From family dinners to White House fetes, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, and flower growers are urging people to keep the flowers on their tables as local as the food on their plates.
That was the message put out by the congresswoman during a visit to Carpinteria on Friday to tour Myriad Flowers greenhouses, 3680 Via Real, one of the last remaining cut rose growers in Southern California.
Capps walked with a handful of reporters through the greenhouses and fields of Myriad, which has 15 acres of roses and cuts about 10 million stems a year, along with other flowers, including chrysanthemums, gladiolus and sunflowers.
Harry and Erik Van Wingerden, the father and son team who are behind much of the business operations at Myriad, led the tour through the warm greenhouses, which shelter more than 60 types of roses sold by the company.
California farms like the Van Wingerden’s produce 75 percent of the nation’s flowers, but the industry has faced competition from other countries, particularly in South America, that have exported their flowers to the United States aggressively, often undercutting local companies by selling at a fraction of the cost.
But Capps hopes that is a trend on course to change, and has helped establish a Cut Flower Caucus along with Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from San Diego.
“This is a large part of our economy in the area,” she said. “We need to nurture [the floriculture industry] and care for it well.”
Kasey Cronquist of the California Cut Flower Commission was also on hand Friday and said the industry has faced stiff competition from foreign imports.
His organization has worked to label flowers sold at larger stores such as Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Whole Foods with the “CA Grown” label.
Many times, Capps said, people will pay more to know that their flowers have been grown locally.
Cronquist said the caucus is interested in correctly accounting for what’s coming across the U.S. border and closely monitoring trade relationships with other flower-exporting countries.
The Van Wingerdens also spoke about the uneven playing field that exists between domestic growers and international operations.
Harry Van Wingerden came to the area in 1967 with three cousins and their families from the Netherlands to start their business, which has become the biggest rose-growing operation between Santa Maria and San Diego.
More rose growers existed in Carpinteria at one time, but foreign competition, primarily from Colombia and Ecuador, has undercut much of the industry, they said.
Some other local growers had to switch to plants like gerbera daisies, which the South American growers had not managed to ship properly, Harry said.
“For a couple of years, it was tough, but for right now, we’re filling that niche,” Erik Van Wingerden said.
A South American climate tends to produce larger roses, but many vendors, including those who work in the wedding industry, want smaller blooms to work with, Harry Van Wingerden said.
“Also, it’s just the freshness. When I buy my wife a dozen roses, I want them to last for two weeks, and our flowers do that,” he said, adding that when flowers are transported from other countries, that enjoyment may be cut short because they’ll die quicker.
Their roses and flowers can be found at every farmer’s market in the county, as well as in larger venues, like Trader Joe’s. If the flowers have the “CA Grown” label on them, it’s likely that they came from Myriad, Erik Van Wingerden said.
Last year, he traveled to Washington, D.C., with a delegation of flower growers from California and other states to talk about getting American-grown flowers into the White House and laying the groundwork for the flower caucus.
“It’s great to see that year later, those two things have really come to fruition,” he said.
Capps said keeping locally grown flowers on the forefront is important to her in the Capitol.
The White House staff want to make sure that the menu for state dinners is domestic, and the wines and beverages are from the United States, “so why not make sure that the flowers on the tables are grown in our country as well?” she said.
That was the case during a recent dinner honoring France, Capps said, and the caucus is going to keep pushing that approach.
Cronquist also said that a co-op has been formed of flower growers across the state, and will be working together to accomplish shared goals, like that of a coordinated transportation and shipping network.
Cronquist said that most people would choose American-grown flowers if given the choice, a large part of which he credits to the movement to buy local produce.
“I think a lot of it has to do with food and the way people are eating,” he said.
The Van Wingerdens were featured in April’s issue of Food and Wine Magazine, and Kathy Janega-Dykes, president of Visit Santa Barbara, said agritourism is becoming a huge draw to the area and an economic generator.
Capps also said she’s been working on immigration reform, which would make waves in the agriculture industry if passed.
“Comprehensive immigration policy is on the table,” she said, adding that theSenate has approved a bill, but Congress has yet to approve it.
“It would be a benefit to this industry and almost every other one,” she said.
As for a level playing field, Capps admitted that much work has to be done, and that “we can’t fix it overnight, but we can start to address it.”