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Field to Vase

news1Open house provides opportunity for residents to meet their local flower growers

Valentine’s Day is a high point of the year for those in the cut flower business. So when, one year in the late ’90s, the bouquet-riddled holiday failed to deliver for Kitayama Brothers Farms, the family behind the decades-old rose-growing business knew something was wrong. 

“It was the writing on the wall,” recalls Stuart Kitayama, operations manager for the Watsonville-based company. “Those of us who had been hoping things would just get better finally said ‘it’s time to change.’”

Like that of so many California family flower farms, the Kitayama Brothers story begins in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1940s and makes its way down to Watsonville in the early 1970s. By the end of that decade, they say they were the largest rose grower in the United States. The flower industry in California, including in Santa Cruz County, was booming. 

“It was an exponential growth period,” says Jess Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau. “Flower growers were expanding their operations, and people in the Bay Area were coming down here and starting their flower-growing operations.”

By the late-1980s, the local flower industry was more than 500 acres strong. In a 1986 speech by Steve Tjesvold found in “An Outline History of Agriculture in the Pajaro Valley,” the UC Extension floriculture farm adviser painted this picture: “It is an industry that has grown from a few nurseries covering only a few acres just 25 years ago to an industry now that is composed of many, many nurseries encompassing over 550 acres of land. It is now a multi-million dollar business that provides jobs for people and boosts the local economy.”

But, as Brown puts it, “the one constant in Santa Cruz County agricultural history is that it’s always evolving, it’s always changing.” Several ominous obstacles soon unfolded for flower growers, including rising transportation and energy costs, and, most problematic, government agreements that reduced trade barriers with the United States and put the pressure of increasing imports on the floral industry.

news1-2Stuart Kitayama, operations manager for Kitayama Brothers Farms in Watsonville, stands among Gerberas in one of the farm's many greenhouses.“[The government] had hoped that what would happen as part of that legislation was that there would be a reduction in the production of cocaine in these countries and that they’d grow flowers and such instead,” says Brown. “Unfortunately, I don’t know if it accomplished much on the drug scene, but it did hurt our flower industry.”

Flowers flooded through the Port of Miami at a cheaper rate than California growers were able to get their blossoms to the East Coast, introducing a Goliath competitor into the marketplace. 

“When the market started to dry up and competition came in, you saw local growers pull back, go out of business, or find ways to reuse their greenhouses [for other crops],” says Brown.

This is how the Kitayama Brothers found themselves abandoning their trademark bloom.

“The South Americans did a good job—the varieties they had, the way they marketed them,” says Kitayama. “And also some of those companies were huge. In the end, we were the largest rose grower but we couldn’t fight against that well enough.”

The company got creative with its assets, renting off a third of its greenhouse space and transitioning from roses to a more diverse repertoire. Today, its biggest crops are Gerberas and lilies, but snapdragons, irises, tulips and many other varieties are also part of the Kitayama Brothers profile. Additionally, they began buying flowers from other growers to create an even wider range of offerings.

On a recent foggy morning at the Watsonville farm, Kitayama swings open a door to one of the farm’s many greenhouses. “It used to be all roses,” he says, “and now there are none.” The back portion of the vast greenhouse is a thick rainbow of Gerberas; in the section nearest to the door, a few men are finishing retrofitting what was, until recently, the last parcel used for growing roses to make room for more Gerberas. Things are actually starting to look up again, says Kitayama, noting, “we cut back, closed things, tightened our belts, got through, and now, just in the last five years, we are starting to expand again.”

About 10 miles inland from Kitayama Brothers’ coastal property, California Pajarosa boasts the title of the nation’s largest rose grower, in both volume and value, says general manager Paul Furman. However, their production was much higher in the 1980s.

“Every year there is another struggle,” says Furman. “Watsonville used to be the rose growing capitol; now there are only a few flower growers left, let alone rose growers.” 

Like Kitayama Brothers, California Pajarosa evolved to stay afloat as the floral industry changed, branching out into a variety of other flowers in addition to roses and becoming Veriflora certified for meeting strict sustainability requirements.

Both farms have also shifted to more localized markets. “Over the last 10 to 15 years it’s shifted toward the West Coast,” says Furman.

Fifty percent of Kitayama Brothers flowers are sold within 100 miles of the Watsonville greenhouses—a big difference from the heyday, when “we didn’t even have a listing in the local Yellow Pages,” recalls Kitayama.

To bolster their presence in the region, Kitayama Brothers and California Pajarosa are participating in the fourth annual Monterey Bay Greenhouse Growers Open House on Saturday, June 15. Watsonville-based Jacobs Farm and California Floral Greens will also be part of the guided tour.

The California Cut Flower Commission (CCFC) organizes the open house as a way of sharing the story of local growers with their neighbors and encouraging people to—literally—stop and smell the roses, says CEO Kasey Cronquist. With interest in locally sourced and sustainable food at an all-time high, Cronquist believes the time is ripe for regional flower growers to capture the attention of locavores.

“As people have continued to be concerned about the sustainability of their food or where their food is coming from, that gives us a really good opportunity to tell that same story about flowers,” he says. “There is a lot of momentum behind the farm-to-fork concept, and we believe there is the same need for people to understand ‘field to vase.’”

Over the last decade, the CCFC has promoted a “California Grown” brand for Golden State flowers, emblemized by a logo (a blue and gold California license plate that says “CA Grown”) seen on packaging from more than 40 of the state’s flower farms.

“The [downward trend for the flower industry] would be much sharper if we weren’t doing the job we’re doing to create this awareness that California flowers are America’s flowers, and that not all flowers are equal,” says Cronquist.

Although more than two-thirds of the country’s flowers are imported, nearly 80 percent of domestic flowers hail from California. Not only does Santa Cruz County play an important part in that, says Cronquist, the area is also a promising hub for new flower farms. 

“Santa Cruz is one of the main regions for flower farming in the United States,” he says. “It’s a very special place in that regard. It’s also the place that has the largest amount of opportunity for rebounding. We want a future with more farms. Although we’re seeing a decline, we don’t look at that trend line as something that will continue—we think the ‘buy local’ trend will help flower farms and help people get inspired to become flower farmers.”

Kitayama Brothers, which, like California Pajarosa, was one of the first farms to sign on to the open house event four years ago, has used the opportunity to create the Kitayama Brothers Gerbera Festival. In addition to greenhouse tours, there will be floral pairing, wine tasting, the Kitayama Cup Gerbera Art Design Contest, and more.  

“If it’s just about price, just about big, then South America has a distinct advantage,” says Kitayama. “They can do a less expensive, larger rose, in particular. But if it’s about freshness, if it’s about variety, if it’s about local, all of a sudden—hey, we’re here. [The open house] let’s people know we’re here and that we’re doing a good job.” 


The fourth annual Monterey Bay Greenhouse Growers Open House takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 15 and includes four farms in Santa Cruz County. See montereybayfarmtours.org for more information.

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