About two weeks ago, I was surrounded by “slow” florists, flower farmers, and flower enthusiasts from around the country at the 4th annual Slow Flowers Summit. on the final day, I spent the day touring two of the largest and oldest operating flower farm businesses in the US, in Watsonville, California: Kitayama Brothers and CamFlor.
Touring these operations — with their mind-blowing acreage and labyrinthine coolers full of dozens of cut flower varieties — was an eye-opening capstone to the three day conference, which began Monday June 28th in Woodside, CA at the Filoli Historic House and Garden (a crazy / beautiful place I recommend touring if you’re into visiting local gardens when you travel).
For the two days prior to these farm tours, I was immersed in the most intimate-feeling gathering of about 150 bonafide flower nerds, and an ongoing conversation via presentations, design demos and hands-on workshops around what’s new in the “slow flowers” (and slow floristry) movement. Indeed, I was mainly surrounded by relatively small-scale growers (maybe 2-20 acres) and local neighborhood/town florists were participating in the Summit. a lot of our discussion covered where floristry is headed (a very sustainable and inspired direction, for sure) and thanks to some speakers, there was also reflection about how we got here: a turning point in floriculture history, where once again, young farmers are taking up flower farming and building small businesses in towns across the country, helping people connect with land and the healing power of flowers and providing meaningful employment through (mostly) regenerative/sustainable agriculture.
Our first stop on the farm tour was to Kitayama Brothers, a second generation Japanese-owned flower farm, currently run by Robert Kitayama (son/nephew of founders Ray and Tom), a farm that in many ways helps keep alive some fascinating floral history. There is a long and rich history of Japanese horticulture, farming and floriculture in California and other parts of the US — a history equal parts tragic and triumphant. Following World War II, brothers Ray and Tom landed in the East Bay and trained under renowned growers/nurserymen Yoshimi Shibata of Mt. Eden nursery and Dan Shinoda of San Lorenzo Nursery. They eventually founded Kitayama Brothers.
Like so many industries, flower farming in California was fueled by immigrants, who came to the US with strong and skilled agrarian backgrounds. Chinese, Japanese and Italian immigrants represented the largest populations of flower farmers across the US in the late 1800s/early 1900s. In what was perhaps US floriculture’s first heyday prior to WWII, circa 1930, there were 80 independent Japanese nurseries in the Bay Area! It was Japanese growers who established the California Flower Growers Association in 1906, a first of its kind cooperative. In 1912, The Southern California Flower Growers Association formed in Los Angeles, with 54 Japanese flower growers as shareholders. Other cooperatives popped up up and down the state, creating wholesale markets for flower farmers to sell. No doubt, California’s climate dry and sunny climate helped these farmers to thrive.
At the same time, discrimination against growing immigrant populations (mainly Chinese and Japanese) resulted in discriminatory Alien Land Laws, preventing land ownership (the quickest path to accruing wealth). “California passed the Alien Land Law of 1913 prohibiting aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning land, and adding a prohibition against aliens ineligible for citizenship from possessing long-term leases. Families and communities navigated their way around the law. Some created corporations to purchase land on behalf of Japanese immigrants, others purchased land through white intermediaries, and others purchased land in the names of their U.S.-born citizen children.”
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the US entered WWII, “Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, resulting in the forced relocation into internment camps of nearly 120,000 Japanese in the U.S. for the duration of the war. [Following this], Southern California Flower Market member growers evacuated and their market facilities were leased to non-Japanese growers. Japanese growers wouldn’t return to the wholesale market until 1946 - CAFSG, California Association of Flower Growers & Shippers.
There is so much more of this complex, startling and fascinating history of the flower boom times in California. Learning about the rise and fall of the US flower market really helps provide prospective on where we are now, and helps us to pause and re-think how we could re-grow a vibrant, inclusive, floriculture industry today. Remember: today, 80% of all flowers purchased in the US are grown overseas.
