Flower growers face worries fulfilling Mother’s Day sales

Issue Date: May 6, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman
Shelter-in-place orders and event cancellations caused flower sales to drop sharply. California flower farmers continue to face obstacles heading into Mother’s Day, their top sales period.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

The biggest holiday of the year for flower farmers is drawing near, but the ongoing COVID-19 emergency has installed a roadblock between the growers and Mom.

"There's flowers out there for a normal Mother's Day," said Dave Pruitt, interim chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission. "The problem is, in many cases, getting them from Point A to Point B."

Flower farmers have been dealing with supply-chain issues as well as cratering demand, as the COVID-19 emergency and resulting health directives prompted the cancellation or postponement of weddings, graduations and other large events featuring flowers.

"It's obviously not a normal year," Pruit said, but "it has gotten better over what it was a couple of weeks ago."

By the time Easter arrived in mid-April, some growers were running at 30% to 40% of their usual business, he noted, with some aiming for 70% to 80% of average for Mother's Day, which should be their biggest day of the year.

Trucking capacity has been an issue, Pruitt said, as has the patchwork of shelter-in-place orders that left florists wondering whether they can legally operate.

"There's still retailers in certain areas that are having difficulties," he said. "You've got one city where a retail florist is able to take orders on the phone and deliver product, and you've got another city where they've been forcibly closed down by the sheriff."

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced guidelines for limited reopenings of some businesses; florists were listed among businesses that may open for pickup services as early as Friday, just in time for Mother's Day.

Chris Neve of Neve Brothers in Petaluma—one of the state's few remaining rose growers—said his farm handles a lot of its own distribution to farmers markets, flower shops and grocery stores. Many others go through wholesalers or chain providers, "and a lot of those avenues got closed down," he said.

With international supply chains disrupted by a shortage of air transportation, Neve said, there's an imbalance he and other California growers can help fill, even as overall orders decline. Some shops Neve ships to might ordinarily take 30 to 40 orders a day, he said.

"Now, maybe they're only doing 20, but they have a hard time getting the flowers for the 20," he said. "Everybody kept calling up for more and more flowers, because they couldn't get ahold of anything. At least the California grower is going to have the inventory to be able to service what is there a little bit more readily."

The San Francisco Flower Mart, where Neve Brothers is an active seller, initially closed as a result of the city's shelter-in-place order but reopened April 22 with limited hours. Only those buying for business purposes and holding the necessary badge are allowed in. The Original Los Angeles Flower Market has been closed since March 20 and will remain so until further notice, according to its website.

Mother's Day remains a wild card, Neve said: Before the pandemic, he was looking at a 5% boost over last year's sales; now, "if I were to bet, I would say that it's going to be normal for us," he said. "It's not going to be overly busy."

Retailers are buying on speculation, he added, and "it's a tough thing to speculate on, because some people might not even figure that the flower shops are open."

Nurseries and garden centers have remained open, but Ashley Rossi of Green Acres Nursery and Supply—which runs five garden centers in and around Sacramento—said if people shopping for Mom decide to go for live ornamental plants, she won't notice the impact on sales until the week before the holiday. In the meantime, people planting "victory gardens" continue to drive sales.

"Edibles still dominate customers' carts right now in all forms," Rossi said. "Veggies and fruit trees, citrus. Blueberries are going like wildfire and raspberries are starting to pick up."

One hot seller for Mother's Day: plastic. Nursery gift card sales are up fourfold from last year, Rossi said, adding that it's hard to say whether shelter-in-place orders are the reason.

Rossi said it's too soon to know whether the edible trend will continue.

"I think we are seeing a lot of novice gardeners right now coming into our stores, and I deeply hope that we can help them be successful in their first efforts and that they fall in love with gardening," she said.

Looking ahead to the rest of 2020, Pruitt said there's a possibility of a delayed business uptick if circumstances allow postponed weddings and events to take place—but it won't make up for losses already incurred. One flower farm is already out of business, he said, and a second farm announced its closure but reversed course after loyal customers talked the owners into staying open.

"Let's say they get back to normal operation in November," Pruitt said. "There's no way they can ever catch up for everything that took place from March to the first of November."

What flower farmers need now, he said, is a sign things will indeed get better.

"I'm hoping that we do get up to the 75-80 (percent of average), so that the growers see a progression," Pruitt said, "so that there's some positive energy and hope."

"Positive energy and hope," he added, "is the only thing that's going to keep them going."

The commission maintains a list of flower farms open and shipping on its homepage at www.ccfc.org.

(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.




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