At this point, it would probably take less time to name the industries that haven’t been negatively impacted by the outbreak of COVID-19 than those that have, and among the latter is Santa Barbara County’s flower and plant growers.
As grocery stores and supermarkets find their shelves getting stripped bare of pasta, canned goods, frozen foods, cleaning supplies, and most popularly, toilet paper, some have chosen to prioritize their space for new shipments of those items over flowers and potted plants. This change has left wholesale flower and plant growers in Santa Barbara County without crucial pipelines for getting out its products, which consist of millions of plants grown annually.
Erin Caird, director of sales and marketing at Santa Barbara-based Por La Mar Nursery, didn’t mince words about the precarious state in which wholesale growers have found themselves since certain stores stopped accepting shipments for a month.
“This zero shipping has annihilated our industry,” she told the News-Press.
Specializing in gladiolus flowers and various kinds of potted green plants, Por La Mar has been able to continue shipping its products to markets like Trader Joe’s, Gelson’s, Lazy Acres, and Vons. While Ms. Caird preferred not to state the names of those that have put a freeze on shipments, she did say that some of them are out of state. As a result of certain grocery stores not accepting Por La Mar’s plants and flowers, the nursery’s sales are far below normal, the past two weeks seeing sales impacted as much as 70%. Of course, if Por La Mar does not sell its products that are now ready for stores, it won’t be able to sell the same plants when this crisis abates.
“Our products don’t sit on a bench and wait for a month. They’re growing and then they’re dying,” she said.
It may not rise to the level of a silver lining, but Ms. Caird said Por La Mar could have been hit even harder if it, like many commercial growers, grew holiday flowers such as Easter lilies. Holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day are especially busy times for wholesale growers and according to Ms. Caird, the particularly short window in which seasonal flowers like Easter lilies are purchased makes them a loss leader for nurseries. In an effort to improve carbon footprints, Por La Mar elected to not do seasonal flowers this year and instead focused on green plants.
For Carpinteria-based flower grower Westerlay Orchids, the upcoming Easter holiday is especially important. As the company is supposed to send out its Easter shipments this week, grocery stores ceasing to accept its orchids is a hard blow at a crucial time. According to Westerlay Orchids President Toine Overgaag, his company’s recent sales are diminished to a similar level as Por La Mar’s. This week’s sales were down 70%, but it marks a slight improvement over last week, which had sales down 80%.
Though the cancelled shipments place Mr. Overgaag in a difficult situation, he is sympathetic to the fact that the grocery stores are also facing challenges in the coronavirus crisis. The big one is that they can’t keep a number of items in stock.
“Our supermarket partners are also in a really difficult position. There’s been a massive run on these stores,” Mr. Overgaag said.
Because items like pasta, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies fly off store shelves as soon as they’re stocked, not only are supermarkets’ demands for these products higher, but distributors are reallocating more delivery trucks to such items at the expense of flowers and plants.
“There’s a question of space and there’s a question of bodies that are able to move the products,” Mr. Overgaag said.
Trucking companies repurposing vehicles normally used for shipping flowers to transporting foodstuffs has also enormously hurt Carpinteria-based businesses Gallup & Stribling Orchids and Westland Floral. According to Alexander Van Wingerden, the owner of both businesses, stores cutting off shipments is an enormous hit that exacerbates challenges the companies have faced due to California’s increasing labor costs, and competition from abroad.
“Part of the issue is that it’s been a difficult journey for us because foreign imports have been outcompeting us in price… As long as the cost of labor goes up in California, we’ve already been really stressed, and this has been really hurting it,” he said.
In order to adapt to the state of the world today, floral companies are seeking new ways of selling their products. To try making up for its lost carriers, both of Mr. Van Wingerden’s businesses have started transporting flowers through FedEx for shipment directly to customers’ homes.
Although the proprietors of Westerlay Orchids are looking for creative ways to keep selling large quantities of flowers, they haven’t yet come up with a definitive alternative. There’s the possibility of selling flowers online, but Mr. Overgaag admitted that this is an underdeveloped aspect of his business. Given the delicate situation, it’s one his company is trying to bolster in a hurry. Since it has found its pipelines cut off, Westerlay has been making many donations to healthcare facilities such as the Sansum Clinic. However, this of course isn’t a solution to the problem that Westerlay and its industry at large faces.
“Ultimately we’re doing a lot of donations, but we can’t continue to give stuff away if we want to stay in business,” he said.
As is the case with many commercial flower and plant growers in Santa Barbara County, Por La Mar Nursery, Westerlay Orchids, and Westland Floral are family owned businesses that have been around for decades. In 1971, Mr. Van Wingerden’s parents founded Westland Floral and the family expanded its activity in the local industry decades later by purchasing Gallup & Stribling Orchids in 2013. Mr. Overgaag’s father Joop Overgaag founded Westerlay Orchids in 1978, just after Mr. Overgaag’s family moved to California from the Netherlands. Por La Mar Nursery was founded by Ms. Caird’s parents in 1972, humbly beginning as a side hustle that involved her parents selling potted plants out of an orange Volkswagen van. 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of her family’s nursery, and Ms. Caird has been looking forward to the possibility of her son and niece coming aboard at some point to chart the company’s future. Because the COVID-19 crisis is such an unprecedented situation with seismic economic impact, she can only hope that the nursery finds a way to weather this storm and see both come to fruition.
“I’m the second generation. We’re hoping for a third, but the world has seen nothing like this,” Ms. Caird said.