One other key piece of this history was the launch of the Bracero program in 1942, a guest worker program enacted in partnership by the US and Mexico that brought ~4 million Mexicans to the US to work as farm laborers. The US was concerned about a loss of farm labor during the war, and quickly moved to make it easier for Mexicans to immigrate, promising fair wages and housing. The program well outlasted the war, ending in 1964. However, in many cases farmer-owners didn’t fulfill their promises. Mexican farmworkers later formed United Farm Workers, which continues to fight inequities and broken promises of the Bracero era. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Latinos began participating in US floriculture as growers and wholesalers, (as opposed to wage laborers).
And so, when visiting our second farm on the tour, CamFlor, I felt such admiration and respect for this 35 year old Latino-run/Mexican-founded family business. Camflor was founded by the Campos family in 1980, after they migrated to the US from Mexico. Carlos Cardoza toured us through their incredible coolers, which were filled floor to ceiling with buckets upon buckets of freshly cut flowers – dozens of varieties, and so many colors and textures within each. The majority of the leadership team at Camflor is Latino; similarly, ownership at Kitayama is still within the family.
By today’s standards, these two farms are quite large. Still, Kitayama Brothers has shrunk considerably in the last 50 years. In the 1940s-50s, they had 40 acres (about 2 million square feet) under glass greenhouses, and were the largest cut flower Carnation growers in California! By 1970, they had 5 million square feet of flowers, with roses as their largest crop. As Robert Kitayama explained to us on our tour, when South American farmers began producing and importing flowers like Carnations and Roses at less than half the price, California growers couldn’t compete (a refrain I’ve heard again and again from US flower growers who’ve been in the business long enough to have experienced the radical shift brought about by refrigerated air shipment).
By 1970, about 70% of all flowers purchased in the US were grown overseas, and half of California’s flower growers had gone out of business. Kitayama Brothers downsized to their current location in Watsonville. Their fair still felt gigantic to me; ithe growers I work with in the tri-state area, grow on average anywhere from 1 – 10 acres. Kitayama Brothers has pivoted many times, and continues to stay innovative and flexible in their crop plan, so that they can stay in business and continue to provide beautiful, fresh flowers and meaningful employment. Their business acumen, while still not an organic operation, is still an inspiration and I believe we have so much to learn from their expertise in growing and selling specialty cut flowers.
Working my way backwards… On the second day of the Summit, we had a very moving presentation from Abra Lee, someone whose work I’ve been so grateful to learn from starting last year. Abra founded Conquer the Soil in 2016. She is a “speaker, writer, proud Southerner [from Atlanta], and the reigning hype woman of Black garden history.” The root of her brand, “Conquer the Soil,” she described as coming from the words of W.E.B. DuBois, “the first black man to graduate from Harvard with a pHD. He wrote “The Souls of Black Folks” (in 1901) and in it, said Abra, he “illustrated the three gifts that enslaved Africans brought to the Americas: their gift of story and song, their gift of spirit, and their gift of strength and brawn, which he described as their ability to ‘conquer the soil’ and build the land that we are on here today.” It felt so important to hear Abra name this truth underpinning our agricultural history, and legacy of discrimination and disenfranchisement of Black Americans in the US.
Abra proceeded to give a breathtaking talk called “The History of Black American Florists.” Through her talk, we learned about an incredibly rich tradition of flower growing, vending, and design spearheaded by Black women in the south, north and midwest going at least as far back as 1870! Over the course of an hour, we learned about 10 different women in various southern and midwestern states who persevered in the early days post-emancipation, to farm flowers, to start their own small businesses, and to claim and take up space doing what they loved, modeling and spreading the joy and healing and beauty of flowers. Their resilience and their connection and love for plants, in spite of such brutal history and trauma, leaves me speechless.
Part of why I donate 15% of the profits from the Seasonal Flower Project is to support historically/institutionally disenfranchised Black and Indigenous farmers to acquire land and build farm businesses. It was incredibly inspiring to learn this history of formerly-enslaved Black women (or who descended from enslaved family) who specifically loved to cultivate, sell, and design with flowers. Personally, I’m committed to supporting a more culturally diverse floriculture industry here in my local region. as a former grower (2005-2019), i know firsthand that Sharing the joy of flowers is incredible, and all the more so when you grow the flowers yourself. It is such a labor of love. (It has to be when you’re paid minimum wage to work in every type of weather, 7 days a week, and rarely take a vacation). Yet, still, in many ways is a privilege to farm, given the intense start up capital costs, the low wage reality, and the barriers to land ownership. farmland is being purchased by the wealthiest 1%; becoming land owners is far out of reach for the vast majority of people, many of whom are struggling to pay off student loans.
