Edwin Frazee planted his first ranunculus seeds on these hills in the 1950s and was at one point the sole provider of ranunculus tubers to the international market.
  • Edwin Frazee planted his first ranunculus seeds on these hills in the 1950s and was at one point the sole provider of ranunculus tubers to the international market.
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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.

Bob Echter: "My dad started a carnation ranch on five acres that he owned off of Piraeus Street and the freeway, across from Weidners’ Gardens."

Bob Echter: "My dad started a carnation ranch on five acres that he owned off of Piraeus Street and the freeway, across from Weidners’ Gardens."

“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.

“Everybody here thought, how will [South America] ever ship roses successfully? But their plants are cold grown, so the buds just kind of sit there and can handle the shipping and storage."

“Everybody here thought, how will [South America] ever ship roses successfully? But their plants are cold grown, so the buds just kind of sit there and can handle the shipping and storage."

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.”

Gerbera daisies as wide and flat as saucers balance on naked green stems — scarlet, sunflower yellow, orange-petaled with gold centers, red with yellow, blue, dusty blue-pink, and a delicate ivory-pink.

Gerbera daisies as wide and flat as saucers balance on naked green stems — scarlet, sunflower yellow, orange-petaled with gold centers, red with yellow, blue, dusty blue-pink, and a delicate ivory-pink.

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.

Planting bulbs. "We got on the coattails of the Dutch, and as they were promoting bulbs, we started producing them."

Planting bulbs. "We got on the coattails of the Dutch, and as they were promoting bulbs, we started producing them."

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.”

About 200,000 people visit the fields each year.

About 200,000 people visit the fields each year.

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.

Bob Echter gives no indication that he anticipates tourists tromping through his fields anytime soon.

Bob Echter gives no indication that he anticipates tourists tromping through his fields anytime soon.

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.

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.

“There were a lot of different reasons why, but mainly the prices were so drastically different. When we were trying to sell a flower stem at 12 cents, they were selling at 3 or 4 cents. And they could do a very good job with them. Light and temperatures were great for carnations, and their costs, especially for labor, were much lower.”

South American imports enter the United States at Miami. Because shipping to western markets required added transportation costs and delays, those markets were still open to California and Colorado carnation growers into the 1980s. The local crop value peaked in 1988 at $17.5 million. As imports pushed down the price of blooms, by 1998 the local crop was worth $2.6 million, although acreage planted to carnations had decreased by only 50 percent in that same time.

“And right after the Colombian carnations hit, the chrysanthemum market followed,” says Echter. His Colorado cousins now have home-garden stores on their old carnation land, “and Dramm & Echter shifted into roses,” he says.

A Rose by Any Other Name Would Be Cocaine

“Everybody here thought that roses were so perishable,” says Echter, “how will [South America] ever ship roses successfully? That’s what everyone thought. They’re picked [in Colombia] one day, graded and bunched probably the following day, sold maybe the next day or the second day. Then they have to be shipped to Miami and go through customs. It’s four or five days old before they get to the United States. Then they’re held in Miami, at the importers’ refrigerators, until they can sell them. So we were thinking that it would be a real slow transition into roses or maybe [the market would be] protected just because of the nature of the beast, the perishability.

“But in South America they grow them at high altitudes and so slowly that they grow a very firm rose. They don’t open very well. The plants are cold grown, so the buds just kind of sit there and can handle the shipping and storage and be sold economically,” Echter says.

Then in 1991, as part of the Bush administration’s war on drugs, Congress passed the Andean Trade Preference Act. At the time, South America already claimed nearly half of the U.S. rose market and more than 70 percent of the mums and carnations. This new legislation removed all tariffs from flowers and some other products from four countries known to be major sources of cocaine and heroin: Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. The hope, of course, was that farmers would replace coca plants and heroin poppies with roses.

Once again domestic growers struggled to compete with the South American product, grown where a worker earns less in a day than the average American worker earns in an hour and where pesticide regulations are less restrictive. While it costs the average American grower 40 cents just to produce a rose, imports can sell for as little as 10 cents. Roses and other flowers have occasionally been dumped on the American market at giveaway prices in an effort to lure wholesalers to the imported product. South America now supplies 75 to 80 percent of the roses sold in the United States. San Diego supplies 10 percent of the roses sold from California, which amounts to 1 percent of the national market.

