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Woes of North County flower farmers

Soil, water, light, and money

“No one likes spraying. It’s going to cost me $12,000 this year to spray my flowers."
  • “No one likes spraying. It’s going to cost me $12,000 this year to spray my flowers."
  • Image by David Covey

The first year Andy Mauro went into the flower-growing business he lost $30,000. He didn’t know when to plant his cuttings, when to spray the young plants for insects, even when to harvest the blooms. “We kept looking at them and saying, ’When do you cut them? Should we wait, or what?’ ’’ he says, laughing at the memory. He eventually had to throw out six entire beds of chrysanthemums that year: about 60,000 flowers.

Nine years ago Andy Mauro tired of his job as an industrial economist for Copley International.

Nine years ago Andy Mauro tired of his job as an industrial economist for Copley International.

As he tells me this, Mauro is standing in one of the greenhouses he keeps behind his house in Cardiff. The morning sun is beginning to burn through the foggy air, and beneath the plastic cover of the greenhouse it is humid and warm. Everywhere around us, on spindly, four-foot-high stems, are chrysanthemums of all colors. The nearest ones are pale lavender, and their petals are just beginning to unfurl, revealing bright yellow centers.

David Thompson: "We have to maintain a junglelike temperature in our greenhouses, around sixty-five to seventy degrees Fahrenheit."

David Thompson: "We have to maintain a junglelike temperature in our greenhouses, around sixty-five to seventy degrees Fahrenheit."

In a few hours these flowers will be on their way to Albuquerque in a refrigerated truck, having been cut, wrapped in plastic for protection, and packed into cardboard boxes. In a day or two they will be on display in a New Mexico flower shop, and a few days after that they will grace some wedding or funeral where most of the folks in attendance won’t stop to think about San Diego County or its cut-flower industry. But an industry it is, and a flourishing one.

"The only people who come by looking for work are illegal aliens.”

"The only people who come by looking for work are illegal aliens.”

One tenth of all the flowers grown in the United States are grown in San Diego County, nearly all of them in a two-mile-wide strip along the coast near Cardiff, Encinitas, Leucadia, and Carlsbad. The crop was worth nearly $30 million last year, and when combined with potted plants, grown in large quantities locally, its total value was more than $60 million, making cut flowers and potted plants one of the county’s top three agricultural products (along with avocados and tomatoes).

"Right now I can’t even sell my normal weekly output, which is about 3000 bunches a week."

"Right now I can’t even sell my normal weekly output, which is about 3000 bunches a week."

In all, some sixty different varieties of flowers are grown here, with the majority of the acreage planted to carnations, chrysanthemums, roses, orchids, gladiolas, and birds of paradise.

Sheets of black polyethylene are used to cover the plants a few hours before sunset each evening.

Sheets of black polyethylene are used to cover the plants a few hours before sunset each evening.

The flowers like the same thing about this area that people do: the climate. And in particular, explains Seward Besemer, a farm advisor for the University of California’s Agricultural Extension, flowers prefer the coastal strip because of “the amount of light available, especially in the winter months.

Nine years ago, a worker earned just twenty-two dollars a week. But that’s up to $110 a week.

Nine years ago, a worker earned just twenty-two dollars a week. But that’s up to $110 a week.

The percentage of light available here year ’round compared to the rest of the U.S. is just tremendous. Coupled with that is a moderate temperature — warm in the winter and cool in the summer — and a relatively constant humidity. These things take the stress off flowers, and flowers grow a lot better without stress.”

But for the flower growers, the stress remains. In recent years they have had to cope with increasing problems, including competition from foreign growers, the encroachment of housing subdivisions on farming land, and restrictions on the use of pesticides. In an industry highly dependent on energy, the growers have been hit hard by the dizzying rise in the cost of electricity and natural gas. and competition has toughened to the point where many of the flowers grown cannot be sold; whole fields are sometimes left to wither and die. But overall, insists Besemer, the industry is healthy, and Andy Mauro, a past president of the San Diego County Flower Growers Association, agrees. “We’ve got our share of problems, but I don’t want to be in the position of doing nothing but complain,” he says. “It’s been a lucrative business for just about everybody in it.”

