ruined some local flower farms, left others ready for Feb. 14
By David Washburn
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
It was shaping
up to be a banner year for San Diego County's small flower farms.
January, many varieties of wax flowers and Protea had healthy buds
and long stems, and signs pointed to early flowering.
DAN TREVAN / Union-Tribune
Ben Gill of Valley Center estimates he lost 30 percent of his flowers,
like these Inca Gold plants, in the January freeze.
“We had nice
bunches, good color; everything was sizing up right for Valentine's
Day,” said Ben Gill, owner of the 10-acre Protea Springs farm in
whose Ramona farm had endured two mediocre years, had the same
optimism. “Everything was looking spectacularly good,” he said.
Then came the
county's worst stretch of arctic air in decades. It was pretty much
all over within a week, but while flowers can take a little cold
they can't take several straight days of below-freezing low
Frosty January nights at the Protea Springs farm
in Valley Center led to damage like this split trunk
on a Leucospermum spider plant.
TREVAN / Union-Tribune
he lost at least 30 percent of his plants, while Shoemaker might
have lost nearly everything.
financially devastating,” said Shoemaker, 65, who started his farm
eight years ago and retired from the pipeline business to tend it
hardships brought upon individual farmers, the freeze isn't expected
to affect the county's flower industry as a whole or translate into
significantly higher prices for Valentine's Day flowers.
was sporadic. One field may have frozen, and another may be fine,”
said Kathryn Miele, spokeswoman for the California Cut Flower
Commission. “It's highly unlikely they will increase costs because
of the competition in the industry – that's what makes it so tough
for our growers.”
the cut flowers sold in the United States are imported from Mexico
and South America, Miele said.
That will make
it difficult for California growers to raise prices in anticipation
of the Feb. 14 holiday.
farmers raise $289 million in bouquet flowers – 73 percent of
domestically grown cut flowers – and $27 million in cut foliage. San
Diego growers account for 53 percent of the state's production.
officials estimate that 20 percent to 30 percent of the county's
field crops were destroyed in the cold spell, with avocados and cut
flowers hit hardest.
The cost to San
Diego County farmers will be at least $50 million and perhaps as
much as $400 million. Statewide, crop losses are expected to exceed
the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 47 of the state's 58
counties – including San Diego – as natural disaster areas or
contiguous disaster areas. Farmers in those counties are eligible
for low-cost emergency government loans due to the unusually cold
temperatures in the state from Jan. 6-19.
farms, like those in Valley Center and Ramona, were affected more
than coastal farms or those on hillsides.
Mellano & Co.,
which oversees the Carlsbad Flower Fields and a 300-acre farm in San
Luis Rey, sustained minimal damage, owner Michael A. Mellano said.
He expects the company, which is the county's largest flower grower,
to have similar revenue to last year.
will probably be on par with previous years when you factor in
losses and gains,” Mellano said.
Gill and Shoemaker are left wondering how they will survive for
another year. Like most small flower farmers in San Diego County,
they grow South African and Australian filler flowers – the
background flowers in bouquets of showy roses and carnations.
They not only
lost this year's crop but also thousands of plants. It would take
years for their farms to produce at the same level as before the
longer offer crop insurance for flower growers, and the only
assistance available to those farmers affected by the freeze are the
low-interest government loans, not an option for Gill or Shoemaker.
“At my age
what I don't need is to owe people more money,” Shoemaker said.
Shoemaker has pulled about 1,500 of the 14,000 plants on his farm
and worries that he will have to pull several thousand more. If that
is the case, he says he will replace his plants with fruit trees and
get out of the flower business.
supposed to supplement my retirement, and all it has done is cost me
money,” said Shoemaker, who estimates that he lost as much as
$200,000. “I'm not going to do this anymore.”
hit as hard as Shoemaker but still expects his Valentine's Day
revenue to be down 50 percent to 75 percent this year. And he
doesn't have high hopes for Easter, Mother's Day or Secretary's Day
will be hiring the usual number of seasonal workers because there
are fewer plants to tend.
Gill, 58, said
he is seriously considering selling his farm in Valley Center and
moving to Chile, where there are five Protea growers in the entire
“I can take 30
years of knowledge and put it to work in Chile,” he said.
Washburn: (619) 542-4582;