Its springtime and flowers across Carpinteria Valley are in full bloom in one of the nation’s largest cut flower producing regions. But, as the historically busiest time of the year approaches—Easter and Mother’s Day holidays—Carpinteria’s flower growers have been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, and some now fear they might not survive to next spring’s harvest.
On Foothill Road, the corridor for Carpinteria’s flower basket, farm workers from MOBI’s trucked hundreds of bouquets of gerberas to give away to passersby. “Free flowers, brighten someone’s day,” read one of their signs. Westerlay’s orchids popped up at Corktree Cellars and Peebee & Jays, free with purchases. Bunches of Hilltop Flowers’ carnations were handed out across the city. Ocean Breeze posted lilies at Risdon’s 76 on Via Real. Soon free flowers were spotted elsewhere, delivered to Carpinteria Children’s Project, Shepard Place and GranVida, and dropped off on doorsteps of friends and family. The flowers became known as “kindness” flowers and many people took to social media to say how the fresh cut blossoms had brightened their day.
The kindness flowers are a small portion of the hundreds of thousands of flowers from Carpinteria that were cultivated for the spring season and will not make it to market. The problem: flower growers can’t get their blooms to customers. Ninety-nine percent of the trucks that carry flowers across the country have suspended service, said Karen Graf of Hilltop Flowers. The Los Angeles and San Diego flower markets have been shut down and grocery store chains have suspended purchasing. Orders have been canceled from the mass markets to the local florists.
Graf has had to destroy thousands of bunches of flowers and will continue to do so. “There’s flowers in the field that we won’t be able to harvest and those will just die and get mulched back into the soil. We also lost everything in our cooler because nobody is buying anything.”
“It’s pretty bleak,” said Graf who has been donating her family farm’s flowers to Shepard Place and Carpinteria Children’s Project. “The positiveness comes out and I would rather give it away to bring joy… It’s not the first time we’ve had to throw product away for one reason or another, but this is a time when people really need something to brighten their day.”
Westerlay Orchids has also taken a big hit, said owner Toine Overgaag, with Westerlay’s sales down 80 percent in the past two weeks. On an average year, Easter and Mother’s Day make for the company’s biggest quarter. “The timing is as bad as it gets,” said Overgaag. “We’re going to consider ourselves fortunate if our revenue is cut in half this year.”
Typically, Westerlay sells 50,000 orchids in a week. This week, they sold 20 percent and either gave away or had to destroy the rest. Orchids aren’t often shipped, so Westerlay’s issue has not been with trucks, but with supermarket supply chains and warehouses. Supermarkets are using all their warehouse space to restock goods that are getting depleted quickly from store shelves—items like toilet paper, paper towels, bottled waters, dry and canned goods. “Our biggest customers, the supermarkets, are extraordinarily busy. Their supply chain is getting really squeezed,” said Overgaag. “As people are looking for toilet paper and such, they can’t get other things in.”
“We’ve been here since 1978, and there’s a very real chance we don’t make it through this,” said Overgaag. “In 2008-09, that was an absence or reduction of demand. This is we can’t get product to the market. It’s very different and its scary.” Last week, the company had to lay off 20 percent of its employees and reduced hours for all others.
Westerlay has already destroyed about 10,000 plants and that number will jump dramatically in the next couple weeks if the market doesn’t return. Potentially, the company could destroy as many as 300,000 plants this season.
This week, Westerlay will donate 10,000 plants to Cottage Hospital, Kaiser Permanente and Sansum Clinic. “It’s nice to give to people on the front lines; it’s just a small token,” said Overgaag. “And, it’s starting to get a little better, there’s a bit of a ray out there.”