Mauro is thirty-six, with tousled, long-ish hair turning prematurely gray on the sides. His features are angular, and he has a sleepy, cynical look on his face much of the time. But Mauro is anything but sleepy; his wit is as quick as his laugh. Nine years ago he tired of his job as an industrial economist for Copley International, a marketing research firm in La Jolla that is owned by Copley Press, and decided he wanted to be in business for himself. Why flowers? “I had always enjoyed gardening in my back yard,” he says with a shrug.

Mauro Flowers is a small but typical flower-growing business along the northern San Diego County coast. Mauro’s three-and-a-half acres, located in a suburban neighborhood a half mile east of Interstate 5, include his house, a packing shed, and two-and-a-half acres of greenhouses. His office is a well-kept room with a cement floor and walls of rough, natural wood; it opens into the packing shed next to it. Mauro presides here five days a week, keeping the books, packing flowers into boxes for shipment, making frequent trips out into the greenhouses to supervise his six workers, and manning the telephones (“Mauro Flowers”). Like many growers, he specializes in growing one variety of flower, in his case, chrysanthemums, or “pompons” as they are known in the trade. In a year he will grow thirty-five or forty different varieties, but at any one time only ten or fifteen types are planted.

Leading the way through his packing shed and out into the greenhouse area, Mauro tells me how his flowers are grown. Cuttings are taken weekly from special “mother stock” plants, which Mauro buys from a large supplier in northern California, and stored in a cooler until it is time to plant them. “If you grow chrysanthemums in your garden, they’ll always bloom in the fall,” he explains. “Here we artificially manipulate them to make them bloom according to our schedule. Our biggest selling periods are Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, National Secretary Week, Easter, Christmas, and Thanksgiving, in that order, so that’s when we want our production to peak. Funerals and weddings create a certain amount of weekly demand, too, so we bring in flowers every week of the year.”

It takes ten to twelve weeks for a chrysanthemum to grow from a cutting to a mature, blooming plant, so roughly three months before a major holiday, Mauro takes his cuttings out of the cooler and begins to cultivate them. The cuttings first go to a “propagation area’’ — a single greenhouse where, automatically misted every fifteen minutes and specially lighted, the young plants develop a large root system. “While the plants are being propagated, we’re preparing our beds,” Mauro continues, stepping over to an empty greenhouse littered with yellowing plant shreds. Here the old plants have been plowed under by hand, he explains, and the bed will soon be steamed to kill the roots; otherwise last season’s chrysanthemums would sprout again, bearing inferior blooms. After two weeks in the propagation area, the cuttings are transplanted into the steamed and fertilized beds, and the growing begins in earnest.

Natural gas heaters equipped with fans keep the temperature in Mauro’s greenhouses at a minimum of sixty degrees Fahrenheit, but the buildings themselves, wooden frame structures covered on the roof and walls with sheets of clear polyethylene, are twenty-five years old now and beginning to show their age: the wood has faded and a few of the walls no longer stand rigidly upright. Still, the place isn’t run for looks. “Our gross sales last year were about $180,000,” Mauro tells me as we walk up toward one of the few greenhouses he has that now, in the slack season, contain almost fully grown chrysanthemums. “But the competition for sales is getting tougher all the time. Normally eighty percent of my output is presold to regular customers, most of them out of state. We supply the San Diego area, too, but we’re one of the major flower-producing areas in the United States, and San Diego can absorb just so much. But right now I can’t even sell my normal weekly output, which is about 3000 bunches a week [a bunch has twenty blooms]. At Mother’s Day this year I was selling 15,000 bunches a week. You have to come in with those extra flowers on the holidays for two reasons: one, you can get a decent price for them, as opposed to other times of the year when you’re barely breaking even; and two, your customers need the flowers then, and if you can’t supply them you’re going to lose them to someone else.”

Mauro likes to noodle around on a guitar in his off hours (“A few years ago some friends of mine and I got together and decided, ‘Damn it! We want to be rock and roll stars!’ ”), and last autumn, in an attack of giddiness brought on by slumping sales and burgeoning insect problems, he penned a thoroughly corny but only partly serious ditty entitled, “Flower Growing Man”:

  • They call me a flower-growing man
  • And I’m doing the best I can.
  • But sometimes it's really hell
  • When there ain’t no market, and / can’t sell.
  • And I ain’t no masochism fan.