In San Diego County, 1988 was the peak year for rose growers according to farm bureau statistics. The value of 61 acres of roses was $14.1 million. By 1998, acreage was down to 47, and the value was slightly over $7 million. But last year the county lost the Thompson Rose Co., its largest rose grower. Robert Thompson closed down nearly half a million square feet of greenhouses in Carlsbad and moved to San Marcos, where he now specializes in houseplants and potted ornamentals. But if Bob Echter concedes the carnation wars to South America, he’s still a booster of American-grown roses.

He opens the door to a greenhouse full of compact, lush rose bushes. The roots of each deep-green plant sit in a small plastic sack of shredded coconut fiber. The sacks rest on ranks of wooden benches. Tubes and pipes run in and out of each sack, connected to pumps, gauges, and larger tubes for dispensing timed infusions of water and nutrients. Each bush looks like a patient in an emergency room. The dim, silvery light through the plastic walls gives the space an eerie, underwater feel. The damp air is surprisingly cool, not warm and thick like in the adjacent greenhouses.

Echter surveys the sea of green teardrop buds on tall stems, all of nearly equal height. “We have the temperature down in here to keep the buds from opening too soon. We’re timing them for Valentine’s Day. We’ll bring the temperature up so that when we cut them they are just beginning to unfurl. If a rosebud is too tight when you cut them, they will never open into a full blossom.

“California growers, we heat our greenhouses and we push our roses faster so we can turn more units, which is one way that we can compete with South America. But until six or seven years ago, growing roses that way, they were weaker stemmed, and sometimes they didn’t last as long in the vase.

“But growing them hydroponically and with new cutting techniques, now we have a stronger, heavier rose that’s superior to the South American rose. It isn’t as big as the South American rose, but they’re healthy, and the stem thickness is good, and they open. But everybody’s so tied up on size, that the rose has to be big, so they choose a South American rose. But South American roses don’t open. And they have to pick them a little too early to time them for the market.” Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day account for the bulk of rose sales.

Part of the market psychology rose growers must deal with is what Eric Larson calls the “wow factor,” the visual impact of the larger South American rosebud. As he puts it, “The highest value a cut flower has is the moment it’s received [by the customer].”

Echter grudgingly admits this is especially true in a perceived high-dollar item, “when you get a dozen of these” — he sticks up his thumb, the American rosebud — “versus a dozen of these” — he wraps his index finger around the thumb, the South American bud. “But I still contend that people want to see a rose open. They don’t want a rose that comes in and cracks a little bit and then just sits or droops over. And the majority of South American roses will open a little bit and then sit. After seven days, I guarantee you, you’ll be happier with an American-grown rose.

“Margins have gotten thinner over the last ten years. And things like pesticide laws make things more difficult. Theoretically, roses have to be picked twice a day, because they have to be captured at just the right stage of openness. With that there are reentry issues. When you spray, the EPA says you can’t go back [into the greenhouse] for six to eight hours. We had an exemption where, if you suited up in a full spray suit, you could go back in and harvest. We’re working with the EPA on that. And to compete with roses, you pretty much have to go hydroponic so you can grow a better-quality product. And that’s a big capital investment. But we’re diversified enough that no one product is dominant. And in roses, we haven’t taken out one bush yet.” Dramm & Echter still maintains about three acres of roses.

Find Your Niche

As Eric Larson sees the county’s flower industry today, “There’s no getting around the fact that imports made a huge hit. A huge hit. But we’re still number one in the nation, by far, for ornamentals.” That’s the general industry term for cut flowers, landscape plants, and houseplants. “We’re the number-one nursery county in the nation. The acreage hasn’t gone down. If an acre disappears on the coast, it pops up somewhere else, like with Robert Thompson, for instance. It’s now San Marcos, Twin Oaks Valley, Fallbrook, Valley Center.”

Both Echter and Larson agree that finding a niche market is one key to success for growers in the future. Larson explains, “Everybody grew carnations, then imports killed them. Those were growers who didn’t find a niche. There was nothing special about what they were doing at all, and they were easily replaced. You look at economic models, and that would apply to the carnation industry.

“To compete, foreign growers have to deal in high-volume items that florists use in huge quantities. They need to pack huge boxes with one kind of flower, a sort of generic type.

“But here you have somebody like the Eckes doing poinsettias,” Larson continues. “Nobody else fills that niche. And Bob Echter grows a wide variety of flowers. He makes himself valuable to his customers because they can get 20 things there. If you just grow carnations, customers can go anywhere to buy them. Sunlet Nursery in Fallbrook, they’ve created a niche by growing unusual blooming plants that are hard to find elsewhere. So the survivors are the ones that are finding these niches, not just pushing volume. If you’re trying to compete with volume, you’re going to get beaten up by Mexico and Colombia.”

