Survivors in Bloom

By | March 28, 2014
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flower field

Mazzanti Carnations Inc. began growing its namesake flower on a dare. Founder Peter Mazzanti started out as a vegetable grower in South San Francisco. “Someone challenged him to grow a yellow carnation,” says George Armanino, Mazzanti’s grandson and current owner of the family business. “So he built a greenhouse and started growing them.”

In 1950, Mazzanti Carnations Inc. was born. “Carnations were what built his business,” says Armanino, who took over in the mid- 1980s.

When the farm moved to its current Pescadero location in 1988, it was growing only carnations. By the late ’90s, carnations had dipped to 75% of the farm’s crop.

“Now I don’t grow one stem,” says Armanino.

Today, he runs a much smaller operation of mostly calla lilies. The flowers are distinctly beautiful—pure snow white and 48 inches tall—due to unique conditions at his nursery, where dampness, low light and cold suit the variety.

“The conditions mean they are bigger and brighter white, a little bit different than you can get anywhere else,” he says. “The best callas you’ll find in the state are right here, on this property.”

Mazzanti Carnations Inc. has evolved from necessity, but the business remains a struggle. “I’m treading water,” Armanino says.
Unfortunately, his story is not unique. The California cut flower industry blossomed in the mid-20th century, but wilted rapidly in the last two decades.

San Mateo County had 9.6 million square feet of greenhouse flowers in 1970, according to county crop reports. In 2012, there were just 1.6 million. Outdoor-grown cut flowers suffered the same fate, sinking from 803 acres in 1970 to 355 in 2012. Nearby, Santa Clara County dropped from 877 acres of cut flowers in 1971 to 170 in 2012.

“For the flower people, we went from rags to riches to rags again,” says Hank Pastorino, owner of Pastorino Farms in Half Moon Bay.
Pastorino’s grandparents started growing flowers in 1946 in San Bruno. The family and nursery moved to Half Moon Bay in 1955, when Pastorino was a child. “Hardly anything was here then,” he recalls.

Over time they grew carnations, roses, tulips and irises, employing 35 people at their peak. But a variety of factors would threaten their, and every other, cut flower operation—chief among them the booming flower industry in South America. Pastorino remembers when local growers were first tipped off that Colombia could become a threat. “We realized we were now in trouble—they had 365 growing days a year, and we had eight or nine months,” he says.

Their concern was prescient: 79% of the United State’s cut flower supply is now imported, according to the California Cut Flower Commission (CCFC).

“The illegal narcotic trade in Colombia was almost institutionalized there, so the United States pumped in a lot of money to fund other, legal businesses, and one was flowers,” explains Santa Clara County Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Eric Wylde. “It ended up impacting the United States flower growers.”

Looking back at the thriving flower industry of his childhood, Pastorino describes what happened as the flower bubble burst.

“In 1973, most of the farms were making money and doing well,” Pastorino says. “By 1983, when a lot of the younger generation, like myself, began taking over, we were seeing trouble. By 1993, we were gobbled up and going out of business. By 2003, everyone was pretty much done. Today, most flower growers who still are around are a token of what they used to be.”

San Mateo County Agricultural Commissioner Fred Crowder points to a handful of other issues that helped pop the bubble.

“Development and urbanization certainly had their impacts, as well as the availability of water, the cost of land, labor, housing, regulations and the loss of infrastructure and support industries such as farm equipment and supply companies,” he says.

Land prices were challenging for growers in Silicon Valley, many of whom were forced to move from the San Jose area and start over in South County during “the heyday of the 1980s,” says Wylde. For the large chrysanthemum industry in the area, the plant disease white rust was also a factor.

The area still lays claim to being the second-largest chrysanthemum producer in the state, after Santa Barbara, however “our production has dropped much more than Santa Barbara’s over the years,” says Wylde.

Most of Santa Clara County’s flower growers, nearly all of whom were first- or second-generation Chinese immigrants, switched to Asian vegetables—“the type you find in pho,” says Wylde.

This is the case for Bob Kuang, owner of Bob Kuang Nursery and the former president of the Bay Area Chrysanthemum Growers Association. He says everyone except a small handful ditched flowers, as he did. However, he now senses that vegetables may soon see similar troubles.

“In the beginning [of growing vegetables], I was happy,” he says. “But right now, it’s the same thing. I see the future, [and] we are going down now, too.” Potted flowers, which are not imported, have a different trajectory. Rocket Farms, with around three million square feet of roses, orchids, sun stars and more in Half Moon Bay, “is growing tremendously,” according to Vice President of Marketing Jason Kamimoto. The company acquired longtime local growers Nurserymen’s Exchange in 2011. Armanino mentions the possibility of switching to vegetables or potted flowers, himself. “I’m hoping for something to get better,” he says. “But I’m open to a big change.”

Either way, he has no plans to give up growing. “It’s all I’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s in my blood.”

CCFC CEO Kasey Cronquist is optimistic about the future of cut flowers in the Golden State. The commission is banking on the “go local” food movement to catch on for cut flowers.

“Increasingly, consumers want to ensure that the flowers at the center of their table are as fresh and sustainable as the food on their plate,” Cronquist says.

Despite it all, Pastorino also remains faithful. “Sometimes it becomes a commodity when you’re rushing around working,” he says, “but then, it’ll be morning, and the dew is breaking, the bees are starting to fly and the flower smells start to open up—and the flowers are just magnetic.”

The Pastorinos eventually abandoned roses due to energy costs, opting instead for the less energy-intensive, more sustainable snapdragon. Around 60% of their greenhouse space is now rented out to other growers, including some flower farmers. Pastorino blooms are fed into their own florist business, Pastorino’s Flowers, which they began eight years ago. But the nursery’s saving grace has been its popular pumpkin patch, which turns 44 years old this year.

“We’d like to continue doing flowers,” he says. “We don’t have to be as big as we were, but if we could be a little bigger than we are now, that would be great.”

Take note of the 23rd annual Half Moon Bay Tour des Fleurs happening July 26, when a selection of flower nurseries and greenhouses, as well as other types of farms, on the coast will open their doors to the public.

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