We have reached the greenhouse; inside are six neat rows, fifty yards long, of three-foot-high chrysanthemums. The plants have thin green leaves shaped a little like giant oak leaves, and in the center of each plant a hud has formed. Mauro says this will soon be pinched off in order to force the plant to produce a greater number of side blooms. Above the flowers hang rows of standard light bulbs that Mauro uses to light his greenhouses during periods of prolonged cloudy weather. In most seasons, however, there is actually too much natural light, so sheets of black polyethylene are used to cover the plants a few hours before sunset each evening, and are removed a few hours after sunrise. The polyethylene-shortened days simulate the short days of autumn, and trigger the chrysanthemums’ blooming mechanism. “As soon as you start those short days the bud starts to form,’’ Mauro says. “At six weeks you can see it, and at seven weeks it’s starting to show a lot of color. At eight or nine weeks — ten or twelve in the winter, when they grow more slowly — we cut ’em.’’

As we stand talking in the doorway of the greenhouse, one of Mauro’s employees, a Mexican man who looks to be about forty, wearing a faded black shirt and a straw cowboy hat, enters the greenhouse carrying a thick hose. Kneeling, he connects it to a set of temporary plastic irrigation pipes that run the length of the flower beds, and begins to water the plants. Except for Mauro’s propagation area, where the newly planted cuttings are automatically lighted and misted with the aid of a few troublesome electronic timers, all of the tasks performed around the greenhouses are done by hand; plowing, steaming, and raking out the beds, watering, covering and uncovering the plants at night, cutting, and shipping. Like nearly all farmers in San Diego’s North County, Mauro employes mostly Mexicans for his workers, many of whom are in the country illegally. Another verse of “Flower Growing Man”:

  • Now / work all year for something to save;
  • Come Mother’s Day 1 finally have time to shave.
  • I can’t talk to my own crew
  • (If there’s any left after the Man comes through);
  • Don't want to grow no flowers for my grave.

“Actually, the only people who come by looking for work are illegal aliens,” Mauro says with a shrug. “I’d guess seventy to eighty percent of all the flower workers in the county are illegal aliens. We used to get raided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service all the time. They’d always come right before a major holiday. The workers would be rounded up and taken away, at a big loss of income to them and us, and they’d be back again in about four days. Now the INS seems to have changed its approach. I don’t exactly know what the new approach is, but they don’t bother us as much anymore. Officially, the growers would like to see the whole problem resolved through some sort of guest-worker program, or something.

“As it is, a new worker will make up a social security number with the right number of digits and go right to work. Then a few years later you get a letter from the social security people saying, ‘Will you please check on the social security number of Felipe so-and-so. . . .’ ” Mauro grins. “So the guy makes up a new number. What’s happening is, he’s supporting the social security system in the meantime.” We watch the man in the straw cowboy hat water the chrysanthemums for a few moments, and then Mauro adds, “It takes a good month for a new worker to become truly efficient. Gradually each one gets a specialty — certain things he does best — but there are always times when you have to do something else. In a business the size of mine you have to be able to do all the various jobs, fill in where you’re needed. My main talent around here is that I speak English.”

“Our operation is totally different from Andy Mauro’s,” said David Thompson. “We grow only roses and foliage plants, and to do that we have to maintain a junglelike temperature in our greenhouses, around sixty-five to seventy degrees Fahrenheit. It takes more finesse and physical structure than growing chrysanthemums — and I’m not bragging because I’m not the guy who grows the plants. I’ve got department managers who do that. My expertise is marketing and management. I only know enough about growing roses to get in trouble, and also to give a hell of a tour around this place.”

As he said this, Thompson was giving me a hell of a tour around his place. He is a young, bearded, enthusiastic man who talks at a rapid-fire pace, and as he spoke he was maneuvering an electric cart bearing the two of us, along with a large and gregarious female golden retriever, around the roads and narrow alleyways that separate his greenhouses. The Thompson Rose Company, located on Poinsettia Lane between Leucadia and Carlsbad, is the largest producer of roses in San Diego County; its multimillion-dollar sales are split roughly in half between foliage plants and roses, and Thompson reckons he shipped more than four million of the latter last year. With fifty acres of greenhouses (only fourteen of which are being actively used) and fifty or sixty workers, the Thompson Rose Company is also considerably larger than Mauro Flowers, and considerably more mechanized. Freshly cut roses are brought into Thompson’s cavernous packing house on a fleet of electric carts, and many of the flowers are then automatically sorted by a machine that separates them according to stem length. One entire wall of the packing house consists of huge walk-in coolers where the flowers are stored prior to shipment; in showing me one of these earlier, Thompson had mentioned it currently contained about 50,000 roses, and it looked less than a quarter full.

