LOS ANGELES (AP) – With its mild climate, California has long dominated the domestic cut flower industry by producing numerous varieties of flowers year-round.  
    
But over the past several years, the ranks of flower growers have dwindled as family-run operations fell to foreign competition or sold their valuable coastal properties to developers.  
    
Ten years ago, about 360 growers belonged to the California Cut Flower Commission. Now it’s down to 300, with just 95 selling at least $300,000 in cut flowers a year.
    
“It’s lamentable,” said Lee Murphy, president of the commission. “The flower industry’s decline is part of America losing its ability to be a producer nation.”
    
Yoshiko Kajiko and her husband began raising carnations at their 40-acre nursery near San Jose in 1965. As times got tough, they turned to growing watercress, mint and other herbs, catering to the influx of Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants moving to the Santa Clara Valley.
    
“That’s what we had to do because we couldn’t live on flowers alone,” Kajiko said.
    
Many growers can’t compete with countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica and the Netherlands. Overall, foreign growers supplied 70 percent of this country’s cut flowers in 2002. Their lower prices were fueled by cheaper production costs and efficient shipping systems.
    
Ten years ago, foreign growers had just 45 percent of the domestic market, according to the commission.           
    
Domestic growers face increasing costs for labor, energy and water along with strict environmental regulations. To deal with those challenges, many have started producing flowers – snapdragons, for example – that don’t weather shipping well and must be grown domestically, said Virginia Walter, professor of horticulture at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.
    
Other growers simply shut down and sell their land to developers.
 
“Some of my farmers sit on prime real estate,” Murphy said. “They get offered millions for their property and they take it. That’s how you go out of business. You occupy wonderful land, and then eventually the world beats the path to your door.”
    
Rose growers like Eufloria Flowers in the town of Nipomo are staying afloat by producing high quality flowers and new varieties for an upscale market. The family-run company even managed to expand during the past year, sales manager Chad Nelson said.
    
“People can buy cheap imported products that last a few days or buy expensive flowers that last two weeks,” Nelson said. “We’re finding that some people are spending more for quality, and we go after those marketplaces.”
    
Kajiko has seen a number of growers in the Santa Clara Valley quit or file for bankruptcy.  She thought about quitting, too, but decided to turn from growing flowers to producing herbs. At 69, Kajiko said she won’t retire yet. But when she does, she’ll likely sell the business.
    
“We have no children, and no one in my family wants to go into agriculture,” she said. “This is the end of the line for us.”

Reprinted from Capital Press, February 27, 2004.