Larson suggests this is true for most crops in the county. “To make a living as a flower grower, if you specialize, you don’t really need much land. A couple of acres, maybe. Sixty percent of the farms in San Diego County are less than 9 acres in size, and we can do that because we grow high-value crops and have a 12-month growing season. Flower growers have been driven to that too. You can’t go out and buy 100 acres of land in this county and be a farmer. So you say, ‘What else can I do to raise production on a small amount of land?’ And the answer really is specialty crops.

“The growth in acreage in San Diego County is in field production,” Larson says, “not greenhouse production. Wax flowers, leptos, proteas, perennial outdoor shrubs. We have a climate that’s difficult to match. Theirs isn’t a niche of market, theirs is a niche of climate, where the Colombians can’t reproduce what we do here. We have this nice climate here that does well with the Australian and South African native plants. Not unlike the eucalyptus that grows so well here, other Australian varieties do well too, so we have cut-flower varieties from there as well.”

The Dutch and Martha Stewart

Dramm & Echter’s office-warehouse is a barnlike affair, with soaring lofts crammed with stocks of flattened cardboard cartons, plastic flower sleeves, and deep, white plastic buckets. One wall is lined with a series of eight-foot-high sliding doors with stout chrome latches. An employee grabs one of the latches, leans back, and pulls hard to get the heavy door to move in its track. Inside the dimly lighted refrigeration room are dozens of pails of deep-red rosebuds stacked on shelves. A sign on each door names the employee responsible for maintaining the space and asks that you please keep the door closed and get permission before entering.

A wave of cold air spills into the already chilly, damp warehouse. The flower handlers wear gloves and thick, dark green, fleece-lined parkas embroidered with the Dramm & Echter name. An impromptu chorus of voices joins in on a norteño song that plays on an unseen radio as this afternoon’s shift ends.

On the sorting floor, workers corral the canvas slings stretched on wheeled frames and push them aside for the night. Tomorrow morning each sling will be the collection point for a customer’s order, filled from buckets of cut blooms. Pallets and wheeled shelves crammed with bundles of cut flowers and greens wait by an outside door, the last of the day’s orders ready for pickup.

Gerbera daisies as wide and flat as saucers balance on naked green stems — scarlet, sunflower yellow, orange-petaled with gold centers, red with yellow, blue, dusty blue-pink, and a delicate ivory-pink. Tall shafts of tight-budded iris reveal only a hint of vibrant blue-purple petals. Bundles of magenta and midnight-blue anemones with cuplike faces show off black-and-white centers. Spidery stems of pod-shaped, pale green lily buds hint at their final, full-bloom color with a wash of white or pink or yellow. One pallet holds mauve and orange-sherbet rosebuds. Armloads of pea-green Queen Anne’s lace have not yet bloomed into frothy white disks.

Bob Echter recalls, “When we saw the carnation mess in the mid-’80s, we chose to get out of that crop. At the same time, there was a sort of renaissance of demand on spring flowers. The Dutch came in and did a lot of good advertising to retail florists — gerberas, lilies, iris, daisies. The whole lily market, in terms of breeding, has come about since then, as well as freezing techniques. You can freeze the bulbs year-round, when you couldn’t before.” The Dutch, of course, sell the bulbs for these crops. And each bulb is good for only one harvest. Then they’re pulled, “steamed like a baked potato,” says Echter. Then they’re mulched, returned to the soil, and fresh bulbs are planted. Unlike other crops, where labor is the largest contributor to production costs (35 to 40 percent), for lilies, it’s the cost of the bulbs themselves. For other greenhouse plants, energy for heating and cooling is the largest expense. For field crops it’s water.

“When we got out of certain crops, we were lucky that there was another door open. Our customers were demanding products and we could fulfill that. We were on the early part of that wave. We got on the coattails of the Dutch, and as they were promoting these items, we started producing it. And it worked quite well. But now everybody’s gotten on board in the last four or five years, so all these have become a bit of a commodity. So now we’re all sitting here again duking it out on a commodity basis.

“Growers who got in early did well, but then everybody runs where there’s money, so they got overproduced, and prices fell really dramatically. You see that with all ag products. Everybody runs where there’s money, and all of a sudden there’s way too many acres, then finally it settles out.

“We’re not a flower-breeding company. We go out and look for products that breeders are working on. But there isn’t a whole new array in the botanical world to go out and find anymore. We’ve kind of hit it.”

