris Neve are gearing up for the other 364 days of the year.

"Valentine's Day is not a busy holiday for us," he said, pointing to a half-full cooler at his farm outside Petaluma. "This is nothing."

Neve, whose father and uncle founded Neve Bros. in the mid-1980s, said his farm has all but stopped growing the red roses that are a trademark of Feb. 14, thanks to competition from imports.

"For red roses, you want to be able to hit Valentine's Day and Mother's Day and Christmas," Neve said. "Well, if you don't have a very decent red rose, then it makes it hard for you to do that."

All it takes is a variation in the weather, a factor beyond the farmer's control, and roses might bloom too soon or too late to fill orders. So Neve looks elsewhere.

"We do a lot of business with the wedding and special-event crowd," Neve said. "Special colors, specialty looks, whites, light pinks, stuff that's more fragile that doesn't look the same as when it goes into a box for six days." That, he said, makes his business more sustainable.

"It's more even," Neve said. "It's less ebb and flow, because we're not banking on one big holiday to pitch us out of a wintertime's worth of fuel bills and labor costs."

Janet Louie of Green Valley Floral in Salinas has seen the effects of offshore competition.

"We have stats back to 1990 saying 300-plus rose growers," Louie said. "That's across the country. Now, you can count them all on your fingers."

Louie's operation has adapted by seeking new markets.

"We're trying to develop a specialty line of roses that nobody's seen before," Louie said. "That's been our motto the last seven, eight years. That's why we're still here."

With wedding costs going up, people are getting creative about when they get married, and that helps Louie avoid the rush.

"For a grower, that's very important to realize we would rather have a consistent level of business rather than shoot for one particular day, or two particular days, out of the year," Louie said.

"It's really changed the composition of our color mixes," she added. "We don't have very many red roses at all. So we leave that to the importers, and we focus on the blushes and the creams and the other off colors."

While her labor and energy costs are higher, Louie can take advantage of her location as a selling point. She's on the board of the California Cut Flower Commission, which promotes U.S. flowers through the Certified American Grown movement.

"People are very aware of asking where your flowers are from," Louie said.

One of Neve's specialties is spray roses, which have multiple blooms per stem.

"They grow really nice for us," Neve said. "The colors are really rich. Everything's really fresh. It's not an item that gets done in South America or out of the country very well."

Neve estimated that 80 percent of his customer base is in the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California. His company travels six days a week to the San Francisco Flower Mart where many customers are looking for the untraditional.

"A lot of people will come up to us in the market and they say, 'Do you have anything new?'" Neve said. "They want to be fresh and different and doing their own thing."

Not being tied to a specific day on the calendar allows growers such as Neve to keep up with trends "at the drop of a hat."

"There's pinks, whites and creams right now," he said, but that "just as easily in a couple years can turn to yellows, lavenders and something else. It's fashionable, in a sense, right?"

"If you aren't constantly updating what you have to stay in the forefront of what's relevant, you're going to become archaic in a matter of years. It'll happen to you quick," he added.

Neve compared competing with red-rose imports with a mom-and-pop grocery store taking on major retailers.

"You can't fight 'em head-on," Neve said. "You fight 'em where they're not trying to fight you."

Even with all its challenges, Louie said she figures her greenhouses are growing something worth having.

"It's not an easy business to be in," Louie said. "To have a California rose now is special, because they're so rare."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.