Rose Parade 2013: California's once-dominant flower industry struggles to regain market share

Cal Poly Pomona student Nelson Chang unloads one of a dozen steel and foam penguin sculptures that will be covered with California-grown flowers and displayed on the university's Rose Parade float.
Cal Poly Pomona student Nelson Chang unloads one of a dozen steel and foam penguin sculptures that will be covered with California-grown flowers and displayed on the university's Rose Parade float.
Sharon McNary

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Pasadena's annual Rose Parade began as a promotional stunt trumpeting the region's year-round growing season. But today, most of the blooms come from Colombia and other countries. 

On a breezy day just before Christmas, a dozen Cal Poly University student volunteers unload a giant penguin from their truck of Rose Parade float supplies. This and other penguins sculpted of metal, screen and foam will soon be covered in flowers -- California flowers. And that makes them unique.

Just two of 41 floats in Tuesday's parade will be certified as California Grown by the state Food and Agriculture secretary. South Pasadena's giant sailing ship is one. Cal Poly's float, Tuxedo Air -- a penguin wearing an engine backpack poised to fly off a ski ramp, is the other.

Cal Poly Pomona student Nelson Chang says some of the flowers -- like tiny white statice petals that stand in for snow  -- grow on the Pomona and San Luis Obsipo campuses.

"We grow our statice based on the coloring we want for each float year. So this year since it is Tuxedo Air and we are in the penguin and an Arctic environment we decided to use white statice," he said.

But the students can't grow all the flowers they need, So some of the state's 225 big flower farms are donating blooms to Cal Poly's float, he said.

California's two-float showing in the Rose Parade reflects the state's declining share of the flower market. In the past 20 years, the state has lost half its flower growers.

Some 80 percent of cut flowers sold in the U.S. today come from outside the country, most from Colombia and Ecuador.

"Whether it's a grocery store or it's the Rose Parade, we see a dominance of imports now in the marketplace that weren't there when, obviously, the Rose Parade got started," said Kasey Cronquist, CEO of the California Cut Flower Commission. He said federal trade enacted policy 20 years ago ushered in a supermajority of a market share coming in from imports.

Colombia's flower industry took off in the 70s and 80s. To give the Colombian economy an alternative to drug production, the U.S. Congress eliminated import fees on Colombian flowers in 1991. In exchange, Colombia had to meet annual anti-drug goals.

That same year, California's 500 flower growers banded together into the state-chartered, farmer-run Cut Flower Commission, it's mission to protect .  But the industry had already taken a the first big hit in what has become a 20-year slide.

"You saw a lot of investment both by our government and their government helping to build these flower farms which eventually became very tough competition for any domestic flower farm, certainly in California," Cronquist said.

Despite a shift of drug production into Mexico, Congress has continued to prop up the Colombian flower industry. Last year, lawmakers passed the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which lifted remaining export barriers -- over California growers' objections.

So flower growers have shifted their tactics. They hope to lower costs by consolidating shipping. And they are making a big publicity play. They're donating flowers to the Cal Poly Rose Parade float and asking consumers to look for flowers with a little blue license plate logo that reads "CA GROWN."

"We have been working really hard at helping people understand why CA flowers are America's flowers," Cronquist said. "Obviously we can do year-round production, and we are the local choice."

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo landscape architecture student Harrison Bergholz, who helped oversee the Penguin float decoration, said he's  saddened that more of his peers aren't using locally-grown blooms.

"California was the largest producer of roses in the world, and back then that was the case, they were grown in Carpinteria and other areas because we had the perfect weather. Now most of them are grown in Colombia and other South American regions such as that for a cheaper price," he said. "It's taking away from the tradition."