Echter says they’re able to plan ahead by about two years. He’s buying lilies now for the spring season of 2001. “Some years lilies are very good, and some years they’re a disaster. But one of the reasons we like them,” he says, “is because the South Americans don’t grow many. It’s very expensive for offshore growers, with their infrastructure, to bring in refrigerated bulk product and hold them at the right temperature. And it’s a heavy item to ship in crates from South America. For us, they help counter some of the offshore product.”

“You have to come up with new varieties all the time,” says Eric Larson. “And new ways to grow. You have to be prepared to switch. There are trends in flowers. Ask anybody who pays attention to Martha Stewart. The standard houseplant used to be the Boston fern. That changes over time. People say, ‘What’s new? What’s different?’ And the interior landscape business, which is huge, they want to know what will last a long time, what’s low maintenance.”

These days, says Larson, a grower has to be “a sharp-pencil businessman with some marketing savvy. If a grower’s not a marketer, he’ll fail.”

Going, Going…

One major change in local flower marketing came in the early ’80s, when a group of five growers organized the San Diego County Flower and Plant Auction in Encinitas. Why pay commission men to sell San Diego flowers in Los Angeles? With enough local participation, the growers’ co-op could sell its own and attract a steady group of buyers. The idea wasn’t easily embraced by the cautious and independent farmers in the area. It took about two years to convince 37 growers to pay membership dues and offer their flowers through the auction. Four years later, there were 35 full members and 16 probationary members. Some of the 350 registered buyers came from as far away as Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Sales volume was about $2 million, a tiny fraction of the county’s total crop value that year.

In 1989 the auction moved to its present quarters in Carlsbad, on Avenida Encinas, just north of Palomar Airport Road, as one of 34 tenants in the San Diego International Floral Trade Center. The center is a limited partnership that includes the Mellano family, longtime local growers, and Carltas, the Eckes land management company. Paul Ecke Jr. saw a central merchandising location as one way to raise the county’s flower-growing profile and to reap the benefits of a cooperative enterprise. Carltas paid $10 million for the old Burroughs Corporation building (154,000 square feet) and obtained $1.2 million through the Coastal Conservancy, a state agency charged with overseeing coastal land use. This money had been collected as fees from developers who converted agricultural land to housing. The conservancy held the money in the Carlsbad Agricultural Improvement Fund, to be administered locally. Carltas used the money for facilities improvements and to subsidize tenant rents for the first ten years.

The center is open to the trade only and leases space to the flower auction and to independent growers, wholesalers, and shippers in a sort of one-stop-shopping setup. Buyers (mostly retailers) in one location can find cut flowers, potted plants, dry and fresh flower arrangements, florist supplies, growers’ chemicals and equipment, and shipping services.

The trade center keeps no figures on the volume of flowers sold through its facility nor the source of the blooms, but they do say that Colombian and Ecuadorian roses have made an appearance in the last few years. Since tenants are free to obtain their flowers from any source, the lower-priced imports were bound to make an impact. A few local growers (including Dramm & Echter) are among the center’s tenants; but others believe the center might actually have hurt them in the long run by providing one more convenient sales location for foreign competition, particularly flowers grown in Baja California. Ironically, the Burroughs building itself was sold because foreign competition had killed the company’s circuit board business.

But other, smaller growers say the center has saved their businesses. Most of them grow on a few acres of increasingly expensive leased land, which they lose periodically as developers take over, requiring them to move often. A reliable wholesale outlet offers them a consistent market presence. Bob Echter speculates that as the industry changes, small growers in the county will have to do more of this type of co-op marketing to stay in business.

According to Echter, “If you go to the Santa Barbara area, there are a lot of Dutch growers who right now are expanding, and they think the cut-flower business is the best thing going on. They love it. They’re in Santa Maria, Nipomo, Oxnard, Ventura. They’re building and planting every year. They’re very aggressive growers and marketers. San Diego takes a much more defensive position. You see, a lot of people migrated here in the last 20 years, came over with nothing and built their businesses. And a lot of guys here came from a time when you saw carpenters become successful growers. It wasn’t that hard. But times have changed.”

“Grown in San Diego”

As housing and commercial development push agriculture out of its traditional locations, San Diegans are less aware of the importance of the industry in the county. That’s the conclusion of a 20-member industry committee that submitted its report to growers, retailers, and government officials at a meeting earlier this year in San Marcos. The committee was formed under the sponsorship of the UC Cooperative Extension, the UC Small Farm Center, the county Farm and Home Advisor’s Office, and the county Agricultural Steering Committee.

