David Dahlson, floral Fulfillment to America, Miami, Florida
David Dahlson was one of the speakers at the ASCFG Conference in San Jose, California in 1994. His presentation was called “Symbolism and Marketing” and was positioned as one of the final concurrent session on Saturday. Unfortunately for David and all of those conferees that had come to hear him, the moderator for this particular group of afternoon sessions was wildly inept at timekeeping. The consequence of which was that David’s presentation was abruptly halted after only fifteen minutes by the hotel’s need to set up for the banquet.
Despite this rude abbreviation, the crowd that had come to hear him was stimulated enough to rank him among the best speakers at the conference. And so he was invited to the Baltimore Conference the following year for what would be, hopefully, a full encore. The incompetent moderator of the previous year was kept away from that task in Baltimore by a dizzying array of diversions set up in cooperation with the hotel. The employees even went on strike. Unfortunately, however, in their enthusiasm for the gambit, the hotel scheduled a raucous children’s Halloween party, complete with band, adjacent to our conference rooms. Whether or not David’s presentation was one of those disturbed by that event, this defrocked moderator cannot recall.
Years later, some of the ASCFG members who were in attendance then, still consider his the best of all of the numerous fine presentations given at our conferences. He’ll be back, in Orlando, this fall, to speak again and this time he’ll be packing Powerpoint! But who is he?
David was born in Los Angeles, that agricultural hub, in 1957, but he was raised in North London, England, where he attended Mill Hill School, and then the University of London, Central School of Art & Design where he received a B.A. with Honors in Fine Art (Painting). And so, he naturally gravitated toward flower growing. Not precisely.
“I wanted to be a painter from quite an early age. My mother was a painter right up until her death last year, and my father was an art director in advertising. After leaving college, I continued painting, and had a few exhibitions in London and Paris. However, upon arriving in the United States [Spring, 1980], I became quite disenchanted with the business of art. Lately, I have been feeling the urge to start painting again, so I would say that I have always wanted to be an artist.”
Obscure Nocturnal Industry
“I bounced around in quite a few jobs, and fell into the flower business as part of an ongoing quest for survival. I had enquired of my uncle, Roy Dahlson, if he had any jobs available, but he had none. However, he did get me work at Growers/Mt. Eden. I worked in their L.A. flower market location, which was one of three jobs I had trying to make ends meet. I started off washing buckets, cutting flowers, doing very menial jobs, but over time became fascinated with this obscure nocturnal industry. After about six months, I convinced the management that I could sell flowers, and they gave me the job of selling carnations, as well as a raise from $3.50 per hour to $5.00!!
“In my first year I easily surpassed the sales target, but feeling inadequately remunerated, I took a job as Art Director for a clothing company. There I met many people in the music industry, and at that time I joined a punk rock band [Tupelo Sex Change]. This turned out to be a lot of fun, but did not offer sufficient income on a year round basis.
“My cousins, Patrick, Tony and Chris, had taken over the flower business, Mayesh Wholesale, in the L.A. market from their father by this time and offered me a sales position selling carnations (approximately early1983). I was able to reach a compromise, whereby I would work from September until Mother’s Day, after which I would go on tour with the band during the summer. I had this arrangement for six years, but all good things finally come to an end, and with the potential to earn a living from music looking slim, the band dissolved. Actually, I had become passionately interested in the cut flower trade during these years, and anyway, how much sex and drugs and rock’n’roll can one take?”
That last is what is known as a rhetorical question. You can stop trying to calculate your answer, now.
“During this bipolar era in my life,” he continued once my attention had finally returned, “when working at the flower market, I had been selling carnations, subsequently selling roses, and thereafter specializing in the buying and selling of ‘specialty cut flowers’. When I first started in the flower business, there were probably only 15 distinct types of flowers available per month, of which there were 5 or 6 always available, and the others rotating in and out on a seasonal basis. But through the eighties, I noticed more and more flowers becoming available, and a lot that I was completely unfamiliar with. Obviously, imports from Holland changed the marketplace, but things like giant eremurus, dahlias, ranuculus really fascinated me.
