Santa Maria Sun / News
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 17
Lompoc's once prolific flower-seed industry has only a few acres left, but tradition hangs on
BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
The story of agriculture is one of cycles.
Mustard, sugar beets, beans, dairies, and flower seeds have all had their decades in the windy sun of the Lompoc Valley, but the pleasant days of fragrant floral abundance have hung on the longest—at least for tradition’s sake, if not more.
Seed growers have either vanished or moved their businesses south—way, way south, like thousands of miles south—but flowers still seem to be synonymous with Lompoc, and so the Lompoc Flower Festival rages on, seemingly in cahoots with the few acres of seeded summer color that stubbornly stick around because of Lompoc’s climate.
Ken Ostini, president and CEO of the Lompoc Chamber of Commerce, said he tries to let people know the late June festival has morphed over the last few decades.
“People used to come and there were tour buses that used to take people on tours of the flower fields. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen anymore,” Ostini said, adding that the festival is “more of a tradition than anything else.”
“Will that change?” he asked. “Possibly.”
Not to worry, though. The parade held on June 28 was still a locally supplied, gigantic-flower-covered floats affair, and the Chamber of Commerce has maps that point to where Lompoc is continuing to bloom.
Heading west down Central Avenue, across the street from Lompoc’s welcome sign, a rainbow of dahlias sidles up next to tiny purple rows of alyssum. Populating about an acre of the remaining five that Ball Horticultural Company has left in the valley, the beds are a short drive from the company’s mostly empty local office on Floradale Avenue.
Area manager Budd LaRue has watched over flower seeds in Lompoc since the 1970s. He’s worked for the gamut of industry giants that once sowed thousands of acres between the town’s urban edges and the Pacific Ocean. Now he travels out of the country eight or more times a year as the production manager for California and Chile.
“I think we’ll be gone in a year,” LaRue said of operations in Lompoc. “The numbers don’t look good.”
In two years, his local staff shrunk from 12 people to three and his acres from 230 to five. Why have seeds gone to the wayside? The answer’s a simple matter of economics.
First of all, people don’t really buy seeds anymore; they generally buy plants from a nursery. And second, it’s less expensive to grow flowers elsewhere. LaRue said land and labor in Chile is cheaper, and the South American country’s climate is similar to California. Add to that fewer people, less urbanization, and an un-dammed water flow, and it’s easy to understand the shift south.
“If we don’t get a lot of rain here, the water has a high salt content, and the plants don’t do as well,” LaRue said. “That’s not something we run into in Chile because the river water is all snowmelt, so it’s very high-quality water.”
He spoke quietly, but matter-of-factly about the southward shift. It’s just the way things go. Agriculture is cyclical, just like anything else. He’s seen thousands of flower-covered acres disappear. Some of those acres were snatched up for urban development in the 1980s and ’90s. The rest were taken over by crops that could produce more than one harvest a year.
LaRue said he bets more acreage is now dedicated to flowers that are cut for fresh bouquets than those that are harvested for their seed. Even the sweet-pea-growing giant Bodger Seeds finally packed up what was left of its seed shop a few years ago. Sweet peas were what Lompoc was known for at one point in time.
“There’s nothing like a nice breeze and the sun in a sweet pea field. The fragrance—there’s nothing like it,” he said. “So it’s a very nice industry to be in … but it’s not nice when your job is being exported.”
Luckily, the Dutch company that bought Bodger’s sweet pea varieties wanted them grown in Lompoc. Campbell Ranches got that contract and grows around 40 varieties of the vine-like flower on 60 acres of land in the lower valley.
Sweet peas grow extremely well on the west side of Lompoc. The climate is perfect, according to Campbell Ranches owner Bob Campbell. Campbell added that the Dutch must think so, too, or they would have taken their seeds and hightailed it back to Europe.
Alternating seas of color patchwork across the land east of Artesia Avenue. The wind whips along the petal-covered tops that protect soon-to-be-harvested seed pods. Each brisk flush of air blows the sugary perfume off sweet pea petals.
Campbell plans to begin his seed harvest during the first week of July. The flower bounty is just one of the man varieties the company pulls from the earth.
The farmer’s foray into seeds began 20 to 30 years ago with vegetables including cauliflower, broccoli, celery, and parsley. Campbell Ranches survives off of diversification: growing more than just flowers, and doing more than just harvesting. Through their contracted farmland with Lompoc Valley Seed and Milling and Lompoc Valley Cooling, the Campbells can do everything from planting to selling the finished product, whether it’s a dried bean or a head of broccoli.
Campbell’s business has evolved over decades because it had to; that’s the cycle of things. He started out dry farming beans and barley in 1970, and almost lost it all a couple of years later because of a few bad harvest years.
“So we scratched our way out of the hole, and I decided right then that I needed to diversify so I wouldn’t have all my eggs in one basket,” Campbell said. “This was the flower seed capital of the world in the ’60s and ’70s, and that’s pretty much gone. This is a world marketplace, and I believe that as time goes on, as a grower, you’ve got to be willing to make the changes necessary to keep growing.”
Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at firstname.lastname@example.org.