“We grow thirty-five different varieties of roses here,” Thompson said as we whooshed along in the cart, “and on the average they last five to eight years. But we’ve got computer printouts of every variety and its average yield on a dollars-per-square-foot-of-greenhouse basis, and once one of those rose plants shows up on the printout with its average price down, we yank it. You can’t afford to grow losers. For our size, we’re a very high-profile company, and we maintain that through efficiency, trying to outserve our competition, and by advertising the shit out of our flowers in trade magazines.

“Like Andy, we manipulate our greenhouse environment in order to reach peak production for the holidays, but roses are a little different from chrysanthemums. Once you pinch the blooms on a rose it takes about six weeks for them to grow back again. But as it turns out, from Christmas to Valentine’s Day is about six weeks, and it’s six weeks from Valentine’s Day to Easter, and Mother’s Day comes about six weeks after that. I don't know how that came about, but it couldn’t work out better if we had determined when the holidays come ourselves. But still, cold or dark weather can delay the blooming five or ten days, and that can kill you. We just do what we can and hope Mother Nature doesn’t dump on us.”

At the entrance to one of the greenhouses, Thompson brought the cart to a halt. I got off to open the sliding door (since surviving the crash of a light plane three years ago, Thompson has been confined to a wheelchair, a circumstance that seems only minimally to have limited his ability to get around), and after I got back on we drove into the greenhouse. The interior was immense. Green plants in reddish-brown plastic pots hung from beams everywhere, and the cement runways between plant-blocks were wide enough for the carts to drive on (although not wide enough to allow for passing, which, I soon discovered, can lead to comical mini-traffic jams that can only be resolved through a lot of backing up). With a shock I realized someone could run a one-hundred-yard dash in here and be surrounded at the start and finish by plants. Thompson explained that most of the individual pots are served by thin hoses off a main irrigation line and are watered automatically. He was practically beaming with pride. “I marvel every time I come in here,” he admitted a moment later.

We drove back outside and headed up toward a similarly sized greenhouse where Thompson’s roses are grown. On the way we glimpsed the enormous tract of suburban homes that sprang up just south of Thompson’s land a few years ago. He told me that so far, the proximity of the houses has caused fewer problems that he thought it would. “A few kids shoot bows and arrows at our greenhouses, and once some people complained that chemicals were wafting over in their direction. Overall it hasn’t been that bad.”

But the subdivision is also a symbol of a larger and more deeply rooted problem affecting all agriculture in the North County: the problem of population growth. The area’s high growth rate has led to high property values, and many flower growers (who were recently characterized by a fellow farmer as “part farmers, part land speculators”) decided they would like to cash in their investment by selling all or part of their land to housing developers. To their chagrin, they found that the California Coastal Commission stood in their way. Landowners are free to sell their property to anyone they like, of course, but in order to develop a parcel along the coast you need a permit from the commission. And one of the commission's legal obligations is to preserve the maximum amount of prime agricultural land along the coast (an admirable goal, considering the rate that San Diego County’s fourth largest industry and the jobs that go with it seem to be disappearing under the tide of new residents. From 1979 to 1980, the amount of land in the county planted to flowers alone decreased by more than one-third, from 1451 acres to 925 acres). Until recently, a developer who bought a coastal farm would have been gambling that the coastal commission would subsequently grant him a permit to develop it, a course of action not unheard of but not generally favored by the commission, either. Under the circumstances, if a flower grower let it be known his place was for sale, the buyers weren’t exactly lining up outside his door.

It began to look as if the issue would be settled once and for all by the commission's.San Dieguito local coastal plan (which encompasses the section of coast roughly from Solana Beach to Leucadia), and while the plan was taking shape over the last few years the flower growers readied their arguments. “You don’t eat flowers,” Andy Mauro has said, “and when you’re talking about greenhouse operations, most of the land isn’t suitable for food crops anyway. Just how important is it to legislate it into perpetual existence? Flowers aren’t a necessity, they’re a luxury. So what we do with our land is our business!” Mauro has also pointed out that developers are unlikely to purchase greenhouse farms to convert to housing, since the current value of a greenhouse operation in the North County is close to $300,(XX) an acre — $100,000 for the land and about $200,000 for the greenhouses. “It’s kind of hard for a developer to make money with that kind of investment,” he says dryly.