One day I received a fax from Dos Osos that was really fascinating; a list of items the large part of which I had never heard of. I think the first few months that I received it, I pored over it like a Trader Joe’s catalogue. But it stimulated my appetite to learn about and locate specialty flowers. What strikes me about that era was that I believed these were all new items, and my customers did as well, and yet looking back on those times now, it was really a Renaissance. I am amazed that, if one reads literature from the late 40’s and early fifties, pretty much all these flowers were available, and then forgotten about, or went out of fashion. Clearly, new products, or items perceived to be new, are important to stimulating customers and generating business, and therefore I spent a lot of time researching old books, and the ability to predict items that will become popular has become a valuable asset.”
“Jack Mayesh Wholesale had been purchased in 1978 from Mr. Jack Mayesh by my uncle Roy Dahlson. It was a modest company with three employees and occasional help from some of the teenage sons. Patrick Dahlson assumed the leadership role in 1981, and with the help of three of his brothers brought the business to a position of financial stability. As I mentioned above, I joined in 1983, along with a couple more of Patrick’s brothers – I have ten cousins—and the company started to grow. For most of the last quarter of the 20th century it was literally a family business, but being a tight knit group the company was able to expand. By the mid-nineties Mayesh had locations in San Diego, Santa Ana, Torrance, LAX, San Fernando Valley, and Bakersfield as well as the primary outlet on the L.A. Flower Market. Currently they are also in Las Vegas, and intend to open in Phoenix this year. Under the stewardship of Patrick Dahlson, the company has grown from a 600 sq ft market stand to over 90,000 sq. ft of combined warehouse space, and Mayesh now employs approximately 160 people. Patrick currently serves on the WFFSA board of directors as treasurer.”
David Tries his Hand at Farming
“After 13 years in the business, I arrived at a point in my life where I was completely burnt out, having worked nights for over ten years, and frequently putting in 16-hour days.
“In 1994 I embarked on an odyssey to Costa Rica to start a hydrangea plantation with a friend of mine, and left Mayesh for about two years. Being ever the idealists, we set out to grow everything organically. Nothing wrong with that really, but combined with other factors, it turned out to be not such a good idea. But we tried, and I have learned so much, and I am wiser for the experience. Not least of which is that I have enormous respect for anyone who grows, or attempts to grow, for commercial ends.”
“Our farm was located at about 2,000 meters, on a gentle slope below the peak of Poas volcano. It is a beautiful, serene place; with an 180-degree panorama of the whole Central valley; you could see over 80 miles in any direction. The entire property was 55 acres, and our intention was to start with 10 acres of production. Electricity, yes; telephones, no…but cell phones quickly arrived. However, our business plan did not account for having to construct a 2 ½ mile stretch of road, complete with concrete drains to divert water under the road, so that vehicles could reach the farm in the rainy season.
“We had taken into the account the rainfall on paper, but there is something awe-inspiring about a place that can dump a foot of rain in one hour on your land. Every day, most of the day, for three months. However, the soil was a very superior, rich volcanic, that offered fantastic drainage, maybe a little lacking in organic material, but with a generally favorable pH and decent electroconductivity. We had not taken into account any sort of wind, simply because in seven months of preparatory trips, we had never noticed any. Costa Rica has some wind! Seventy miles an hour! Eight hours a day, for three months straight: a season that starts approximately two weeks after the rainy season ends. We had poured in ton after ton of organic matter, as well as natural amendments and organic fertilizers, but realized, after nearly two years, that the former was just washing down the hill and the latter quickly leaching away in the soil.
We tried everything to get the French hybrids to grow, but we could not get any kind of decent, consistent production. For five years we tried, and then we threw in the towel. Well, I know how to grow hydrangeas now, because I have made every mistake that there is. But it was an enriching experience, I learned a little humility and although we did not make any money, we did not lose any, although my wife did leave me. And as a sideline, we learned to grow and then produce Amaranthus caudatus, the best that I have ever come across, I can honestly say. The locals also taught us how to make an incredibly potent and effective fungicide from charcoal, that was consistent with our organic modus operandi.”
I asked David what that charcoal-based fungicide was, but he made vague references to dark rituals and blood oaths and a curse. It has something to do with the printed word, though, so the subject might cautiously be broached in the hallways of Orlando.
