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Steve Dionne, CalFlowers:

“Among California flower farms there is a strong spirit of innovation to solve the competitive imbalance that exists”

"The list of challenges that California flower growers are facing is long and daunting. We see steadily increasing cost centers such as labor and energy, increasing regulations on fertilizers, water reclamation, refrigeration, and even gas-powered equipment, as well as increased inbound and outbound transportation costs and pricing pressure from offshore production. Not to mention the high property taxes and real estate values. The list is long, but our proud flower farmers consistently find ways to meet these challenges and continue to bring top-quality flowers to market," says Steve Dionne, Executive Director of the California Association of Flower Growers and Shippers (CalFlowers). Over the course of time, the industry has changed. Dionne gives us insight into the latest trends and developments, as well as into CalFlowers approach to enhance its members' competitiveness and resilience.

Three decades of California flowers
Dionne offers a brief overview of the historical development of the California flower industry which has been in a state of flux. He says: "The California floral industry was established in the early 1900s primarily by immigrants of Italian and Japanese heritage. Especially in Northern California (Salinas, Watsonville and up through the San Francisco Bay area) we still see strong echoes of these ethnic heritages among California's floral farmers. In the 1960s and 70s, the Dutch made a lot of investments in the Central Coast area, especially the coastal stretch from Carpinteria south to Oxnard and in Arcata in the far North of the state. Moving forward to the 80s, Southern California became an important production region due to our Mediterranean climate, allowing for the production of floral crops native to Australia and South Africa, such as Waxflower, Protea, and Eucalyptus. Today, the floral production in Northern California is steadily diminishing, the Central Coast remains steady, and Southern California continues to expand production. The latter is due to the high volume of flowers grown in Baja California, Mexico, with Southern California being the primary point of entry for these crops. The large majority of Baja California production is distributed through California."

Today, California is known for its plant trials and top-quality bulb flowers (lilies, tulips, iris, ranunculus, etc.), line flowers grown outdoors or in hoop houses such as snapdragons, larkspur, matthiola, gladious, and Australian/South African native cut flowers such as waxflower, protea, leucospermum, and many foliages, he continues. "Moving past generalities, however, we see a huge range of floral production in the state with many highly specialized producers focused on novelty flowers, orchids, garden-style roses, gerberas, and much more. We also see many pockets of specialized production zones suitable for flowers like lilac and peonies."

Current trends
Dionne highlights that the industry keeps changing as is shown by the current changes in crop production and demand, saying: "One change is that nowadays there's a focus on producing new, cutting-edge floral and foliage crops such as ranunculus 'Cluny', Helix hybrid waxflowers, and agonis 'After Dark'. Although we experience the global phenomenon of a softened market demand compared to Covid levels, we also noticed that there is an important new segment in floral production driven by small farmers who distribute locally. California has a very robust "farmer's market"culture, with consumers actively seeking agricultural products produced locally and responsibly. This has led to significant growth opportunities for small-holding flower farms. In terms of national (U.S.) demand, the trend over the past 10-15 years has been towards more floral uptake within California and less being shipped out of state. The bouquet producers who supply mass markets have become more dominant in uptaking California-grown flowers, with a large majority of the production happening in California."

"At the same time, we experience a narrowing of viable floral crops being produced here due to the relatively high production costs. Virtually any floral variety that can be produced overseas and imported damage-free is under pressure in California. My own observations would indicate that several important crops have recently become more difficult to produce profitably, such as gerbera daisies. Producing cut flowers in such a high-cost, high-regulation state is a challenge, but among California flower farms, there is a strong spirit of innovation to solve the competitive imbalance that exists."

CalFlower's role
That's where CalFlowers steps in, and the association makes efforts to enhance its members' competitiveness. Dionne lists some of CalFlowers' services to illustrate their role: "For instance, we offer express freight discounts through FedEx and other express carriers. We currently offer an 78% discount on FedEx, a considerable saving compared to list rates. We also provide an array of services to help control business costs, such as through Constant Contact and freight claim monitoring services. In addition, our Fun 'N Sun convention – to be held September 4-6 at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad – allows attendees to see the full range of floral products in California and meet the growers and distributors. Further, CalFlowers launched That Flower Feeling, a consumer marketing brand to enhance financial support and consumer attention. To date, we have generated over 160 million impressions on social media for TFF, and recently, we have formed a new Advisory board made up of at-large industry members from all important segments. Lastly, we offer services through our website, such as a floral database and opportunities to apply for grants. In March, we launched a new website, which is an extension of a new AMS (Association Management Software)."

Great expectations for Mother's Day 2024
Although, Dionne finds that today's market conditions are on the slow side, he has great expectations for this year's Mother's Day. "This year has presented some challenges due to weather concerns, with high rainfall in the mid to late rainy season and still ongoing. Although this has presented challenges with crop plantings (e.g., crop loss and botrytis), all indications are that production will be strong for Mother's Day and of high quality. Mother's Day is the perfect California floral holiday as it plays into our strengths of Springtime production and a massive array of varieties, all of which are in high demand."

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