The winter flower fields in Carlsbad are brown swells of plowed soil planted with ranunculus seed. By February the green sprouts appear, like carefully placed tufts of bright yarn across an undulating quilt. March through June brings the bands of color that wake up weary I-5 commuters. Spring blooms are cut, summer bulbs are dug and cleaned, packed and shipped, and the fields are prepared again for fall seeding. These 50 prime acres of land are the most constant reminders to most San Diegans that the county has been a major flower-growing center for the past 80 years.
“Why did all the growers end up in Encinitas?” Eric Larson shrugs. Larson is the director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, an organization that represents local farmers in legislative and other matters. “Well, how did all the golf club manufacturers end up in Carlsbad? One or two located there, then others came in, and suddenly they have a high profile.” Estimating the number of flower growers, large and small, in the county is difficult, Larson says, because of the independent nature of the business. A safe estimate would be around 250, perhaps 300.
But if it’s harder now to find the greenhouses or large open fields of blooms, that’s not because the industry is shrinking, Larson suggests. “Now we’re seeing the opposite happen. Growers are dispersing in the county. The industry is much larger now than it was before, when it was concentrated. It’s just not as visible in one location.”
In 1980 the county had nearly 5000 acres of land planted to flowers, the third highest-valued farming industry behind fruits and poultry. By 1985 flower growing ranked first in value in the county. Today, according to Farm Bureau statistics, ornamental crops (including cut blooms, bulbs, and interior and landscape plants) are grown on more than 8000 acres and are still the county’s top-value farm crop, despite modern pressures on a traditional industry.
An Eden in San Diego
One of the first things Alonzo Horton did when he organized New San Diego was plant a showcase garden in the middle of town, complete with glasshouse, well, windmill-driven pump, and full-time gardener. He grew examples of every possible flower, fruit, and vegetable. Then he could say to prospective buyers, “See? The place isn’t so bleak after all. Ignore the dust, the vast acres of treeless, scrubby hills. Each new home can be a showplace of greenery. We can grow things in San Diego.”
In the late 1800s, Horton’s city dwellers tended their gardens, supplied by a few local nurserymen. Families in the hinterlands dry-farmed grain and beans. With the first dams — Sweetwater, Cuyamaca, Wohlford, Morena, Otay, Barrett — came the citrus growers. With a rail link to buyers in Los Angeles, by the turn of the 20th Century, San Diego had the start of an agricultural economy. North County entrepreneurs organized small irrigation districts, though the area had only two incorporated cities, Oceanside and Escondido, populations 1500 and 500 respectively.
For the next decade, local boosters were plentiful, vocal, and imaginative. They touted the area as an “agricultural utopia” of “Edenic abundance.” The coastal climate is temperate, land is available, and the soil is fertile, they said, stretching the truth a little on the last point. But by the time of the 1915 Expo, every farmer in America, Europe, and Asia knew about the cornucopia that was Southern California.
North County’s Edenic abundance was mostly alfalfa and citrus until after World War I, when the Henshaw and Hodges dams were built and the first large water districts were established. With reliable irrigation sources, the area came to life with vegetables and the earliest avocado groves.
In Los Angeles shortly after the war, farmers, especially flower growers, began to hear the sound of approaching suburbanites. As land use changed, some growers looked for larger, if not greener, pastures in Orange and northern San Diego Counties. English-born immigrant Luther Gage from Montebello was one of the first to move south, planting five acres of gladioli, ranunculi, freesias, and anemones in Carlsbad in 1921. He also cultivated what would become the town’s official flower, the bird-of-paradise. Montebello fern grower Harry Bailey arrived the next year; then Thomas McLoughlin from Seattle (Dutch bulbs); E.P. Zimmerman, Germany (clivias); the Briggs family, Chino (hybrid glads).
German immigrant Paul Ecke Sr. had been growing a Mexican wildflower, the poinsettia, for ten years on land in Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and East Los Angeles. On the East Coast at that time, poinsettias were popular exotic hothouse flowers. In 1923 he supplemented his business with 40 acres of Encinitas land, for which he paid $150 an acre. Eventually he moved his growing operation here.
The success of the pioneer flower growers attracted others and caught the attention of some longtime local farmers. An acre of glads was more valuable than an acre of peas, and gradually some of the county’s food-crop land was converted to flowers. The Frazee family had farmed hay and beans in San Luis Rey and Carlsbad for 40 years by the time they took a chance on an acre and a half of sweet-smelling freesias in 1928. Ten years later, they’d plant their first ranunculi on five acres, the small beginning of today’s Carlsbad Flower Fields.
By the 1930s, the coastal strip from south Oceanside and Vista to Leucadia was home to about 50 experienced flower men with, by one grower’s count, 680 acres planted to bulb crops, some of which were sold nationally and internationally: 350 acres to glads, 30 to anemones and ranunculi, 100 to daffodils, 50 to irises, and 150 to other bulbs. Because of the area’s moderate climate, they could supply cut winter flowers, especially glads, to the big Los Angeles market.
Growing a Business
Bob Echter sprints down the path between rows of greenhouses. The wood-frame structures stretched with heavy plastic sheets have a frosty translucency, like a development of igloos. As he leads a guest on a tour of the facility, Echter holds a cell phone to his ear and with his free hand waves hello to a group of employees storing equipment for the night. The call is from his office staff, no more than 500 feet away; but Bob is on the move all day, and they’re never quite sure where he might be at any given moment.