Clearly, David has few regrets over his Costa Rica adventure. “Costa Rica is well worth a visit, it is has a rich and varied landscape, and a wonderful people that are amongst the happiest, most polite that I have ever come across.”
“Around Fall, 1997, I returned to Mayesh Wholesale in Los Angeles on a full-time basis, and immersed myself in the rose program. Roses account for about 38% of all sales at Mayesh, so it is an important part of the overall cut flower program. For about four years I was in charge of purchasing roses, primarily from Ecuador. I have been fortunate to work with some great individuals who run first class operations producing premium quality roses in Ecuador. I have traveled there many times, advising growers on which varieties to grow, as well as advising on trends in the marketplace.”
Leaving Los Angeles
“In 2000 the woman with whom I had been living gave birth to our son, Michael, and we were married in Miami in March 2003. My wife and I had moved to Miami in 2002 to open and develop a rose importing business called F2A (Floral Fulfillment to America) – actually it was FFA, but we received a cease and desist order from Future Farmers of America. My wife, Isabelle, and I are very much involved in the ‘Specialty Rose’ business, and many of the varieties we offer are among the most rare (and most expensive) roses available in Miami. Not all of our roses are in that category, but all of our focus is on quality, freshness, and products from reputable farms which are soundly managed, properly financed, which tend to be small and are operated by a hands-on owner. Since being in Miami, I have witnessed many farms which, lacking proper financial support and no business strategy, are producing marginal products, often diseased, and usually not of ‘export’ quality, and which dump into Miami.
I have also learned that many wholesalers in the USA are philistines who know not one whit about roses, not one thing about the products they sell, and happily consume these products provided the price is heavily discounted. Too bad! Fortunately there is a small group of wholesalers who value their customers, who understand the products, and who value the knowledge and advice of their vendors.
“Currently F2A offers ‘Yves Piaget’, a fabulous fragrant garden rose, that we have contract grown in Ecuador. I am trying to locate other fragrant varieties that travel well, and have a viable cost of production. I definitely see a future in garden/fragrant rose production in Ecuador. We also sell the only genuine ‘Open-Cut’ white calla (Z. aethiopica) available year round in the USA, and which is especially grown for us in Ecuador. There are two other new (actually very old) products in development, but it’s too early for me to discuss them.”
Speaking of Flowers
Orlando won’t be David’s first speaking appearance since Baltimore. In April of 2002 he spoke in Osaka, Japan; in the following October, he spoke in Quito, Ecuador (on how to use the fashion media in order to project which new varieties will be popular), and the following year he spoke in Santiago, Chile.
“This year a project in which I am involved as a consultant, a massive farm in an amazingly beautiful area called Bay of Islands, north of Auckland, New Zealand, that started about five years ago, came to fruition. A company there solicited my advice on new products to grow, and to whom I provided ten distinct products. They were all herbaceous shrubs, to be harvested in various stages of maturity, i.e., flowers or fruits, or both. What I like about herbaceous shrubs is that the time needed to properly develop the plants insulates you against competition. Even if other companies copy the products, there is still plenty of time to reap the benefits, because the competition has to go through a few years of development to catch up. Unfortunately, the project has been so successful that they can only ship a consolation quantity of the flowers to the USA, as the prices being offered in Japan are overwhelmingly more interesting, as the Dutch would say!”
What shrubs are they growing? “A lot of different viburnums – V. tinus for flowers and berries; V. opulus ‘Sterile’ (otherwise known as ‘Roseum’) for flowers; V. opulus compacta for berries; also V. trilobum (high cranberry), and a couple others for fragrance similar to V. bodnantense, a couple of spireas, some lilac and forsythia. We tried also to grow Allium giganteum, but the bulbs did not adjust after transport from the Northern hemisphere.”
It was at this point that I informed David that we were running short on column space. “Only about an inch left, David; better summarize, now.”
“I love Miami,” he told me, “it is so small compared to LA; I love my wife, her wonderful twin daughters, Margo and Flora, and Michael, our diabolic son. And after all these years I still get passionate about flowers.”
David Dahlson, floral Fulfillment to America, Miami, Florida