San Mateo County’s flower farmers battle tough times with new ideas

Flowers grow amidst the fog in Pescadero, Calif. (Matt Hansen/Peninsula Press)
Flowers grow amidst the fog in Pescadero, Calif. (Matt Hansen/Peninsula Press)

For decades, it seemed that San Mateo County’s cut flower industry would never stop growing. Each year, statistics released by the county showed more and more expansion: in 1950, 2.8 million square feet of greenhouse flowers; in 1960, 3.2 million square feet; in 1970, 9.6 million square feet.

“Most [cut] flowers in the United States were grown in California” during those years, said Michael Reid, a University of California at Davis researcher who specializes in horticulture. By 1979, these crops — grown to be cut for floral sales — represented a nearly $15 million a year business in San Mateo County, especially in coastal areas.

Those days are gone. Reid estimates that less than 10 percent of cut flowers sold in the U.S. now come from California, much of the trade having shifted to Colombia and Ecuador. The state continues to be the leading domestic producer of the crop. 

The story is a familiar one to many struggling U.S. industries, as rising production costs, changing consumer habits and increased foreign competition gradually undercut producers. For California flower farmers, add to that rising prices for real estate, energy and labor, Reid said.

Louie Figone lived through the change. He has grown flowers on land north of Half Moon Bay since 1967. “Back then, we were heavy shippers,” he said. “We sold 80 percent of our product outside of the area in Seattle, Los Angeles, Reno, Portland, Austin, Miami and New York.”

In the 1990s, he said, “the bottom fell out of the industry.”

Today, there are 225 major cut flower growers in California, fewer than half of the total two decades ago, according to Kasey Cronquist, chief executive officer of the California Cut Flower Commission, an industry association.

Nationally, too, imported flowers both outsell and outnumber domestically grown choices. Last year, imported cut flowers accounted for $615.7 million, while domestic flowers reached $342.2 million in wholesale value.

In San Mateo County, weakened cut flower production remains a force in the local economy, and associated industries such as potted plant nurseries have not been hit as hard. Cut flower sales accounted for $12.7 million in 2012, according to county reports, a slight increase from the year before.

The size of flower farms, however, has declined in the county: Indoor farms lost 128,000 square feet; outdoor farms now account for only 355 acres.

In response, some growers are looking to new tactics. Having watched fellow flower farmers switch to vegetable crops, travel far outside the Bay Area to sell their goods, and even give up the business altogether, they are ready to experiment.

George Armanino runs Mazzanti Carnations in Pescadero, a cut flower farm that bears his grandfather’s name. Despite the title, the business no longer produces “a single carnation.” Beginning in the 1990s, the crop stopped being profitable, Armanino said. “The overhead costs kept rising, but the price just never went up.”

Growing flowers is not an issue for Armanino. Figuring out what will sell in a highly competitive industry is.

“We can grow almost any high-quality crop here,” he said. “The issue is what to grow.” With a wide selection in the market, Armanino worries about finding a product he can specialize in.

“Nobody has the answer,” he said.

James Oku is a flower farmer at his family’s nursery in Pescadero, which opened in 1902. Like Armanino, his family has struggled with the market’s recent emphasis on quantity over quality.

“More and more people are moving away from buying at flower shops towards grocery stores, where quality is not as large an issue,” Oku said. “We pride ourselves on long stems and really high-quality flowers, but grocery stores want large quantities at lower prices, with shorter stems.”

For Oku and Armanino, adaptations have become a necessity.

Armanino now grows calla lilies, a flower well-suited to his coastal farm. “The callas grow bigger here because of the damp, cold, heavy soil,” he said. He hopes this will enable him to find a niche in the market. “I’ll try everything, no problem. I don’t want to sell out. I would love to be able to keep growing cut flowers and do what I know how to do.”

Oku has researched using biodiesel to heat his greenhouses, which use higher-cost oil. The farm has also worked to make their greenhouses more energy efficient, to trap heat from escaping.

“We are trying these small things, like changing the way we plant to get better air circulation,” he said. “We try our hardest to keep going. This is our family legacy. We are proud to be California cut flower growers.”

Others outside the industry have taken notice. Christina Stembel was working in alumni relations at Stanford University when she observed that few of the flowers at events were coming from local growers. She started her San Francisco-based flower company Farmgirl Flowers to work specifically with local farms. “With flowers, people often don’t know what’s local,” she said.

Given the opportunity to learn and buy, customers responded.

“When we started, there was very little education on this topic,” Stembel said. “But clearly people want it. It’s not just a fad.” She cites her own company’s annually increasing growth, and the roughly 1000 people on her waiting list who are eager for nationwide distribution.

Figone is one of the farmers who supplies Farmgirl. While his business has changed, he said, entering a smaller market has been a good decision. “At our peak, we had 52 employees, now we have 5,” Figone said. “But it’s OK. We found a different niche, going local.”

All three farmers wonder about the future. Figone expects small growers will continue in the area, but won’t make the same capital investments in the industry.

He can imagine the day, perhaps 50 years from now, when many of the county’s flower farmers will consider selling their land. If that happens, “I understand it, but I would love to see this land continued to be used for agriculture.”

Armanino worries about staying competitive with overseas farms, where quality flowers can be produced at a lower cost.

Even a major overseas producer can commiserate with American farmers because he was once in their position. John Nevado grows roses in Ecuador, where he and his father relocated after the flower business became too expensive in their native Spain. The move allowed Nevado to develop a successful organic rose business. He said more and more European farmers are relocating overseas, driven out by the same concerns that face American growers.

Nevado was recently in Ethiopia, where he said, “Dutch fathers are visiting and telling their families, ‘Take our legacy, get out of Europe, and go to Africa.’”

For their part, San Mateo’s coastal farmers say they are committed to their farms and don’t envision leaving.

“I’ll probably die doing what I’m doing,” Figone said, “because I love it.”

Listen to reporter Matthew Hansen explain the story behind the story on KZSU Stanford’s “Peninsula Report” radio show with host Eliza Ridgeway:

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