The current value of all county agricultural crops is more than $1.2 billion, and agriculture is the fourth largest contributor to the local economy, behind manufacturing, tourism, and the military. Floriculture currently contributes the largest chunk, about $300 million, to that total.

The committee has proposed a $1 million public relations campaign to help fight the local and international economic pressures. Funding, they propose, could come through the Carlsbad Agricultural Improvement Fund and “Rural America” moneys offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The proposal includes a five-year media and Internet campaign to educate San Diegans about the local ag industry; education programs for retailers to promote locally grown items and for consumers to buy them; programs to educate growers in marketing strategies to make the most of their acreage; and the development of an ag-tourism industry. As the committee envisions it, ag tourism would include walking, driving, and bicycle routes through San Diego’s farmland and some on-site tours.

Which brings us back to the Carlsbad Flower Fields, another Carltas enterprise. Edwin Frazee planted his first ranunculus seeds on these hills in the 1950s and was at one point the sole provider of ranunculus tubers to the international market. But growers in Israel began cutting into those sales in the 1980s. By the early ’90s, Frazee had determined the fields could not support themselves, what with the shrinking market, increasing costs, and environmental restrictions. He sold the operation to Carltas in 1993. In 1995, in an effort to offset costs and save the fields, Carltas charged $1 for visitors to tour the fields. Admission was later raised to $4. About 200,000 people visit the fields each year, but another plan would be needed for their long-term support.

Carltas included the ranunculus fields in the 424-acre development of Legoland, the Gemological Institute of America, golf courses, and a hotel. This year, part of the flower-fields development includes the opening of a branch of the Karl Strauss Brewery and Restaurant, an Armstrong Garden Center, and an ongoing art project, in which painters will design floral installations that will remain on-site for two years. The first of the “Color Project 2000” gardens, recently opened, is designed by Patricia Patterson, a well-known painter on the faculty of UCSD. And in a cooperative venture with a large Ohio grower, the Carlsbad Flower Fields will be marketing ornamentals under the “Flower Fields” brand name. Down the line, the Carlsbad Flower Fields hopes to have specialty gardens, including a test garden for the roses vying to be chosen as an All-American Rose Selection.

The Business of Eden

Bob Echter gives no indication that he anticipates tourists tromping through his fields anytime soon. For the moment, he’ll lease a small building to the phone company for its relay antennas; watch his energy, biological controls, and water-recovery systems for economies; and try to divine what tomorrow’s hot sellers will be.

Dramm & Echter made a commitment to stay in the growing business about six years ago, with the development of Encinitas Ranch, which includes the D&E land. According to Bob Echter, “Back before Prop 13, the Eckes put this land into an agricultural preserve under the Williamson Act, back when taxes were going up and up. In the early ’90s, when our lease was up, we wanted to buy the property. This was at the time when business was bad, and many growers here weren’t able to pay their leases, so the Eckes had to start spinning off the properties. In the process of [Eckes’] developing Encinitas Ranch, our land was rezoned residential, which means we would have had to pay Mello-Roos taxes and we might eventually have been forced into development. But we were given the option to trade off some of the land for home building and we could be rezoned agricultural. We considered the option for about four years and finally decided we would go before the city council and request the rezone to ag. Of course, if business goes bad, now we can only sell this to another farmer.”

Echter’s 1982 college degree is in horticulture from Colorado State University. But it might just as well have been in business. He has a chief grower and a staff to maintain the actual growing operations. A sales and marketing staff does the selling. Then there’s the office staff, accountants, and the rest.

“I love what I do,” Echter says. “I love flowers. But at home I don’t have a garden that I work in and get enthusiastic about as a gardener. I do look at it as more of a business.

“When you run a flower-growing business, when you get to a certain size, it’s like any other business. You’re taken away from being a worker. Once you start having employees, things change.” Floriculture, a year-round business, has a steady workforce and little demand for seasonal workers. Union organizing among flower workers hasn’t been very successful.

Echter continues, “When you have 100 employees, with health insurance and 401(k)s and things like that, you’re managing people more than growing flowers. I just had lunch with a vendor that sells lily bulbs, and we talked varieties and colors and growing habits. So I still talk the jargon of a grower, but the business itself is different.”

And as for the future, Echter shrugs. “What will I be growing in five years? I really couldn’t tell you. The only thing I can say is we will probably be growing a smaller variety of plants, just for efficiency. But what specific crops those will be, I couldn’t say. Things change so fast.”

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