On May 21 this year, the state coastal commission reviewed the San Dieguito local coastal plan and recommended there be no restrictions imposed on converting greenhouse farms to housing; owners of a few large, specially designated parcels would be allowed to develop roughly forty percent of their land in return for creating a permanent agricultural preserve out of the remaining sixty percent. “The commission’s recommendations came about largely due to a very organized and united presentation by the flower growers,” one coastal commission official noted recently, a presentation that was led by Andy Mauro; but technically the commission rejected the San Dieguito plan on May 21 and returned it to the county for a number of changes and amendments. There is not yet any indication when or in what form the county will return the plan to the commission for final approval, but nearly everyone involved agrees the eventual procedure for the conversion of small farms to housing will follow the state commission’s recommendations.

The flower industry heartily welcomed those recommendations, but unfortunately, they will have little effect on growers such as David Thompson, whose property lies outside the boundaries of the San Dieguito plan. His fifty acres fall under the jurisdiction of the Carlsbad plan, where the coastal commission appears to be taking a sterner attitude toward the preservation of agricultural land. “I own this land, and it’s all paid for,” Thompson said as we entered another greenhouse and maneuvered down the aisles of roses. ”1 have no plans to develop right now, but I always figured that if 1 wanted to, I could get out of the business and have something to retire on. Now I don’t know.

“The thing is, my land is technically in the county, but I’m surrounded on three sides by land within the City of Carlsbad. There are plans right now to build developments on all three sides, and it’s my hope that eventually the coastal commission and the county will want to see us develop, too. I mean, we’re talking about multiple years before this happens, but one day this property will be part of the city. It’s inevitable.”

After showing me around his greenhouses full of roses, Thompson drove the cart back toward the packing house. On the way we passed a loading dock where several trucks were parked. A sign in Spanish was posted on a nearby wall, a notice to unemployed farm workers who might come by looking for a job. No hay trabajo, it read — ‘‘There is no work.”


On Friday morning not long ago, Isaac, a young Mexican with a stocky build and a trace of a mustache, stood in one of the greenhouses at Mauro Flowers and began to cut chrysanthemums. Examining the blooms to see which ones were ready for harvesting, he would stoop over, clip each stem down near the roots with a pair of small hand clippers, and then arrange the stems together into a bunch while holding them in front of him. Wrapping a small plastic tie around the bunch to hold it together, he would lay it across the wire grids that run through Mauro’s flower beds two feet off the ground (and which keep the flowers growing straight and tall), and then he would move on. It was nearly noon, and although the sun hadn’t yet broken through the cloud layer along the coast, it was hot. Occasionally chirping would erupt overhead as a few sparrows chased each other over the roof of the greenhouse, but for long periods as Isaac worked there was no sound other than the faint snip of his clippers.

In a few minutes Mauro appeared at the end of the greenhouse, and in broken Spanish, instructed another man, Jaime, to prepare to spray some plants with pesticide. I turned from watching Isaac and followed Mauro up to another one of his greenhouses, where he stopped in the entrance, eyeing the five-week-old plants inside uncertainly. Like other flower growers in the North County, Mauro has been assaulted in recent years by leaf miner, a tiny gnatlike insect that lays its eggs on the leaves of flowers. The larvae, when they hatch, eat their way across the leaves, marking them with yellow lines and making the plants unsalable. Last year Mauro lost twenty percent of his crop — about $35,000 — to leaf miner. The latest strain of the insects has proved almost impervious to the arsenal of pesticides available to flower growers, and only a chemical known as Pencap M has proved effective at all. Mauro was preparing to spray his chrysanthemums with Pencap M.

Pencap M is a class-two pesticide (in the parlance of agencies responsible for the licensing and control of pesticides, class one means acutely toxic, class two means highly toxic, and class three means moderately toxic), but because of its volatile nature it is listed as a restricted pesticide by the county department of agriculture. Under new statewide regulations effective the first of this year, growers planning to use any pesticide on the restricted list are supposed to give twenty-four-hour notice to the department before spraying (in addition to having first obtained a permit for its use), and have to file a report then about the spraying, its effect on the environment, and what will be done to moderate the damage. Practically speaking, though, the department of agriculture allows the growers to spray first and turn in the reports later. “They would drown in a sea of paperwork if we had to apply for permits twice a week,” Mauro told me. “This way, well, it’s an expedient way to handle it, but I think there’s some sense in it.”

