Farmers promote California flowers versus imports


Issue Date: June 19, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
The California Cut Flower Commission hosted a Field to Vase dinner at Capitol Park in Sacramento, with the intention of introducing attendees to the people who grow and sell California cut flowers. Flower farmers from around the state report that, as with growers of other commodities, qualified employees remain hard to find. Their top issue, as has been the case for years, is competition from imports produced at lower cost.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
An abundance of California-grown flowers was available for attendees of the Field to Vase dinner in Sacramento.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

As with most every farmer in the state these days, California flower farmers find themselves asking: Where have all the employees gone?

"I don't know, really, any farmer these days that I talk to, in any commodity, that doesn't say that labor is an issue—finding labor, keeping labor, being able to have people," said Felicia Alvarez, who grows flowers, prunes and rice near Live Oak.

Fred Van Wingerden, a flower grower in Oxnard, said he's "continuously shorthanded."

"There's an open call for employees," he said, "and if good employees come along, we hire them immediately."

That, combined with pressure from imported competition with its lower expenses, means earning a good return on his product can be difficult, he added.

"Because of that, you have to have really good people around you," Van Wingerden said. "I'm really blessed that I have very good staff and managers around me. I'm very fortunate; my son works with me as well in production. He's created much more efficiency and sustainability within our company."

George Soares, an attorney in Sacramento and Hanford who represents floral businesses, said California cut-flower farmers face "a collision of circumstances."

"To a good extent, the industry's being overtaken by imports that are not subject to California requirements," Soares said. "And then on the California side, we have the whole array of issues that agriculture faces—whether it's labor, whether it's overtime pay, it's any number of issues that are just making it extremely difficult for the industry to maintain its presence in California."

To highlight California flower farmers' production, the California Cut Flower Commission brought its annual Field to Vase dinner back to Capitol Park in Sacramento last week. In opening remarks, commission CEO Kasey Cronquist pointed out that more than three-quarters of the domestically grown flowers sold in the United States come from California—but only 20% of the flowers sold in the U.S. are grown domestically.

In a market full of imports, Alvarez said she differentiates herself by growing garden roses. That started, she said, when a friend of her husband's noticed her grandmother's old roses and suggested she sell them. Alvarez now raises about an acre to an acre and a half of garden roses, sold mainly to floral designers for weddings and events.

One designer, Cindy Magan of Colfax, said some of her customers seek flowers grown as locally as possible.

"I find that they really want to support local flower farmers first and then, of course, state flowers second," Magan said. "They really value that. They look for that."

Alvarez said being in the market with a "totally different product" helps.

"That is the one nice thing about field-grown garden roses, is that they are really like the rose that your grandma had, the memories you had from your grandma's yard," Alvarez said. "They're very fragrant, and most of the imported roses just cannot match the fragrance."

Growing outdoors can have its challenges, especially in this year of extreme meteorological pendulum swings.

"I am very dependent on the weather," Alvarez said. "This year has been, I would say, challenging."

Thanks to the late-spring rains, "I had a lot of wet flowers, even up through May," she added—then last week brought record-breaking heat.

"To the roses in particular, they're just kind of in culture shock," Alvarez said, adding that she's been combating disease pressures not commonly seen in her garden, such as rust and mildew. In addition, thrips and mites are in what Alvarez called "overdrive" because of the conditions.

"This week, we're doing extra watering, overhead watering, which I don't typically do, just because it's so hot," she said, adding that rose bushes will typically slow down in summer heat.

"My seasons are really kind of what would be considered the shoulder seasons; the spring and the fall are really when the roses are at their peak," she said.

This past spring, she said, was very good to her—not only for Mother's Day but also because of appreciation days for teachers and administrative professionals.

"It was an extremely busy week of sales, with people that maybe don't typically buy my garden roses that were looking for something a little extra special for the moms and the teachers and the nurses in their lives," Alvarez said.

In trying to find employees, Alvarez said she's been getting creative.

"I try to look in different types of pools for people that maybe agriculture hasn't traditionally recruited in," she said. "I'll look for people with flexible schedules that maybe still are in college in a local ag program and really work around their school schedules. I will look for people who may have left the workforce, especially women that are maybe at home with their kids or looking for part-time work."

Van Wingerden said he is also concerned about water availability.

"We have an underground water basin that is overdrafted, and we need to cut down use because of SGMA rules," Van Wingerden said, referring to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

He said his farm takes advantage of all available low-water-use technology, such as drip irrigation and microsprinklers.

Amid all the obstacles, Van Wingerden said he sees hope for the future.

"I believe that, one way or the other, we will survive, but it will be challenging," he said.

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

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