knowledge just blows me away, said Charlie Hoffman, who owns A New
Leaf, a Chatsworth wholesale operation that distributes flowers
in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties. In the industry, people
know if you've got questions, Ben's the guy to go to.
the 36 years that he's been in North San Diego County agriculture,
Gill, 52, has run his own protea ranches as well as managed
those for other people. Three years ago, he founded California
Protea Management using his own money.
company propagates and develops varieties of protea and other
exotic plants and offers advice on growing them. The firm
also brokers and markets the flowers from its small complex
in the Harvest Farms cluster of agricultural businesses at
operation employs six workers full time, including Gill's son, Gabriel,
and six more workers at peak season. Revenues this year, he said,
should slightly exceed $1 million.
most popular protea varieties are ones that have soft, artichoke-like
leaves nestling a furry center, and ones that resemble fuzzy
thimbles with pins protruding from the base. The flowers grow
in shades of pink, yellow, orange, scarlet, violet, dusty blue.
consumers have become more aware of the blooms, the protea industry
has grown. To help meet current orders and expand the market even
further, Gill is developing a 35-acre ranch on one of the highest
and most scenic of the area's hill sides. There are times now when
demand exceeds supply. "We've run into that three or four times
in the last four years," he said.
peak harvest, which runs from September through May, California
Protea Management packs and ships 4,000 to 20,000 flowers a week
to wholesale customers in the United States, Canada, Mexico and
Japan. England is the company's latest market target. Hoffman at
A New Leaf has been a part of that growth. "I'd say over the
last five years, we've been bringing in about 15 boxes a week, 10
times what we used to," he said.
stem of a popular variety, such as a King Protea, can cost from
$1.50 at a farmer's market or swap meet to as much as $7 at a florist
shop. The price might discourage some buyers, Gill concedes. But,
with a vase life of 10 to 15 days, proteas remain fresh longer than
most flowers, and they even look good dead, he said. We're trying
to educate people that they don't die, they dry, he said. I don't
know if they're just catching on or people are realizing they're
main obstacle to expanding sales, however, remains the fact that
potential customers don't know they exist. Some florists don't use
proteas unless they're asked for them. "We have to develop
a system where the consumer will pull the flower through the supply
chain," Gill said. To do that, he's turning to the Internet
in hopes that Web pages, links to floral associations and other
e-commerce tactics will inform more people of the plants' existence
and decorative possibilities and provide customers with more opportunities
to purchase proteas and other exotic plants.
a member of the board of directors, Gill helped to create the website
for the California Protea Association, which is based in Vista.
Now he's developing one for his own company. Besides increasing
customers, he expects the strategy will raise the number of growers.
San Diego County's international prominence as a protea region,
no more than a dozen of the hundred or so locals producing the flowers
are commercial operators. Many of those with a few plants cut the
blooms to supplement their income. Advising both types of growers
is an important part of Gill's business at California Protea Management.
It's that expertise that has helped stimulate overall production
and sales of the unusual flowers, said Noble Hamilton, manager of
Brannan Street Wholesale at San Francisco's flower market. "He's
done a wonderful job bringing a lot of the different varieties of
protea from Australia and other areas," he said. "Who
knew they grew on trees? They look like something from Mars,"
a lot of designers want these flowers. Proteas, however, are
not easy to grow. "They have a tendency to die off pretty
early. People kill them with kindness. The best way to grow
them is to neglect them. Soil content and early care are critical,"
takes at least five years to get the plants into production.
But if the ranch is set up right, the plants will continue
to provide flowers for 20 years. Gill said his own business
endeavors have encountered relatively few problems. That doesn't
mean, however, that everything has gone perfectly. "A
friend said you haven't arrived until you've killed 100,000
plants, and I've done that, he said. But I'm developing an
industry that's much larger than I can ever be ... I love
this. It's my life."
article was previously published in the San Diego Union Tribune,
September 1, 1999.