Soon Jaime appeared wearing a full yellow rain suit, boots, a gas mask, and a helmet with a plastic shield to protect his face. He carried one end of a long yellow hose, connected at its other end to a small gasoline-powered pump with a tank of Pencap M on top of it. Fastening the big metal spraying head with three nozzles onto the end of the hose, Jaime turned toward us, and for a moment he seemed to have a helpless, almost embarrassed expression on his face as he stood there in his gas mask, helmet, and ridiculous yellow rain suit. Then he motioned for Mauro to go start the pump. In a few moments a fine mist of Pencap M was hissing out of the nozzles, and the sour, oily odor of pesticide came drifting out of the greenhouse. Jaime worked quickly, drenching the young plants with solution and gradually moving farther and farther into the greenhouse.

“The chemicals are most active before they dry,” Eddie Gray, the deputy commissioner for the county department of agriculture who is in charge of enforcing the new regulations on pesticides, told me a few days later. “The greatest danger is to the workers or the growers. In a greenhouse situation, the chemical doesn’t pose much of a threat to the surrounding environment — nine times out of ten. In this business you have to qualify everything you say.”

I asked Gray if the new regulations had reduced the use of pesticides, as the environmentalists who supported them had hoped, and he replied, “No, but then we didn’t really expect them to. They probably have reduced the number of pesticides available, because the licensing procedures were made stricter at the same time. And there is a more thoughtful use of many chemicals. But overall, I can’t say I’m really pleased with the new regulations. They cost the taxpayers a great deal of money and they add a lot of paperwork, and they don’t really restrict the use of pesticides.”

Mauro came up after starting the pump and stood next to me, watching Jaime work. “I’ve had to spray so often lately I’ve been doing it myself,” he commented, “but usually I contract with a spraying service. A lot of growers are doing that now to avoid hassling with all the safety precautions themselves. Plus, it’s easier than having one of your own guys do it. It’s a lousy job. I did it myself for the first few years I had this place, and it’s hotter than hell inside that suit. You take it off and you’re just soaked with perspiration, even on a day like today, when it’s not that hot.”

Mauro insisted he takes a number of steps to prevent pests from appearing in the first place, including weeding diligently and ploughing his old plants under soon after the blooms are cut. But as for using state-of-the-art alternatives to pesticides, such as predator insects, he complained that certain predators eat only certain pests; and anyway, no predator insects have been discovered that would aid flower growers to any great extent. “How much of the crop would be lost to pests if no pesticides were used?” Seward Be-semer repeated when I asked him about the subject. “We don’t know, and we don’t dare try to grow the crop without pesticides! I would guess you’d lose fifty to eighty percent, a lot of it just due to aesthetics. If you’ve got a grapefruit that looks bad on the outside, you might still be able to eat it, but if a flower doesn’t look good it simply can’t be sold. You’re dealing with a crop where you almost need zero damage to be able to market it.”

“No one likes spraying,” Mauro continued as we peered into the greenhouse where Jaime was spraying Pencap M. “It’s a problem. All I know is, it’s going to cost me $12,000 this year to spray my flowers, because of the various regulations, and that's about five times what it used to. I hope it’s for valid environmental reasons, but I don’t have much faith in the government bureaucracies that regulate these things.”

The restrictions on the use of pesticides is a particularly sore point for the flower growers because, in many of the foreign countries beginning to export large quantities of flowers to the United States, the use of pesticides is virtually unlimited. In the last six years, Colombia, in particular, has captured nearly all of the market in the eastern and southern United States; only half of the flowers sold nationwide are now grown on American soil. The higher cost of American flowers is caused primarily by the high cost of labor here, and some companies, Mauro said, are taking the drastic step of relocating in countries where the labor is cheap.

Mickey Ivicevic, owner of Townsend Flowers in Encinitas, is one of those growers, and when I contacted him by phone a few days later he cheerfully told me about the peculiarities of growing flowers on foreign soil. Originally a tomato grower, Ivicevic said his prices were undercut for so long by the Mexican tomato growers in Baja California that he had to close down his operation. When he entered the cut-flower business, he had learned his lesson; he found a Mexican partner and bought fifty-five acres of land about thirty-two miles south of the border, on Baja’s Pacific coast. “We grow a little of everything there,” he told me. “Carnations, mainly, but about fifteen or eighteen varieties altogether. The climate is almost identical to Encinitas. It’s unbelievable.”

