Flowers are blooming for Valentine’s Day

Issue Date: February 7, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman
Rene Van Wingerden stands amid a field of daisies at his flower farm, Ocean Breeze, in Carpinteria. He said his town was fortunate to escape major damage from the Thomas Fire, which devastated Ventura to the east and the hills above Montecito just west. In the wake of that December fire and the resulting mudslides last month, Carpinteria Valley flower farmers are beginning to get back to normal.
Photo/Stephen Osman
Rene Van Wingerden and other Carpinteria flower farmers escaped major fire and mudlside damage, but still had to deal with ash fallout, and rocks and debris left by the mudslides.
Photo/Stephen Osman

Fires and mudslides couldn't take the bloom off the roses, lilies, chrysanthemums and other assorted flowers grown in the Carpinteria Valley this year. As one of the year's top flower-giving holidays approaches, growers and their representatives say operations are "returning to normal" after the Thomas Fire in December and the Montecito-area mudslide in January.

"We were all lucky," said Rene Van Wingerden, who owns Ocean Breeze Farms in Carpinteria. "The only reason Carpinteria didn't have anything burn down is we didn't have the winds that came with the fires in Ventura. If we would have had wind in Carpinteria, we wouldn't be talking probably today."

Van Wingerden credited Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Fisher for helping farmers access properties in evacuation zones, his being one of them.

"We had great support from our ag commissioner," Van Wingerden said. "She went to bat for us and made sure that the authorities understood that we need to get to our places."

He also credited the foresight of earlier farmers who installed debris dams and concrete channels to help Carpinteria survive floods.

"The debris dam and the concrete-lined creeks saved our butts," Van Wingerden said. "The only place there was some damage was at the 101 (freeway), where the water couldn't get underneath the bridges."

The mudslide led to a lengthy closure of Highway 101, which disrupted flower shipments until the road could be cleared.

Lately, Van Wingerden's chrysanthemums, gerbera daisies, and Asiatic and oriental lilies have been leaving the farm about as fast as they can be grown.

"The coolers are empty, let's put it that way," he said. "That's a good problem to have."

The flower chiefly associated with Valentine's Day, the rose, is one not grown very often on California farms anymore.

"Valentine's Day is always a natural rose holiday, and of course for us here in California and elsewhere in the United States, we're doing our best to promote what we grow," said Kasey Cronquist, chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission. "Approximately 99 percent of the roses sold in the United States are going to be imported. So we encourage the lucky ones who have the chance to purchase American-grown roses to do so."

One of the few remaining U.S. rose growers is Myriad Flowers of Carpinteria, co-owned by Harry Van Wingerden, Rene's cousin. Harry's son Erik serves as chief executive of Myriad, which grows roses hydroponically.

"Because there's not that many domestic rose growers left—because of the competition from South America—we carved out a little niche market for ourselves," Erik Van Wingerden said.

His farm sells to wholesalers and bouquet makers and at farmers markets in Southern California.

The Thomas Fire's effects continue to be felt at his farm, he said.

"Our production overall is going to be down, mostly due to delayed production from the smoky skies that we had, so the lack of sunlight, and also then the ash on the greenhouses blocking some of the sunlight," Erik Van Wingerden said, noting his rose greenhouses use no artificial lighting. "Percentage-wise, I'm not really sure yet. We're working hard to try and get our production numbers back up over this next week and a half, in order to meet demand."

Erik Van Wingerden said his farm generally doesn't try to boost rose production in advance of the holiday.

"The method that we used to do is pinch back on the plant so that we would have a flush of production," he said, "but doing that disrupts production throughout the couple months before and the couple months after. We just try to continue with the regular production."

Rene Van Wingerden cited increased heating costs and slower-growing plants as a hindrance to February production; he said he does better with spring and fall holidays.

"For the same product, the same square footage, for Mother's Day and Thanksgiving you produce 30 percent more on the same square footage," he said.

Transportation during the nearly two-week closure of Highway 101 in Montecito proved to be only a small issue for Erik Van Wingerden, as many of the trucking firms he works with are based in Oxnard, to the east.

For Rene Van Wingerden, it was more of a hassle.

"We have an operation in Nipomo, so we did need to go around the long way for about a week, week and a half, because 101 was closed," Rene Van Wingerden said. "A trip that should take an hour and a half took five to six."

With Highway 101 open, "everything has been taken care of," he added. "We're looking forward to a decent Valentine."

For Erik Van Wingerden, this represents the second-busiest holiday of the year, after Mother's Day.

"First and foremost is the holiday colors—the pinks, the whites, the reds," he said, "but also other colors as well. You'd be surprised how many people are actually looking for yellow and orange roses for Valentine's Day."

Though red remains the top rose color, it's "not the No. 1 by as much as it used to be," Erik Van Wingerden added. "A lot of people are going for alternate colors, and a lot of people like a mix of colors."

Cronquist said he's grateful the roads are open and the flower growers in the Carpinteria Valley—which the commission calls "the flower basket of the world"—escaped significant damage.

"We're back on the road," Cronquist said. "Things are returning to normal."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.