The local flower world has many supporters, but among them there are only a few singular individuals who should be called Local Flower Ambassadors. One of them is Kasey Cronquist, CEO/Ambassador of the California Cut Flower Commission.
Last month, during a week spent scouting gardens and architecture in Los Angeles, I spent a fruitful afternoon with Kasey. He is based in Carpinteria, a coastal community south of Santa Barbara, in what Kasey calls “the flower basket of the U.S.” Here’s where numerous roads on either side of U.S. Hwy. 101 are dotted with greenhouses where beautiful flower crops grow. This valley has a special microclimate that nurtures flower farming on a mass scale – and according to Kasey, greenhouses are the most efficient method of growing flowers.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I first called Kasey in February 2010 when I wrote a short piece for the LA Times HOME section on “green as the new red for Valentine’s Day flowers.” I found out about the CCFC through my research and contacted its Exec for a quote to add to my story. Here’s what he told me then: “We believe California flowers are the green alternative, whether we stick a label on them or not.”
At the time, my interest was focused on organic growing practices because I saw this method as a way to gauge whether locally-grown flowers were sustainable. Kasey’s point shifted my thinking: In their own way, locally-grown cut flowers are more sustainable than any other flowers grown on another continent and shipped to U.S. consumers. Because of California’s stringent environmental regulations, the state’s flower farmers use many sustainable growing practices not used in foreign production, Kasey added.
Through that initial conversation and subsequent ones, I realized how difficult – at least on a commercial level – it is to produce flowers organically. And in a small way, Kasey’s voice over the telephone line began to change the questions I posed to farmers, retail florists and designers.
We spoke on several other occasions, including when I sought background for a local-flower story in Sunset magazine, for a LA Times story on Rose Parade floats using local flowers (to which Kasey tipped me off) and for a chapter of The 50 Mile Bouquet. I really liked his energy and quickly began to appreciate what a rare position he holds as the voice of local flower farming. There’s literally no other state in the U.S. that has a cut flower commission like California’s. The CCFC was formed by the State of California Agricultural Commission and is funded by assessments on flower farms that generate $500,000 or more in annual revenue (approximately 65 farms out of more than 225 in the state hit these numbers). California produces 75% of the cut flowers grown in the U.S., so this commodity-promotion model is one that other states like Washington could emulate.
Last month I called Kasey and offered to drive up to Santa Barbara area to meet him for lunch when I was in the area. “Wouldn’t you rather tour a couple flower farms with me?” he replied in an email. That wasn’t a tough question to answer. “Yes!” I wrote.
Turns out, we still grabbed a bite to eat; then we jumped in Kasey’s truck to drive along the back roads of Carpinteria. As we passed a sign reading “Farmers’ West Flowers & Bouquets, Inc.,” near the entrance to a farm, Kasey explained that the CCFC has member farms from as far north as Arcata in Humboldt County (near the California-Oregon border) to as far south as San Diego. Most are located less than 75 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. In order to cover the vast distance from one end of the state to the other, he has organized three annual meetings, based on the four official districts of the CCFC.
I quizzed Kasey about his background. He is a Montana native, but he moved to Washington State with his family and attended high school in Shelton. Kasey grew up in an entrepreneurial family, with both his father and grandfather as role models who operated real estate firms. When choosing a college, he opted for sunshine and warmth, leaving the PNW to attend Westmont College in Santa Barbara. After graduation, Kasey returned to Washington where he ran a local Chamber of Commerce in Shelton-Mason County. But California lured him back with a chance to head the Carpinteria Chamber of Commerce. A few years ago, a chamber board member, a flower farmer, urged Kasey to take the reins at the California Cut Flower Commission. Kasey seems pretty pleased to have ended up working – and living near the ocean with his wife Tarah and their two young children. Who wouldn’t be?
As we drove by flower-filled greenhouses, Kasey pointed out that the farms in Santa Barbara County “benefit from an overall moderate climate, with just the right amount of sunlight and humidity.” There are many field-grown crops in this area, but even more greenhouse-grown ones. The under-cover environment allows farmers to control growing conditions so their floral production is vigorous and consistent.
Looping through the parking lot of a giant warehouse we passed a container truck – a floral carrier, one of several companies that transport flowers and mixed bouquets to large wholesale markets in Los Angeles and San Francisco (and beyond) and to mass market retailers. Curbing transportation costs is a major concern for California’s flower growers and for anyone trying to move flowers from the field to the ultimate customer, regardless of what state they’re in. In fact, it was a mega-regional transportation hub that the CCFC lobbied Congress to fund as an adjustment to the Colombia Free Trade Agreement last year. The allocation of federal funding was not given, but Kasey and others, including members of the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, aren’t going to stop asking for Federal support to aid domestic flower farmers in the face of huge competition from importers.
GLAD FOR GERBERAS
We pulled into Mobi’s, a farm that produces hundreds of thousands of cut gerbera daisies for the floral trade, including mixed bouquets for retailers like Trader Joe’s. I have to confess, I have never been a big fan of gerberas. They seem so artificially perfect and symmetrical to me, in super-saturated colors that are anything but subtle. However . . . after the tour of Mobi’s, I’m a convert to the exciting new world of gerbs. These flowers have more detail and interest than any I’ve ever seen. They are multi-petaled rather than the conventional single forms and many have beautiful contrasting centers. Petal colors come with a surprise underneath, where a different hue appears. These are extremely beautiful and interesting blooms; they caused me to lean in for a closer look. I can definitely see how much excitement a few Cali-Gerbs could add to an arrangement.
