Woman pruning rose bush outdoors. Photo by New Africa / Shutterstock

By Kevin Hecteman, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation

After a year of contraction and closures, California flower farmers and wholesalers report they’re racing to keep up with strong Valentine’s Day demand—a U-turn from V-Day 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to knock the flower market sideways.

Sherry Sanbo of Golden State Floral in West Sacramento said some growers had backed off on planting flowers at the pandemic’s beginning “because they didn’t really know what the future was going to bring.”

“A year later, we’re finding that people are buying more flowers than ever, because you can’t take your mother out to dinner, or your sweetheart, or go to the movies, really, or even go shopping, unless you want to do it online,” Sanbo said. “So now, the orders are bigger than ever, and the supply is shorter than ever.”

Rene Van Wingerden, who runs a flower farm in Carpinteria, said the only way to survive the pandemic is “if you have longevity, which we have—we’ve been at it for 50 years, and I’m still excited about it.”

For this year, “we’re taking care of the customers we’ve had for 40-50 years,” he said. “The supply for Valentine is very tight, but we have enough for a customer that we have committed to.”

Van Wingerden said he reluctantly availed himself of the federal Paycheck Protection Program and U.S. Department of Agriculture pandemic-relief programs to tide him over, noting “quite a few people have gone out of business” among his peers.

Mike Mellano, whose family grows flowers in San Diego County, put his business in hibernation early in the pandemic, but was able to reopen in April.

“That opening was too late for us really to do significant business for Mother’s Day and Easter, which were our two biggest profit-generating windows,” Mellano said.

Though business remains down from pre-pandemic times, he added, “we’re getting back, on a wholesale or gross level, similar to normal.” The PPP, he added, went a long way toward keeping his longtime family business going.

“Our business has gone through the roller coaster, like many businesses have gone through,” Mellano said. “We went from record performance to, ‘the state and the country is shut down and the sky is falling.’”

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine to farm employees will be a big help, he said.

“We’re fortunate that we’re a pretty large farm and we have plenty of space for people to not congregate,” Mellano said, noting that he’s implemented daily routines such as temperature scanning. “The nature of the work has been adjusted to accommodate distancing and breaks staggered.”

Steve Dionne, executive director of the California Association of Flower Growers and Shippers, said the strong Valentine’s Day demand “maybe runs a little counterintuitive from what you might expect to hear,” given the pandemic’s continued grip on the world. The extended emergency is bringing change to the flower market, he added.

“What seems to be happening is that, with so many people spending so much time at home, flowers as a category have shifted into a new space—kind of the personal-care, healthful-environment space,” Dionne said.

“It behooves the industry to take a really close look at this trend and understand how to harness it,” he said, “because at the end of the day, we’d love to see flowers in everybody’s home—brightening their day, improving their mood, all the things that the flowers have been scientifically shown to do.”

Valentine’s Day is known for driving red-rose demand—nearly all of which are imports—and Mellano said air transportation of imported roses has been disrupted.

“There’s very few flights to get product up out of Colombia and Ecuador these days, and those flights that are going, the freight space is super expensive,” he said.

That, Dionne said, should open the door for domestic producers.

“With a limitation on import of flowers and increased cost of imported flowers, that certainly put additional demand on the California flower farmers and other farming zones” in the U.S., Dionne said. “Even if it wasn’t a banner Valentine’s Day coming up, I think you’d still see a really significant increase in demand for California-grown flowers during this period.”

Van Wingerden is counting on that, along with the timing of this year’s holiday.

“I think it’s going to be a fabulous Valentine’s Day, because it falls on a Sunday, right?” he said. “They can’t take their significant other out anywhere. A purchase of flowers is high on the list, right? We hope.”

Flower sales often suffer when Valentine’s Day falls on a weekend, Dionne said, as many people will take their sweethearts on dates. With restaurants severely limited and many movie theaters still closed because of shelter-in-place orders, he said 2021 will be different.

“With order numbers coming in as big as they are on a Sunday holiday, it’s an extreme positive indicator,” Dionne said, noting that many people shop for flowers at grocery stores, and orders from mass retailers are up anywhere from 10% to 25%.

Even so, the absence of many other events that help sustain flower farmers remains a concern, Van Wingerden said.

“What we’re missing is the events, the weddings,” he said, noting that even when the world reopens, people’s pocketbooks may be slow to follow suit.

“People are still going to be very reserved,” Van Wingerden said. “That’s what we need to overcome.”

Dionne said he sees pent-up demand waiting for the right opportunity.

“It’s anybody’s best guess as to when large social gatherings will be happening again,” he said. “Everybody I talked to in the industry is expecting a serious surge in demand once things open back up, because you’re going to be double- and triple-stacking weddings. There will be celebrations of life for funerals that couldn’t take place during the pandemic period. And there’s going to be a lot of events, life events, that require floral.”

When events do make a comeback, Mellano plans to be ready.

“What’s a party without flowers?” he said.

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