I believe that it’s not enough to simply support the small, and fierce, (and majority-white) community of young flower farmers. I want to be sure that my business is making a conscious choice to invest in the growth of a culturally diverse farming population that can shower their communities with the healing power of flowers and bring their creativity and ingenuity to both the regenerative agriculture and floristry spaces.
That means building in some form of reparations as a community. As Abra so perfectly encapsulated in her talk, the riches, wealth and prosperity of the United States simply wouldn’t be without the perseverance of enslaved Africans and the generations that followed, who continue to face racism, violence, oppression at every turn. and so, I want to actively support the decolonization of the farming/floristry space, by doing what I can to send funds to folks who want to farm, build seed companies, and small floristry businesses with capital. all subscribers to the seasonal flower project are enabling these small acts of reparations. we were able to donate $4000 last month to various BIPOC-led operations and land reparations organizations.
I personally had the honor of speaking on the “Sustainable Farming and Floral Design” panel this year, along with moderator Kellee Matsushita-Tseng and Emily Adelia Saeger. Kellee is a farmer and educator at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, UC Santa Cruz (where I first properly trained as an organic flower grower in 2008!). Kellee focuses on growing seed keepers, creating pathways for people to connect to ancestral foodways, and cultivating seed stewards that are rooted in community. They are a founding member of the Second Generation Seeds growers collective, a collective of Asian American growers devoted to the preservation and improvement of heirloom Asian herbs and vegetables. Emily is a farmer and floral artist currently studying landscape architecture and dreaming up new ways to integrate green space with affordable housing.
I really enjoyed tapping into Kellee’s thought-provoking, timely questions that drive to the heart of what’s coming up in the slow flowers movement now, and i invite you to do the same:
In what way does education about local flowers become incorporated into your work? How do you think we can successfully shift flower culture.
How do you envision local/organic flowers becoming accessible for all communities to celebrate the rites of passage, ceremonies, and to enjoy the beauty and sensory delight of fresh cut flowers?
Can you share about a particular plant native to your bioregion that is currently inspiring or driving your work? What is your approach to incorporating local/native/regionally specific botanicals into your work?
What does it look like to re-story our connection to land through slow flowers?
Is there a tension between what you want to design naturally and what customers are looking for? Or, are these things one and the same?
For me, this moment is ALL about education. It’s about re-learning and improving upon sustainable methods of growing and designing — ways of working with land that were indeed pioneered by the original land keepers of the world, indigenous communities. Building on their innovative techniques in seed saving, crop rotation, composting, and minimal tillage and modernizing this for our current world and culture. Educating consumers about the still relatively fragile space local flower farmers occupy within a gargantuan international industry dominated by South American and Dutch conglomerates. Educating ourselves and our clients about what can grow here, when, and how to care for it. Re-learning expectations of vase life. Innovating new ways to help flowers last for larger scale installations, free of carcinogenic materials like Oasis floral foam. This is a collective effort. And it was truly refreshing to hear from new, diverse voices across the slow flowers continuum, seed to vase. Writers, historians, designers, small business owners, farmers, horticulturalists, seed keepers… this is a movement gaining ground and speed, and I am really proud and comforted to be a part of it.
Guess what? You might be able to as well! Slow Flowers founder Debra Prinzing announced the location for the 2022 Slow Flowers Summit, which will be in our own backyard: Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, in Pocantico Hills, NY, about an hour/1.5 hrs from NYC. The Summit will be the final weekend in June, Sunday June 26th – June 28th. So, mark your calendars Slow Flowers enthusiasts! I hope you’ll consider joining the conversation!
whether you will or not, how would you answer Kellee’s questions above? please Share in the comments!