Valentine's florals filched
Grower Michael Anthony Mellano shows Jackie Cruz, an agricultural rural crime specialist with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, some of the theft-prevention controls he has put in place at his floral operation.
Even as a grower of cut flowers, each Valentine's Day Michael Anthony Mellano presents his wife with a bouquet of roses and his daughters with a single rose, to remind them of just how much he loves them.
In the days leading up to the holiday, the third-generation grower points out that it is also an annual tradition for thieves to trespass onto flower-growing operations under the guise of darkness to steal flowers and foliage.
"Our sales just prior to the Valentine's Day holiday triple easily, so with a high price for the flowers, there is a higher tendency for theft," said Mellano, vice president of production at Mellano & Co. in San Luis Rey.
One popular Valentine's Day product targeted by thieves is the waxflower, which can be sold for as high as $5 a bunch during holiday periods and drop to $1.50 a bunch during non-holiday periods, Mellano said.
Because waxflowers don't flower all at once, a thief could cut stems from a bush and the grower may not notice that they've been stolen from, he said.
"It is just an underground situation that needs to be controlled," said Mellano.
Jackie Cruz, an agricultural rural crime specialist with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, says crooks typically start looking for flowers at growing operations the first week of February.
"Because flowers are a perishable commodity, they've got to steal them as close to the holiday as possible," Cruz said. "Thieves go out in the middle of the night and they literally twist and pull the product from the plant. There is a concern not only of the lost product, but of the viability of the plant left behind because they are not clipping the flowers. They just grab, twist and go."
The folks responsible for these crimes know and understand the timing of the floral market, Cruz said. Once the stolen product leaves a grower's field, it might be sold at any of the floral trade centers throughout Southern California.
"We've had reports of commodities showing up in the floral trade centers that match descriptions of what has been stolen," Cruz said. "There is no way to discern if that was the stolen commodity or not. Once the flowers leave the field, it is hard for law enforcement to make a case. We have to basically catch him in the act."
Ann Quinn, executive vice president of the California State Floral Association, said, "Unfortunately, floral theft and illegal sales of our products do occur. Obviously, we are concerned with this issue that affects not only the floral industry but the agricultural community as a whole."
There are legitimate vendors selling floral products as well as those who are not, Mellano said.
"The flower market in Los Angeles is almost the size of a city block and they have flowers that legitimate vendors are selling and they create quite a draw of customers," Mellano said. "You also have fly-by-night vendors that drive into the parking lots and sell out of the back of their trucks. There are city regulations against doing that, but the city is very lax in policing that stuff."
Mellano says he has not experienced significant problems related to flower theft in the past few years, but he adds that it is a problem for many smaller operations, many of which are located in remote areas.
"In these areas of the county, there's not a lot of traffic or people. There are a lot of canyons and hills, so there are places for people to hide," Mellano said.
San Diego County cut flower grower Rick Price of the Escondido/Valley Center area says he was a victim of flower theft for two consecutive years at his 40-acre farm and that everyone is susceptible.
"If (thieves) have easy access during a moonlit night, they come in and just break off the flowers from the plants and haul them out," said Price, owner of J.R. Growers, which specializes in waxed flowers. "There are all kinds of floral theft this time of year."
Further north, Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department Lt. Jim Skillicorn says thefts of roses are commonly reported just prior to popular floral holidays such as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. Thieves break into greenhouse operations and steal roses that later end up sold on the black market.
"Thieves usually cut a hole through the fence and go to where the flowers are kept," Skillicorn said. "They snip off the padlocks and load up wheelbarrows with boxes of flowers."
For rose growers, Skillicorn said, the per-stem value can be about $25 per bunch. With 24 to 36 bunches in a box, that cost translates to between $600 and $800 per box. The loss to the growers can be several thousand dollars.
Nearly 5,000 acres are devoted to commercial growing of fresh cut flowers in California, according to the California State Floral Association. That number includes more than 38 million square feet of greenhouse area, 200 acres of shade cloth and 4,000 acres of outdoor fields.
About 275 California growers market cut flowers and foliage annually in the state. Seventy-three percent of all domestically grown, commercially sold cut flowers are produced in California.
"California flower growers and suppliers predict there will be a plentiful and affordable variety of flowers to choose from on this Valentine's holiday," Quinn said. "Our California growers are committed to producing the highest-quality flowers and greens grown in accordance to the strictest environmental standards in the world."
In late October, wildfires fueled by the Santa Ana winds caused significant damage to cut flower, ornamental plant and other nursery operations in Southern California. San Diego County lost 430 acres of cut flowers worth $10 million to the fires, according to the agricultural commissioner's office in the county.
Mellano said growers in the county who were not impacted are now filling in for those who were.
"If all of the flowers that got hit were flowers that were targeted for the Valentine's Day season, then you would probably notice a very significant loss in production and scarcity," Mellano said.
Price says he is receiving good prices for his flowers and is attributing that to losses from the fires as well as an early 2007 freeze that also impacted growers. Because the number of bunches are down, prices have held, and that has helped him in the short term.
"I have an early bloom, so we are harvesting a product, whereas with most people, if they are harvesting at all, they are doing it in limited numbers," he said.
After Price's operation was hit by thieves in 2005 and 2006, he took action by placing Farm Bureau "Farm Watch" no-trespassing signs around his operation.
"I've been very careful," Price said. "Believe it or not, purchasing signs that say your organization is part of Farm Watch actually seems to affect the trespassing problem."
Mellano began experiencing flower thefts a few years ago. People were jumping the fence on the back side of his farm and in the middle of the night. They usually got away with significant sections of the field. Since Mellano put a theft-prevention plan in place that includes a security team that regularly makes rounds after hours, Mellano said the thefts have stopped.
"It took us awhile to get the thefts under control and in check, but we were very fortunate that we were able to. Just the visibility of having someone out there deters people from coming in and stealing things," Mellano said. "We had to make sure that the fences were up and intact, that gates are locked and that razor wire is put in places where it was very prone to people jumping fences."
For growers in Santa Cruz, Skillicorn recommends changing business hours just prior to these floral holidays to ensure that there are signs of activity at night.
"They need to have employees there at nighttime. Some places aren't burglarized because they are so busy," Skillicorn said. "During Valentine's season some places have a 24-hour operation where cutting is happening during the daytime and the packing is happening at nighttime."
To help law enforcement in solving these types of crimes, Cruz recommends that growers communicate openly with their local deputies and educate them about the product grown.
"Producers need to reach out and educate law enforcement so that when a call comes in and they are responding to a report of stolen proteas, they will understand what a protea is," Cruz said. "I'd ask growers to share information, ask us what we can do for them and tell us what challenges they are facing."
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com. Ching Lee contributed to this report.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.