Economic downturn slows organic flower market


Issue Date: September 9, 2009
Kate Campbell

From commercial-scale operations to micro-farms, the state's more than 80 organic cut-flower growers use organic techniques to add value to their products. Some report they have reduced production due to the recession, but say they hope sales will bloom again once the economy recovers.


Kendall Farms office manager Rose Conner, employee Efigenia Avalos and general manager Troy Conner, left to right, check the family operation's organic flower supply. Growers hope for a sales bounce going into the fall.

Kendall Farms in San Diego County was the nation's first farm to become certified by VeriFlora—an international certification program that assures sustainability practices in the growing of flowers and nursery stock—and has produced USDA certified organic flowers and greens for more than five years. It's among a small group of flower growers who can provide a full line of certified organic bouquets in quantities required by retailers such as florists and supermarkets.

But the 350-acre family farm, which specializes in exotic Australian and South African ornamental varieties, produces cut greens and flowers using both conventional and organic techniques.

"With the economic slump, supplying organic product to wholesalers hasn't been working out, so we've been creating our own market," said Troy Conner, Kendall Farms general manager. "We've been trying to work with companies like Whole Foods to expand our sales.

"We've had some pretty good success with retailers—both large and small," he said. "But at the end of the day, consumer demand just isn't there right now to support the volume we're capable of supplying."

So, Conner said, the farm has cut back its organic offerings "significantly" this year.

"People like and want organically grown flowers; they just don't want to pay for it, at least not right now," he said.

Abby Harned of Three Sisters Farm in Redlands calls her Riverside County organic operation a "micro-farm" and figures it wouldn't even form a blip in the national statistics. She and husband Jason are new to farming and sell at local farmers markets, as well as to a few organic restaurants.

"We don't specialize in cut flowers, but we do grow them and add them to our vegetable offerings," Harned said, adding that the farm is currently harvesting sunflowers, cosmos, zinnia and coreopsis—what she called "old-fashioned cutting flowers."

"We want to diversify and that might include edible flowers," she said. "For example, we have garlic chives that are blooming and we're selling bouquets of those. You can chop them and put them into salads raw."

Trends come and go, she said, "but people have been eating things from the garden that have gone to flower forever. I'm excited about offering these things and teaching people that they can eat the flowers too."

Bagher Bahardar, who grows organic flowers and greens in San Diego County, along with citrus and avocados, said he sells his cut flowers through distributors that include Kendall Farms.

He uses the flower-production capability to help hedge against pest quarantines that regularly pop up and limit his ability to ship fruit out of the area. His cut flower business potentially has a more reliable revenue stream, he said.

For the organic floral market to take off, Bahardar said, there will need to be improvements in the economy and more growers offering greater variety.

Recent floral market studies indicate organic flowers promise farmers good market opportunities, but a larger number of growers are needed to offer the market a wider variety of choices.

Conner said Kendall Farms routinely receives calls from floral wholesalers and designers asking, "What's new? What's trendy? What's hot?" Often the new kinds of floral products are being grown in small quantities or in experimental plots on small flower farms.

And, specialty cut flowers can compete with the traditional flowers—like roses and carnations, which often are shipped from South America, he said. Locally grown flowers can be cut in the morning and in a shopper's home in the evening.

The Sun Valley Group, one of the largest flower growing operations in the United States, grows flowers year-round on six production farms stretching across California, from the Oregon border to the Oxnard Plain. Because the company has farms in a variety of microclimates, it can produce flowers native to many other parts of the world.

In June 2005, Sun Valley received sustainable certification from VeriFlora. Among its sustainable practices are soil sterilization using steam and the use of more than 15,000 tons of compost a year to improve soil health and fertility.

Mike Crosby, sales manager for the Arcata-based grower, said, "We've attempted to grow organic flowers—tulips and grasses—but it's enormously challenging to grow decorative crops that way. Instead, we've adopted sustainable growing practices and think we can do more for the environment using that approach."

He said that even though the company is international in scope, the recession has taken its toll.

"We're not immune to the economic problems other businesses are facing," Crosby said. "We've had to downsize to match our cost structure to market demand, but we have a loyal customer base.

"Summer is always a slow time in the flower business," he said. "We're hoping for a surge of orders after Labor Day."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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