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Mother Nature ruined some local flower farms, left others ready for Feb. 14

By David Washburn

February 3, 2007

It was shaping up to be a banner year for San Diego County's small flower farms.

By early 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 Valley Center.

Ed Shoemaker, 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 temperatures.

Frosty January nights at the Protea Springs farm

 in Valley Center led to damage like this split trunk

on a Leucospermum spider plant.

DAN TREVAN / Union-Tribune

Gill estimates he lost at least 30 percent of his plants, while Shoemaker might have lost nearly everything.

 “It was financially devastating,” said Shoemaker, 65, who started his farm eight years ago and retired from the pipeline business to tend it full time.

Despite the 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.

“The damage 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.”

Two-thirds of 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.

The state's 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.

County 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 $1 billion.

On Wednesday, 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.

Inland valley 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.

“Overall, it will probably be on par with previous years when you factor in losses and gains,” Mellano said.

Meanwhile, 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 freeze.

Insurers no 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.

So far, 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.

“This was 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.”

Gill wasn't 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 either.

Neither grower 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 country.

“I can take 30 years of knowledge and put it to work in Chile,” he said.

David Washburn: (619) 542-4582;
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