Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

Written by Steve Savage

Today, to be patriotic, for the 4th of July I bought my wife some red, white and blue carnations.  I got them at Franco’s Flowers on Leucadia Boulevard just off the I5.  If you live in North County, this is definitely the place to get flowers.  I’m no professional flower arranger, but I think they came out nicely.
I asked the clerk who was trimming and wrapping the flowers where they came from, and he said, “Columbia.”  At least that felt more patriotic than purchasing them from Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela.

The Irony of This Purchase

These greenhouses lie between a golf course and my home. It was all once flowers

It is ironic, because I live in Northern San Diego County, in the city of Encinitas, which was once the capital of cut flower production for the US.  One of the few remaining greenhouses, Dramm and Echter, borders my neighborhood.

The Ecke Ranch with a small mother-block of Poinsettias

Much of the hill-top land with views to the Pacific was once owned by the Ecke family.  They once controlled 90+% of the wholesale Poinsettia business selling to the greenhouses around the country to local greenhouses that prepared them to be America’s traditional Christmas decoration.  Over the years they have sold off land for housing, for shopping centers and for a beautiful golf course where I frequently run.  When my family moved to Encinitas in 1990, we bought in a neighborhood that was once in flowers, but which was converted in 1974.

Why The Flower Growers Left

There are several inexorable trends that have since driven the flower business largely out of my town.  Some has gone to California’s Central Valley.  Some has gone to Mexico.  Most has gone to Venezuela (roses), and Columbia (carnations).  The drivers were:

  • The very high cost of land
  • The very high taxes that were indexed on land price, and
  • Diminishing labor pools

Basically, it was “Urbanization,” or really “Suburbanization.”  It has also greatly diminished our strawberry and avocado industries.  This really isn’t such a big issue outside of California, but it certainly is in a place like San Diego.

Can I Be Patriotic and Green While Buying Flowers?

These trends are not limited to flowers.  It is true of any labor intensive crop, with asparagus being the poster child.  Americans are rapidly increasing their consumption of this tasty, cancer-fighting vegetable, but our own production is declining rapidly.  The logic is simple – asparagus is a 12-15 year crop with a short, labor intensive harvest season for 2-4 weeks in the spring.  We once had thriving asparagus industries all over the US.  It was a common, local vegetable.  As doubts developed about the future labor supply ,and as land prices soared, farmers abandoned the crop.  Now we buy asparagus from Peru and transport it by air.  The roses, carnations and asparagus were all US-sponsored projects to give small farmers an alternative to growing cocaine.  In every case they have become industries dominated by large companies.  (The small farmers still grow the cocaine, by the way.)

Some Hope for Ocean Transport in the Future

Fortunately, there are several technologies in place and in development that may make it possible to deliver these commodities by ocean transport – an extremely efficient system.  Soon we may be able to enjoy flowers, asparagus, and off-season fruits while being both patriotic and green.
So can I feel patriotic buying those flowers for my wife?  Yes.
You can email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com.  My website is Applied Mythology

Written by Guest Expert

Steve Savage has worked with various aspects of agricultural technology for more than 35 years. He has a PhD in plant pathology and his varied career included Colorado State University, DuPont, and the bio-control start-up, Mycogen. He is an independent consultant working with a wide variety of clients on topics including biological control, biotechnology, crop protection chemicals, and more. Steve writes and speaks on food and agriculture topics (Applied Mythology blog) and does a bi-weekly podcast called POPAgriculture for the CropLife Foundation.


  1. The situation with flowers is very similar to the situation with organic farming. Over half of the organic food purchased in the US (we’re talking grocery chains, not farmers’ markets) has been imported from overseas, and the same is true of the European Union.
    The cost of farmland and labor in ‘developed nations’ is often too expensive for what is essentially boutique foods for a vanishingly small market.
    And, it’s a food market, after all. Which means consumers shopping with their wallets, and if the organic costs too much more than conventional, you’ve lost a customer.
    Food retailing is a cut-throat business with very slim profit margins, and everyone’s looking for an angle or an edge.

  2. Eric, you are right about the “off-shoring” of Organic. In that case; however, the fact that the certification is paper-work-only with no even random testing leaves the door open for massive fraud – all at the expense of the US Organic growers. I’m amazed that they tolerate this

  3. From what I know of Iowa history, similar things happened here (except replace flowers with everything else and replace golf courses with corn).
    At one point, Iowa grew all the food its citizens needed, including plenty of fruits and vegetables. Slowly but surely, the number of ag products produced in Iowa dwindled and dwindled, leaving us with corn, soy, hogs, dairy, and eggs. Instead of a patchwork of farms with huge amounts of biodiversity (both in crop and in wildlife species), we have real monoculture (at most biculture) studded with CAFOs. The causes here weren’t loss of labor, but commodification of ag products.
    The current system is very efficient but is it really for the best?