Ivicevic said the main advantage of doing business in Baja used to be the low cost of labor — when he first started growing flowers there nine years ago, a worker earned just twenty-two dollars a week. But that’s up to $110 a week now, he said, and with that increase most of the advantage of being located in Mexico has evaporated. Ivicevic’s trucks shuttle back and forth between his fields in Baja and his packing house in Encinitas (where he also raises flowers on about eighty acres), and increasingly he has had to rely on payoffs to stay in business. The Mexican authorities can legally hold a vehicle for seventy-two hours without filing charges, and they know Ivicevic’s trucks are often full of flowers, which would wilt in that time; so Ivicevic has to pay them $175 a month to not stop his trucks. In addition, the proper pesticides for growing flowers are not available or legal in Baja, and Ivicevic claims his crop would decline dramatically without them; so he brings them down to Baja in his trucks and pays officials from the Mexican department of agriculture $250 a month to not come around and check which pesticides he is using.

“Overall, our production costs in Baja are still only about seventy percent of what they are in the U.S.,” Ivicevic continued, “but I think we’re going to see a big change in the business down there. You can see the trend already. It’s getting harder and harder for my partner and I to make it because we don’t have any friends high up in the government. Meanwhile, the people with connections are expanding, really going to town. One guy near us already has 1000 acres planted; he’s invested one million dollars just in the last year. I think most of the Americans doing business down there will get out pretty' soon. I really believe the Mexican government is going to take over.”

Ivicevic’s assessment is shared by most of the flower growers in San Diego County, many of whom worry that Baja flowers will soon be competing in a big way on the American market. “I’ll give Mexico five years before they’re giving us fits,” says David Thompson. “Some of us will survive, some of us won’t.”

Ironically, Thompson currently relies on Mexico, and particularly Tijuana, as a place to unload his excess and inferior flowers. Many of the growers in San Diego County do the same; although the disposable income in Mexico is practically nonexistent, Thompson notes, Mexicans are enamored of flowers in a way that Americans aren’t, and provide a convenient (if less profitable) market for locally grown flowers. That, too, could change once Baja grows its own.

“We’re gearing up for it,” Mauro said of Mexico’s entry into the cut-flower business, adding with a short laugh a moment later, “I don’t mean to imply we can really do anything about it. We’re just getting nervous.” He was back in his office off the packing shed, sitting behind his desk. It was nearly noon, and most of his workers were spending their lunch hour on the Little League field next door, kicking around a soccer ball. Now and then their distant shouts came drifting over to us through the warm summer air. Mauro said that rather than compete head-to-head with the Mexican growers, the American floral industry might cooperate with them to try to expand the market, “put our money in the same pot and try to increase consumption.” The average European spends four times as much on flowers as the average American does, he pointed out, glancing in the direction of the packing shed as if he were imagining orders pouring in for the chrysanthemums that were now slowly wilting on the other side of the door. "There are cultural and racial differences between Europe and the U.S., but we have a lot in common, too,” he said. “The potential is there.”


A few days later I phoned Mauro to recheck some of the things he’d told me. “By the way,” I said after we had gone over a few items, “you told me your business, including your house, was worth about half a million dollars, right?”

“Right,” he replied. “It’s up for sale if you want to buy it.”

“No kidding!” I was genuinely surprised. Mauro had spent the last nine years learning the flower business; he knew it well, and I admired the independence he had and the way it seemed to suit him.

“Yeah,” he continued, “the market to sell a place like this hasn’t been very good for the last few years, but now that it looks like these coastal commission regulations have cleared up, I think people will get interested again.”

“You’re getting out of the business completely?” I persisted.

“Uh-huh. I can reinvest the money and just live off the interest.”

“Hmmm,” I said, beginning to see his reasoning. “I bet you could, with a chunk of change like that. Let’s see, fifteen percent on half a million is . . . geez, maybe I should get into the flower business! So you’re just going to kick back, won’t even have to work at all?”

“Well, I want to get started on my second career, too,” Mauro admitted. “I want to be a writer.”

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