Kasey drew my attention to some small colored flags on metal stakes, poking up among the rows of flowers. The flags, he explained, are placed by “scouts,” farm employees trained to spot troubled or stressed gerbera plants. The plants’ foliage may be yellowed or riddled with unattractive insect bites. First, a scout plants the flag; then, another crew member assesses which pest – aphid, thrip, spider mite or other problem insect – has been on the attack. He then releases beneficial insects directly onto the endangered plant to combat the bad bugs.
“So instead of managing pesticides, the flower farms are managing bugs,” Kasey says. “The biggest driver to move conventional farms away from synthetic chemicals is cost. If you look at the transition over the past 10 years, you can see more and more farms adopting IPM (integrated pest management) methods. Because it’s cheaper to use human labor to address pest problems than to use chemicals. This trend is not going to change.”
Seeing these sustainable practices at work was revealing. It underscored the economic reality that change rarely occurs until it’s too uncomfortable (or expensive) to continue doing things the same way as before. Whether a grower changes practices for concern over the environment or for his bottom line, it’s still great to see that change happen.
The next piece of the equation, then, is consumer response. When the story of the IMP “good bug” pest control method is told, it goes hand in glove with the message that local farms are producing better — and safer — blooms.
One of Kasey’s favorite jobs is telling people that their beautiful bouquet was grown in California. “People care about where their flowers come from. They want to buy local or domestic when they can.” He believes the quality of Cali-grown flowers speaks for itself when compared with imported ones.
And yet the domestic flower farmer is doing business on what many feel is an unfair playing field. The politics go way back to the early 1990s when U.S. trade policy made it very easy for Colombia and Ecuador to produce cut flowers and export them to us. Last year, journalist John McQuaid wrote an excellent piece called “The Secret Behind Your Flowers,” explaining the history of this situation in Smithsonian magazine. I urge you to click this link to read his story to give you more background on the issue.
Suffice it to say that with 80 percent of the cut flowers sold in the U.S. coming from imported sources, the “little guy,” the U.S. flower farmer, has a major uphill battle. Heck, we can’t even expect country-of-origin labeling on our flowers, like you see on supermarket fruits and vegetables (“It’s been tried – I’ve been looking at that issue for three years,” Kasey says. “Flowers and several other non-food categories are on the exception list and it’s something that mass market retailers watch closely.”)
Basically, without pressure from their customers, the big retailers have no incentive to go along with labeling flowers as to their country of origin. And so far, CCFC doesn’t have a loud enough voice to get that change implemented through legislation.
WHAT IS WORKING
You may think that this conversation Kasey and I had was depressing. But that’s not possible in his presence. Kasey is super positive. He believes in what he’s doing and he knows he’s on the right side of the argument. I find that so inspiring because that’s what we’ve been doing trying to do with The 50 Mile Bouquet, telling through photographs and words the stories of flower farmers and floral designers who care about making connections between the fields and vases.
For a very long time, it looked like California’s flower farmers were on their own trying to hold onto a domestic cut flower industry. And the Golden State is still responsible for 75% of the nation’s floral production. But now, thanks to some other Local Flower Ambassadors, including Diane Szukovathy, Patrick Zweifel and other Seattle Wholesale Growers Market leaders, important inter-state connections and collaborations are taking place.
One thing that’s working great for CCFC is CA-GROWN labeling. It’s a widely-adopted voluntary program involving countless growers and retailers. They’ve joined in because shoppers take notice of an iconic blue-and-yellow label that looks like a California vanity license plate. Kasey is the current chair of the CA Grown program, which is administered by the Buy California Marketing Agreement. A mixed bouquet needs to contain 85% California-grown ingredients to achieve this point-of-purchase labeling. I would love to see a similar WA Grown program get off the ground!
While the current climate can feel overwhelming, especially knowing that existing federal policies work at odds with local flower farms, men and women like Kasey aren’t throwing up their hands and saying it’s impossible. That’s what I like about this guy.
“We can’t move that ball, but we can create market demand for local flowers. We leaned into the CA Grown campaign and now California’s flower farmers are the single largest licensee of that agricultural program — out of all the other commodity crops in the state,” he says. “The future is in educating people to buy local, to buy U.S.-grown flowers.”
Here’s more about what CCFC is doing:
- Encouraging its members to label bunches and bouquets with the CA GROWN label. To obtain this designation, at least 85% of the ingredients in mixed bouquets must have been produced in California.
- Opening up local flower farms for consumer visits. On Saturday, April 14th, Southern California flower enthusiasts will be able to tour eight or nine local cut flower farms in the Carpentaria area. They can meet the farmer, learn what crops are growing in their own backyards, and even purchase direct from the farm to take flowers home with them that day. In mid-June, a similar visit-the-flower-farm program will open up six Monterey, Calif.-area farms to the public.
- Producing the California Flower and Farm Guide. This flower-packed “look book” is an important resource to market California-grown flowers to floral buyers around the country. To order a free copy, click here. “It’s important to show the faces of those who are responsible for the flowers,” Kasey says. “This is an advocacy campaign and our story is compelling and authentic.”
- Creating and distributing Hint Cards which are a lighthearted way to remind someone to buy local, buy California, when buying flowers. Download your free copies here.
- “Like” CCFC on Facebook to follow its efforts and learn more about this vital and vibrant organization.