  4. Anastasia,
    Actually, I think what happened in Iowa and most of the midwest is that as families moved off the farms and the farms were rented to former neighbors, it became necessary to grow the highest value crop option. This is all that makes economic sense for a farmer paying annual cash rent. Also, California could produce all those crops much more efficiently with longer seasons and no rain during the summer. Once the cold chain and transportation system were in place, economics took over. That is why there is almost no wheat in Iowa – you can’t make as much so you can’t afford the rent. The solution is a different kind of lease

  5. In parts of CA land values are so high (up to $80,000 per acre) that the only crop that can generate the necessary return is strawberries. Hence, strawberries are grown year after year and farmers now beg for regulators to let them use truly ghastly chemicals.
    It is remarkable how short-term economic forces drive the ag system to madness. This is why I am not so sure these claims of efficiency are valid, in a broad sense. It really depends on what factors you are looking at. Agriculture optimizes for short term financial returns, which gives you a certain type of efficiency, such as labor or land, but not others.

  6. Jason,
    The Strawberry story is a little different than what you wrote. Yes, strawberries are the highest value legal crop one can grow, but the coastal areas where they are grown use very diverse rotations. Strawberry fields are highly valued for lettuce and broccoli because of the residual benefits of the fumigation (low weeds, nematodes etc).
    “Ghastly” is an emotive word to describe the hazard of high, short-term toxicity. The fumigants like methyl bromide and methyl iodide react very quickly after application and are essentially gone by the time the crop is planted. The applicator is at risk if someone screws up – but that is something extremely rare with modern equipment. It is analogous to electricity. Electricity is extremely hazardous, but we do things to minimize the chance of exposure, and thus the risk is low.
    Strawberries are the second fastest fruit crop in terms of US per capita consumption at a time when most fruits are flat in their consumption trend. It is an extremely healthy food not to mention that it is delicious and something kids will eat. This is a case where the economics are good for farming. The places where strawberries grow are also very desirable places to live, but strawberries and the other high value crops are at least slowing urbanization on California’s central coast

  7. We still have a vibrant flower farming community in California!
    However, the impact of imports have been and continue to be a significant issue and concern for the competitiveness of our flower farms and those throughout the rest of the U.S.
    In fact the CCFC (California Cut Flower Commission), which represents all of California’s cut flower and greens farms (approximately 250), is currently engaged in the free trade negotiations with Colombia for this very reason. The Commission fighting not only to support the future of flower farming California, but on behalf of consumers who would otherwise prefer to buy locally grown flowers for their use and enjoyment. We know that 85% of people do not know where flowers come from, but if given the choice, they would choose California 55% of the time. And that is from a nationwide survey study!
    So, with imports representing 80% of what is sold in the United States, its important that people ask for the flowers they really want. California does grow 80% of what is grown in the United States and for every dollar a flower farmer earns, $.92 of that dollar goes right back into the local economy! We believe this impact to be similar for other flower farmers in other states.
    I would encourage your readers to visit our Facebook page to learn more and meet our farmers: http://www.facebook.com/CaliforniaGrownFlowers?sk=app_128953167177144
    I would also direct you to a blog post by the CCFC’s CEO/Ambassador that describes specifically the issues you outline above as it relates to roses: http://www.ccfc.org/executive-blog/2011/03/07/where-do-your-roses-come-from-probably-further-than-you-think/
    If you or anyone else has any further questions, please contact the Commission’s office at 916.441.1701 or ccfc@ccfc.org!

  8. Devan Allen McGranahan says:
    Neither you nor Steve are wrong. You are correct that commodification of products, as a general process, is what reduced diversity in agricultural landscapes. I think Steve is a tad off the mark in saying that “it became necessary to grow the highest value crop option.” I’m not sure where this “necessary” came from, and I think it ties very directly to where the commodification snowball that you describe actually got rolling. I’m personally very interested in teasing that out but believe it or not I don’t think I’m going to solve it here.
    I will share a joke my Dad used to make: Iowa should pass a law that hog CAFOs must be sited across the road from the farmsteads of cash-grain farmers. No one wants a CAFO across the street, so everyone will buy enough sows to count as an animal-grain farm. Voila, no need for CAFOs — hogs are evenly distributed across the landscape by smallholders. This is exactly the sort of logic behind the sort of incentives that could be used to re-diversify the landscape.
    It is a complex issue, one that I think would actually benefit from some deconstructing because intervention/reversal is going to require action that is quite specifically focused.

  9. Thanks for that information. I’m glad that so much is still domestic. I was talking about San Diego county which still has flowers, but nothing like it once did

  10. I am on vacation right now, but I had to log in to say to Steve: good on you for buying your wife flowers 🙂
    There is a blue GMO flower in Europe isn’t there? Is it also sold in the US?

  11. Mary,
    Looks like they are still going and have very wide distribution. I emailed one source just to clarify. I’m glad this hasn’t attracted any protest

  12. The blue rose is in the approval process to be grown in the US, I believe. The purple carnation has already been available in the US, and I know this because I called up Florigene to find out where my florist could get these carnations for my wedding. And I did. 🙂

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