Echter is owner and president of Dramm & Echter in Encinitas, one of North County’s most successful flower-growing operations, with almost a million square feet of greenhouses and 50 open-field acres on the slopes beside Leucadia Boulevard. Echter was voted 1999 “outstanding person of the year” by the county’s Flower and Plant Growers Association.
He’s among the third generation of flower men in his family, and the Echters’ story is fairly typical of the industry since the turn of the century. “My grandfather came over from Germany to Canada as a gardener, then moved to western Iowa. He had a flower shop with a greenhouse behind it, and he grew bedding plants as well. That was from the 1920s through the early ’50s. My dad started his own business, the same type of idea, in western Iowa.” With transportation limited before the end of World War II, retailers grew their own plants or were supplied by nearby farms. “Most plants couldn’t take the train ride very far,” Echter explains.
“Then my uncle went to Colorado in the late ’40s. Air freight was just beginning, and Colorado was becoming a popular place to grow carnations because there’s so much sunshine there all year. They like high light for better productivity. So carnations at that time were a big crop.
“My father joined my uncle in growing carnations, and the two families outgrew the business in Colorado after five years, so my dad came out here in 1953. Air freight was making California a viable place for growers [to supply a national market]. My dad started a carnation ranch on five acres that he owned off of Piraeus Street and the freeway, across from Evelyn Weidner’s [Weidners’ Gardens, specialists in fuschias]. That grew up in carnations and chrysanthemums. People in the late ’50s grew a lot of mums. People always saw mums as a fall crop, but in the ’50s they started this programming of lights [to mimic the seasons] so it could be a 52-week-a-year crop. And people then liked the big mums, the corsage type, not the spray type that they sell more today.”
In 1940 the county’s flower crop, on less than 700 acres, was worth $1.28 million. When Japanese farmers were interned during the Second World War, the state’s food production fell. To make up for the loss and to qualify for rations of fuel, tires, and fertilizer, flower growers had to replant some land to vegetables.
Flower acreage was also lost in San Diego County when the dozen or so Japanese growers here were interned in 1942. Many had specialized in breeding chrysanthemums. Over the next two years, their land and machinery were stolen or confiscated for taxes. Their homes were burned or vandalized and, in one case, physically moved off its foundation to a new site.
The Eckes (themselves German immigrants) and some other growers tried to protect the Japanese property, but few Japanese had anything to return to when internment ended. One notable exception was the Asakawa family, still well-known local horticulturists, who had lost their Mission Valley land to the state. They challenged the escheatment in court and regained their title. They ran the Presidio and Bonita nurseries for another 45 years.
By 1950 the flower industry had rallied from the wartime doldrums. Acreage doubled and value quadrupled: 1450 acres yielded $4.7 million. The industry now was large enough to support a local trucking company to carry cut flowers to the L.A. wholesale market. Refrigerated trucks could even serve points as distant as Phoenix.
By 1960 local growers had diversified out of the mainstay gladiola; 2050 acres produced $7.35 million worth of blooms with the addition of stock, sweet peas, dahlias, hibiscus, gardenias, camellias, daisies, lilies, hydrangeas, and other species. Plastic film sheeting, a World War II development, allowed growers to build wood-frame greenhouses rather than the traditional steel-framed glasshouses. Flowers could now be better timed to meet market demands, quality improved, and for the next two decades, county growers enjoyed their peak years.
The Echters responded to the market boom. “We came up the hill to this location in 1973,” says Bob, “and leased the land from Paul Ecke. My father and Gene Dramm, they partnered together in ’73. They wanted to expand as quickly as possible. Their idea was try to get to a certain size of business, because they knew they had the clients, and they had the product, so they didn’t want to tie up their money in land. So we leased here for almost 20 years. It was originally 17 acres, and we added 4 more. At that point,” Echter says, “carnations were a major part of our sales.”
The Carnation Wars
A 1980 survey by the UC Cooperative Extension indicated that 300 growers, most still in the coastal strip in Oceanside and San Dieguito, managed 600 greenhouse acres and 3500 acres of outdoor flowers and cut foliage. By now San Diego County was the source of 10 percent of the total commercial flower production in the United States. Total crop value for nursery products and market flowers in 1982 was $102,840,000, according to state farm bureau statistics.
But international market forces, which started slowly in the 1960s and ’70s, began to affect the domestic industry. Local floriculturists who had enjoyed a dependable nationwide market for their “commodity” blooms — mums, carnations, and roses, which U.S. florists use in huge quantities — suddenly saw their market share shrink. The federal government itself opened the door for the competition.
In the 1960s, the U.S. Agency for International Development began to assist underdeveloped countries to establish more diversified export industries. Colombia, heavily dependent on coffee, was one of the first to receive U.S. aid. American advisors (and American money) helped build a flower-growing and distribution system to supplement coffee exports. One of the first flowers they chose to grow was carnations. Two of the carnation pioneers in Colombia were former growers from Encinitas.
Bob Echter recalls, “South American growers in the early ’70s started to come into the eastern markets. The bulk of what Dramm & Echter sold was back East, in the cold-weather areas. So we slowly lost a lot of the eastern market as the quality improved down in South America. Some of their early crops, the quality was suspect; they had their growing pains for five or six years. We’re not shipping nuts and bolts. It’s a highly perishable item. So it takes a while for a country that’s new to it to be successful. So as that came about, we lost the eastern markets, and it became obvious that we were going to lose a lot of other markets too.