Supermarkets have closed floral sections. Brides cancel weddings. The coronavirus is hitting flower farms at the worst possible time. – Chicago Tribune

It happened so fast: shoppers frightened by the novel coronavirus ransacked grocery stores. Store managers moved staff to restock shelves. The flower stand has emptied. California’s cut flower industry has imploded.

Of course, there are many nuances to this story of collapsing economic dominoes. But at the root is the simple fact that few people will buy a perishable luxury item when they fear for their lives. It could be the death knell for many farms in California’s $360 million cut flower industry.

Since mid-March, sales have fallen an average of 85% at California’s 225 flower and foliage farms, while labor has fallen by a similar amount, according to the California Cut Flower Commission, a state agency that promotes the industry.

“We have businesses that won’t be here when this is over,” said David Pruitt, chief executive of the commission.

The novel coronavirus has proven to be as deadly on an economic scale as it is on a human scale, hitting a highly vulnerable industry at the most precarious part of the season.

“The cut flower industry has struggled with overseas production for many years, and the margins are thin; so it’s kind of a tipping point,” said Michael Mellano, CEO of Mellano & Co., a third-generation grower and wholesaler headquartered in downtown Los Angeles’ Flower District.

“It’s our busiest and most profitable time of the year,” Mellano said. “So this is absolutely the worst time for something like this to happen.”

Mellano said it has laid off more than 90% of its staff and gone into survival mode, hoping to prepare its Southern California and Las Vegas distribution center when the market picks up.

There is unlikely to be a big reopening for Lompoc-based Ocean View Flowers, which produced 40 million stems just two years ago. Its produce-producing parent company, Santa Barbara Farms, has permanently closed the flower operation, according to company and industry sources.

Eufloria, whose boutique roses have adorned New Year’s Eve floats in Pasadena and thoroughbred horses at Churchill Downs, announced it will close its Nipomo farm on March 18. It laid off most of its workers and donated unsold stems to hospitals and nursing homes.

But such was the outcry from fans and customers, Eufloria reopened two days later.

“We’re starting to bring some of that employment back,” sales manager Chad Nelson said. “We want to make sure we’re doing things so that (factories) continue to produce as they should, and if and when that market comes back, then let’s figure out how we can handle those orders.”

Coastal farms from San Diego County to Humboldt County have also laid off most of their workers and have gone dormant just when they usually earn the bulk of their income – the Valentine’s Day holiday series at the mothers’ Day.

Grocery chains were among the first to cancel orders, said FJ Trzuskowski, vice president of sales for Washington-based Continental Floral Greens, which grows the “supporting” green foliage for bouquets on three California farms. .

“There was no warning about it. It was like, ‘Hey, stop all shipping from now on,'” Trzuskowski said. “Then with social distancing, all of a sudden the wholesaler doesn’t can no longer be open to the public. It was a very quick shutdown of the industry.

Mellano said he’s also been hit hard by cancellations of events such as conferences, particularly in Las Vegas.

The weddings have been postponed, along with their roses, Eufloria’s Nelson said.

“Maybe they haven’t happened now, but they will happen, won’t they?” he said. “We just don’t know how big they’re going to be when they happen. Budgets are going to be different.

The California Cut Flower Commission told its members that floriculture is protected by the agricultural exemption to closure orders. But with the distribution pipeline collapsing, clarification comes down to a technicality. Los Angeles’ historic flower market, like others across the country, is a ghost town.

“We have wholesalers closing and retail stores, which in some cases have operations, are losing their normal distribution lines,” CEO Pruitt said. “We are trying to put that back in place.”

Pruitt said it’s hard to predict how many farms will fail and which will have enough funds to restart once demand picks up. Growers could switch crops or hedge their bets, as some of the financially-struggling greenhouse operations did by renting space to grow cannabis when the crop was added to California’s agricultural portfolio in 2016.

Cut flowers are a $1.3 billion industry nationwide, though most of that revenue comes from the sale of imported flowers, mostly from Colombia, according to the UC Davis Agricultural Issues Center. Domestic producers account for about 27% of national sales, up from 37% about ten years ago. California-grown flowers account for three-quarters of national sales, according to UC Davis researchers.

The trade deals that have favored the Andean nations of South America in the war on drugs are largely responsible for the decline of California’s flower industry. As Colombia and Ecuador dominate the market for bouquet mainstays such as carnations, chrysanthemums, gerberas and roses, California growers have turned to species that cannot be grown in the cool valleys of the highlands. lands of the Andes.

Longtime California growers have turned to Continental’s specialty – “support molding” of greenery in traditional bouquets including ferns, eucalyptus and Israeli ruscus, as well as Christmas trees and holly. This stock can be maintained during the closing. Eufloria roses, too, can survive. But they all need to be fed, pruned, and protected from weather and insects.

“As long as we’re irrigating and controlling pests, they’re still in good shape for sales when this opens up,” Mellano said. “Probably 35% of our crop mix are annual crops, and these have to be picked when they’re ready, within days, or they’re wasted.”

Among the victims are the buttercups that carpet the flower fields near the San Diego Freeway in Carlsbad – a working farm that is also a major agritourism destination. It closed on March 17, two weeks into its season.

“We absolutely depend on the partnership between tourists and cut flowers to make this work,” Mellano said of Carlsbad Farm. “And this year, all of our buttercup orders have been canceled by supermarkets. And tourism has been closed due to social distancing requirements.

Only a small part of the fields will survive in the hope that social distancing rules will ease before summer. Then people could go out and smell the flowers again, and maybe even buy some.

© 2020 Los Angeles Times

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Terisa K. Carn