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— Now it can be told. Now the growers of the top-ten moneymaking crops in San Diego County for 1996 can gather 'round, take a look back over 1997, and weigh in with their judgments. They can talk about wage increases, the market, feed prices, pests, and, as always, the weather, which there was more of last year than you might have noticed.

The spokesmen for the top three -- cut flowers, bedding plants, and ornamental trees -- sound the most corporate. Asked about production and profits in '97, Mike Anthony, speaking from the San Luis Rey office of Milano & Co., growers of cut flowers, answered, "We don't generally give that kind of stuff out. In general, things went well -- production was up, and our sales are moving forward -- we had a better year than the previous year. However, the minimum wage [increase] was a difficulty; created its own problems as far as operations were concerned."

Anthony was willing to talk about changes in growing strategy. "[We're growing less of] some of the crops that are under heavy import pressure, things like pompons, chrysanthemums.... One crop specifically, caspia, is being replaced by a product called limonium Misty Blue. In general, large crops are being splintered into a lot of smaller crops. We used to grow 30 acres of Shasta daisies; we're now growing about an acre and a half." In '97, French tulips and Asiatic lilies did well enough as experimentals to become small-scale production crops. "Last year, we were doing maybe 30 or 40 bunches a week," says Anthony. "Now we're up doing three, four, five hundred bunches every other day." The weather didn't hit Milano & Co. hard, but they have started "playing around with plastic hoop houses" to protect from wind and increase production.

Gregg Opgenorth, production manager for Color Spot Nursery in Fallbrook, also made note of the minimum-wage increase as a "major added expense," but Color Spot, too, had a good '97. Color Spot produces the "little six-packs or four-inch pots of your petunias, your pansies, your tomatoes, your peppers. We also do gallon pots and some hanging baskets." They sell to chain stores such as Home Depot. Because their product is what Opgenorth calls "definitely a luxury-type item," he cites the healthy economy as a reason for success. They had good weather, meaning good sales, but "it's kind of a double-edged sword. To support our sales, we need to have our reservoirs full. It's kind of a catch-22 for us."

According to production manager Greg Clarke, the 25 percent increase in production (to around 225,000 plants sold) in '97 over '96 for Pardee Tree in Oceanside was the result of a 15 percent expansion and the economy helping the economy. "We produce ornamental nursery stock, trees and shrubs, for the landscape industry," explains Greg. A good year for business means more businesses, and that means more development and more landscaping. "Our biggest sellers were 24- and 30-inch box trees. Queen palms are very popular, and the California pepper trees." Sales prices were up 10 percent last year, and the weather has been kind. "There hasn't been any frost the last few years. The summers have been average, but the winters have been warmer. Our rainfall in '97 was about average."

Furthest from the particulars of this-or-that planting is Tom Bellamore, senior vice president of the California Avocado Commission. A lot of things, he says, are put in terms of projections and averages with regard to place and time of year. "In '96-'97, we projected a crop out of San Diego of 138 million pounds, and in '97-'98, we've projected a crop of 139.5 million pounds," coming from roughly 24,000 acres of avocado trees. "We've had two very good years back-to-back," continues Bellamore. "Last year, overall, set a record in terms of crop value" -- 78.8 cents a pound to the grower, for a total of more than $108 million dollars. Weather has been good, despite some knockdown-inducing wind and harvest-delaying rain each year, and water prices, which make up "as much as two-thirds of production cost, have remained relatively stable." He stresses that his numbers are averages and that some San Diego avocado growers may not be doing as well.

Starting with number five, eggs, the talk starts to sound more like farm talk. There is also the first hint of bad news, though not too bad. "Production in '97 was comparable [to'96]," says Jerry Armstrong, an egg farmer in Valley Center. "We had lower feed costs, quite a bit lower, up until the end of the year. The year before, worldwide demand for grain had a big increase. The next year, the farmers, being true farmers, planted driveway to driveway." Armstrong feeds his chickens milo- and corn-based feed, and though he paid less for it in '97, he also had a hard time getting it to his million-plus birds. The Atchison-Topeka & Santa Fe/Burlington Northern railroad merger took place, and "all of a sudden, they were not able to do as good a job. We have to get grain shipped out of Texas and the Midwest, and those cars weren't coming, or they were sidelined, or they said, 'Not enough engine power.' The [railroad is] getting better, but for a few months..." El Niño has also caused some railroad tracks to go down, making for shipping difficulties.

Craig Anderson, a Valencia orange grower in Pauma Valley, had troubles of his own, even though fruit size was good this year. "You're trying to produce the best piece of fruit inside and out, but more specifically, outside, as far as being unscarred. In '96, we picked approximately 50,000 cartons. In '97, we picked about 72,000, [but] a much lower percentage actually made it into the carton. There was a much higher percentage of juice fruit -- probably at least 50 percent. Anything you can put in a carton, you're gonna make more money on than you can for juice. It saved our butts that we had more boxes picked. I think we did about the same [as '96]."

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