Tony Avelar  /  AP
A yellow oriental lily, below, and a marigold flower blooms inside the packing room of the Dautoff's Exotic farm earlier this month. Farmers who once filled florists' windows with opulent roses and staid carnations survived the flood of cheaper imports that began in the 1990s by coaxing their fields to yield hundreds of harder-to-find varieties. Now some are starting bet on a new kind of flower — one grown without pesticides.
updated 2/8/2006 6:42:44 PM ET 2006-02-08T23:42:44

Along a fog-blanketed swath of coastline waiting to burst forth with vivid colors, there are signs of the yesterdays, todays and tomorrows of the flower industry.

Empty greenhouses flank Josh Dautoff's farm, relics of the bust that came when cheap imports drove his neighbors out of business. Tiny yellow bulbinellas, tropical red-and-white amaryllis and more than 150 other varieties replace the daisies his parents grew in the simpler days of floral farming, when a family could make a living with one flower. A barren six-acre plot will soon hold the seeds of a future crop of organic sunflowers.

"People come to us looking for something different," said Dautoff, 29. "No one's coming to me now asking for organic flowers. But I have faith that they will."

Farmers who weathered a wave of cheap imports in the last decade by coaxing their fields to yield hundreds of harder-to-find varieties are increasingly betting on organic flowers, a nascent industry that is taking bloom on the heels of the organic food boom.

Though the market for organic flowers is still small — sales totaled $8 million in 2003, a fraction of the $19.4 billion consumers spent on all flowers nationally — it's growing fast as consumers wary of chemicals start looking for the same standard in other products such as soaps, clothing, cosmetics — and Valentine's Day bouquets.

There's no evidence that organic flowers are healthier, but consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for products made without chemicals harmful to workers or the environment.

Organic flower sales are expected to grow 13 percent annually through 2008, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Many in the industry hope the decision to go organic will eventually be an environmentally friendly but also a financially sound alternative for farmers trying to stay afloat, just as finding interesting new flowers, colors and shapes helped them survive when foreign competition was crushing local production in the 1990s.

"There's going to be learning curve, because flowers have to look good, and they're very susceptible to all kinds of pests," said Peggy Dillon, a spokeswoman with the California Cut Flower Commission. "But the organic foods movement took a while to leave the health food store, and now it's big business."

The trouble in the flower fields of Central California started in 1991, when the United States reduced tariffs on flowers brought in from Colombia and other South American countries.

For decades, California had supplied the nation's flower shops. But producers here couldn't compete with South America's lower wages and steady sunshine. Foreign growers also benefited from being able to use more pesticides to create beautiful flowers, but the chemicals left workers with blurred vision, trembling hands, headaches and dizziness.

California still grows 72 percent of domestically produced flowers. But today, about 70 percent of the flowers Americans buy are foreign, according to the Society of American Florists. Comparisons to previous years are difficult because the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed its record keeping in 1999, but for roses, 95 percent were imported in 2004, compared to 48 percent in 1991.

That shift left a sad stamp on California's coastal flower farms. There were 45 farmers growing roses in the Watsonville area in 1991. Now, there are about 10, Dillon said.

Great greenhouses, once fragrant with roses, loom empty in the chilly fog next to Dautoff's fields. Now it's cheaper for San Francisco markets to fly them from Colombia than buy the ones his neighbors used to grow.

"I can't compete on regular roses," said farmer Marc Kessler of California Organic Flowers, who grows over 100 varieties on two acres, then packages them for shipping around the country. "But organic gives us an edge, and I can compete with unique varieties, special colors and fragrances and freshness."

In spite of its promise, the organic market is still limited, and the financial risks are substantial, which makes it hard for Dautoff, who wishes his whole farm could be chemical free.

To halt the chemical cycle, farmers need to leave fields fallow for three years for pesticides to wash from soils. They also need to encourage beneficial insects to protect against destructive ones and rotate crops.

Also, the wholesale buyers who make up the bulk of the mainstream flower market still don't want organic, said Darrell Torchio, who has run a flower wholesale business in San Francisco for 26 years. He deals with caterers, wedding planners, florists, and still hasn't seen a surge in demand.

"If they market it right, people who like to buy organic could be interested in it," Torchio said. "But the people using it commercially aren't really interested."

But there are signs that this might be changing, said Gerald Prolman, who started Organic Bouquet, the first national online distributor of organic flowers, in 2001.

Part of Prolman's mission is education, letting consumers know that if they're getting pesticide-free chocolate and wine for their valentine, they can also get their flowers without added chemicals. Many people who would probably want to buy organic flowers just don't know they're available, he said.

"This is a matter of supply and choice, rather than supply and demand," he said. "The more we make it available, the more people ask for it."

And his investment is paying off. After an initial struggle to introduce the idea and find suppliers, the company took off, tripling in size between 2004 and 2005. Now 85 percent of his flowers are organic, and the rest are on their way to becoming organic. This Valentine's Day, Organic Bouquet will ship 120,000 organic flowers to customers around the country.

Prolman gets most of his roses in Colombia, where he works with an organic grower who can offer lower costs. But he gets organic tulips, lavender, sunflowers and other summer bouquets here, and said he ultimately would like to rely more on local growers.

On Dautoff's 20-acre farm, an old wooden sign left over from when his parents started the business — Dautoff's Daisies — reminds him of the time when it was possible to make a living growing one flower, and a common one at that.

His foray into organic will also begin with one flower, but he hopes it will spread to his exotics and something bigger altogether.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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