Flower growers prepare for busy spring


Issue Date: February 11, 2015
By Christine Souza
Gerbera daisies are among the top spring sellers at Kitayama Brothers Inc., a cut-flower grower in Watsonville. Company president Robert Kitayama says the outlook is positive for California cut flowers, especially by customers interested in floral products that are local and sustainable.
Photo/Bob Johnson

Each year, on Valentine's Day, many gift givers seek out the brightest hues and most aromatic bouquets of cut flowers featuring roses, lilies, snapdragons, gerberas, gardenias, tulips and more, to show loved ones that they care. Most often, cut flowers of the highest quality come from California growers, which supply 20 percent to 25 percent of all cut flowers sold in the United States.

Cut-flower grower Robert Kitayama of Kitayama Brothers Inc. in Watsonville said that with the Valentine's Day sales period coming to a close, the nursery's focus turns to growing and preparing cut flowers for other spring holidays such as Easter and Mother's Day. Mother's Day represents the most important holiday in terms of volume, he said.

With Valentine's Day occurring on a Saturday, Kitayama said, the flower business expected to see softer sales. When the Valentine's holiday happens on a weekday, sales increase as people surprise loved ones at the office with bouquets and arrangements—and that opportunity is greatly diminished when the holiday falls during a weekend. However, he reported improved pre-Valentine's demand for his flowers, which include gerberas, lilies, lisianthus, miniature callas, tulips and hydrangeas.

"We are in the middle of Valentine's shipping," Kitayama said last week. "Traditionally, when the holiday is on a Saturday, we think the demand will be a little less so we plan for a lighter holiday, but we actually should have grown more. Demand has been very good this year."

Kitayama, whose company stopped growing roses after low-cost South American roses flooded the U.S. market, said the flowers remaining in his inventory "are also in demand for arrangements or bouquets, and are very popular. Next year, we should probably increase (our supply) by 15 to 20 percent."

San Diego County flower grower Michael Mellano, who chairs the California Cut Flower Commission, said the state's cut-flower business has experienced increased demand for its floral varieties through the California Grown and "buy local" movements.

In addition, Mellano said, "We've recently also launched, as a nationwide industry, an 'American Grown Certified' label that is being very well received at retail."

For Kitayama, "Local and sustainable are huge."

"We are very fortunate to be 70 miles from the Bay Area, which is the wealthiest market in the world," Kitayama said. "The price for our flowers is also getting better. The one thing about selling locally is there is more of an appreciation for a local product. There is an understanding if you want your flowers locally, there is a cost involved, but I think we are competitive."

The top-selling cut flowers grown at Kitayama Brothers include gerbera daisies and lilies, with lilies accounting for about 40 percent of the business's revenue, and gerbera daisies 30 percent. One flower that has seen a resurgence of demand, Kitayama said, is the gardenia.

"All of a sudden, we are going to increase it significantly because demand is up," he said.

Another new trend for flowers, Kitayama said, is celebrating International Women's Day on March 8.

"It is celebrated hugely in Europe and Russia where on this day, people buy flowers and give them to all of the women in their life, so we've seen a big push among U.S. flower associations to get this holiday established in the U.S.," he said, adding that the nursery plans to donate 10 percent of its Women's Day sales to a women's cause in Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

Cut–flower growers experience the same types of challenges as farmers elsewhere in California, such as water availability, increased regulations and finding enough employees, Kitayama said, but the company strives to be efficient, especially with water use.

"We are right on the coast, so we have more of a concern about salt intrusion and water quality. There have been higher levels of sodium in some of the readings, which isn't good for the flowers, and there is overdraft so we have to really monitor (well) levels," Kitayama said.

The nursery's production manager, Jimmy Zheng, has dropped water use in normal years from 175,000 acre-feet to 125,000 acre-feet, largely by switching the entire operation to drip irrigation.

"In the last five years, Jimmy switched to drip tape; that was the first savings," Kitayama said. "We want to get to the point that our water table is not going down."

The company has begun treating tailwater from the gerbera daisies and reusing it on lilies, and capturing rainwater as it runs off the greenhouse roofs.

"We have 25 acres of greenhouses, so we wanted to make sure that that water off of the greenhouse roofs gets recycled," Kitayama said.

But the largest water savings, he said, may come from developing a precise irrigation plan based on measurements of the changing water needs of each variety over the seasons.

The greenhouse uses tensiometers buried in the soil to decide how long to irrigate the flowers and Kitayama said the nursery has found that young plants do not require as much water as older plants, so there is a water savings with the use of this technology.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com. Reporter Bob Johnson contributed to this story.)

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