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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 5:52 am | Fair 46º


Business May Be Blooming but Carpinteria Flower Growers Feel Pinch of Imports

Cut-flower industry complains of Colombia's advantage but fights back with 'buy local' campaign

Although January was one of the best months in recent years for local growers of cut flowers, everything isn’t smelling like roses in California’s cut-flower industry this spring. Technology and cost-effective growing techniques have improved, but domestic growers are fighting to maintain a share of a market that is increasingly relying on inexpensive imports.

“The future is looking good, but we just have to work harder and cut costs,” said Winfred Van Wingerden, a Carpinteria cut-flower grower. “We’re seeing that Colombia is starting to get better but not matching our quality.”

Van Wingerden and his family immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands when he was a young boy and they’ve grown flowers their entire lives. The agricultural technology they employ has Dutch origins, including material, irrigation, greenhouse construction and a hydropnic-growing method — a strategy to grow plants above ground.

A recent study by the California Cut Flower Commission found that the flower industry has a $10.3 billion annual impact on the state economy. According to the commission, for every dollar spent on locally grown flowers, 92 cents goes directly back into the local economy.

Yet, 80 percent of the flowers sold in the United States are grown in South America, said Kasey Cronquist, the commission’s executive director.

“Contra Costa County had a thriving cut-flower industry in carnations and roses, but because of open trade with South America countries, they couldn’t compete and went out of business,” said Cathy Fisher, the Santa Barbara County agricultural commissioner.

Local growers recently made their case to Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, during a tour of Carpinteria greenhouses.

Capps said that more than 7,000 jobs are created from the industry, $21.1 million in tax revenue is generated and growers spent more than $254.5 million in Santa Barbara County, which provides more than 50 percent of California’s overall production value. Imported flowers do not match the standards of locally grown flowers, she said.

“You don’t know pesticides that are put on it,” Capps said. “There are environmental standards we set here and we want to enjoy those. It’s not a fair game.”

Capps also touted the energy savings of local products.

“If people understood they would rather buy (flowers) locally, especially when it comes to energy costs,” she said. “It’s a local industry we want to take pride in and one that’s flooded with competition.”

The 1991 Andean Trade Preference Act enforced tax incentives for Andean countries to sell to the United States to slow drug production. Since then, domestic growers like Van Wingerden and his family have been edged out of specialty flowers such as roses and chrysanthemums.

“Those countries don’t have the overhead costs that growers have here,” Fisher said. “There are regulations and environmental constrictions; all of those things cost money. It’s an unfair disadvantage for our guys.”

Many large stores are mainly looking at the bottom line and are solely market-driven, she added.

Van Wingerden said that once flowers are imported to the United States and shipped to the customer, the flowers may be a week old. Locally grown flowers are much fresher, he said.

Still, Van Wingerden is entertaining the thought of relocating to cheaper land to cut down on his own costs.

“Cut-flower growers are concerned about outside competition and may be forced to grow something different,” Fisher said. “If you can’t sell a perishable product, there’s no point in selling it.”

But Van Wingerden and his family remain optimistic. They just have to sell more of the specialized product, such as dense flowers that are costly to ship.

“There will always be a market,” he said. “We just may have to go with more specialized flowers because we have a population base in California.”

The California Cut Flower Commission can supply flowers to the entire West Coast and its population of 60 million people, he added.

Each bouquet of locally grown flowers is marked by a California license plate symbol that reads “CA GROWN.” The flowers are largely available at markets like Trader Joe’s and Tri-County Produce.

Noozhawk staff writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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