Ray Gray, Sunset Flowers of New Zealand,
Oregon City, Oregon

Unlike many of the growers profiled in The Cut Flower Quarterly who find floriculture as a second vocation, Ray Gray has been a part of the cut flower industry his entire career. Ray  started with a degree in horticulture/nursery management with a minor in business from Oregon State University. After graduation, he spent 5 years with a wholesaler, then moved to an orchid-growing facility specializing in cymbidiums.
He learned the ins and outs of orchid culture, but ultimately moved into a position more focused on office management and sales. It was here  John Robertson, a native of New Zealand, inquired about the technicalities of shipping cymbidiums. He saw the market opportunity to import plants grown in the southern hemisphere to suppliers in the northern hemisphere when the northern cool season has little to offer.
John had started Sunset Flowers of New Zealand in 1981, but sold the business to the Grays—Ray and Kim—in 1990 when he ran unopposed for a seat on New Zealand’s parliament and moved back to New Zealand.  The Grays relocated the business from Issaquah, Washington to Oregon City, Oregon, where Ray had always grown cut flowers (snapdragons, sunflowers, poppies, lambs’ ears, eucalyptus and peonies) on the side for the Portland wholesale markets.
When they first took over the business, it was an opportunity for Kim to work part-time while keeping up with their six kids. However in 1996, Ray left the orchid business to join Kim full-time with Sunset Flowers. Kim manages the sales, accounting and office organization, while Ray focuses on managing their flower farm.
While the market angle for the business is availability of fresh cut products that are not in season in the U.S., they recognize the importance of providing their customers with fresh product when it is in season as well. Hydrangeas and peonies make up the bulk of their own product.
Though they have a 12-acre farm, they produce on only 1½  acres, using hoophouses to extend the season.
As a grower, the greatest challenge is coping with Mother Nature. An early frost or a late frost can nearly wipe out a hydrangea crop. Ray tried growing ranunculus and anemone for the first time this year with disappointing results. Though the corms arrived late, the excessive rain—yes, even excessive for the Northwest—really hindered the crop. He’s determined to give it at least one more chance, being particularly mindful of the cultural practices that should produce a quality crop.
Ray has been to New Zealand once to tour some of the grower facilities there and experience the relationship his exporter has with the growers. He is comfortable relying heavily on his exporter to secure the flowers ordered from a number of growers whose quality meets his customers’ expectations.

It’s a Small World After All

The import business requires careful attention to detail and tracking shipments as they travel around the world. Kim is the primary organizer of this endeavor, creating and  coordinating schedules to ensure customers know what to expect.
Each week an availability list is faxed to customers on Sunday night. Orders are taken on Monday and Tuesday, and then sent to New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Italy and Israel. Most of the shipments arrive at Los Angeles (Israeli product arrives in New York), where a broker handles the USDA inspection and customs clearance. If product can be sent directly from Los Angeles to the final destination, customers receive the product a day early. If the flowers must be shipped to Portland to assemble an order, they are shipped on Saturday, scheduled for Monday arrival.  
The primary destinations of Sunset Flowers’ fresh cuts are the Northwest region, Dallas and Houston, Florida, and New Jersey. Their busiest season is Valentine’s Day, which falls in midsummer in New Zealand, and Mother’s Day. Even as an importer, Ray identifies competition from South America as their biggest challenge.
Not only have South American growers started adding more specialty products to their mix, the climate allows them to grow year-round competing with the northern and southern hemisphere seasons. From an import standpoint, Ray must consider the rising exchange rate in New Zealand and the free-trade agreement with South America—both to his disadvantage.
He relies more and more on creative marketing and is always on the lookout for a niche that’s not yet filled. One crop advantage they’ve found is the color variation of the hydrangeas. They sell mostly dark blues, purples, lavender and the “antique” colors. In South America, the temperatures don’t stay cool enough for the rich antique colors, though some growers are artificially dying them to get the desired colors.
By tapping into different growing regions, Sunset Flowers can now supply peonies three of the four seasons. Israel, the latest import region they’ve added, harvests peonies January through April, their own farm can supply product in May and June, then the New Zealand growers pick up the market October through December.
Wholesale markets are their primary customers, though they do sell direct to a few high-end retailers and floral designers. Another market frustration occurs when wholesalers buy direct from foreign growers or exporters. Since the wholesalers are not as familiar with the products it becomes more difficult for them to promote and sell the more unusual items. It is also difficult for them to absorb the cost of freight compared to the diminished cost of bulk shipments that an importer like Sunset can secure.

Innovative Shipping Ideas

Ray diversified his business further by becoming the North American distributor for re~Fresh™  shipping liners designed specifically for hydrangea. Ray was actually a guinea pig for the liner as he witnessed firsthand, hydrangeas packaged in New Zealand with either the liner or with the traditional water tubes. He was initially skeptical of the liners, primarily because they seemed contradictory to his experience with any sort of plastic for packaging.  However, when the boxes arrived in the U.S., Kim assessed the results of the “test” and reported turgid blooms with no condensation visible in the box with the liners, after nearly a week in transit.
Ray became the distributor because he believes in the product. He remembers the days of leaking water tubes that left the stems without water and the bottom of the box a soggy mess. His advertising efforts have been limited to direct mail and word of mouth to hydrangea growers. Since most domestic shipping time is relatively short, especially compared to shipment from New Zealand, there hasn’t been a great demand for the liners, but he continues to use them and is pleased with the quality it provides for his product.
Ray joined the ASCFG in 1995 and has embraced the leadership roles of Secretary and Treasurer. He’s found time and again that meeting fellow growers is one of the greatest benefits of the Association. Members are not just willing, but eager to share ideas, discuss problems and suggest solutions. The network of growers who come together at the annual conference is an invaluable resource waiting to be tapped by each member.