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Business is Blooming

Author: Jean Saylor Doppenberg
July, 2019 Issue

Chris Neve has been surrounded by roses his entire life. As the third generation of the Neve family running Neve Bros. Inc. Wholesale Flowers, Chris literally grew up in the fields and greenhouses on the farm’s property off Bodega Avenue, west of downtown Petaluma.

The Neve Family has been in the floriculture industry in California dating back to the early 1960s, when Gianni and Maria Neve emigrated from Italy to the Daly City area. They initially began growing carnations, the most popular flower of the era. Eventually, they relocated to Petaluma for warmer conditions, and Gianni started growing in-ground, greenhouse roses with the help of his three sons, Robert, Victor and Lou. The original Neve Roses was just up the road from where the existing operation stands. “That’s where two of my cousins still do a bit of growing,” says Chris, co-owner, who handles sales for the company. His brother and fellow owner, Nick Neve, is responsible for the growing operation.

In 1986, the original Neve Brothers, Robert, Victor and Lou Neve—Chris and Nick’s father— “Branched out on their own,” to create Neve Bros. Roses, says Chris, who was born that year. “They built more greenhouses and just kept planting.” By the mid ‘90s, the Neves had converted the operation to a hydroponic process, in part to fight the influx of imported flowers that were flooding the American market. Lou bought his brothers’ share of the family business in 1998, incorporated in 2016 and today serves as the company’s chief executive officer.

“With the switch to hydroponics, our varieties got better, production improved, and our flowers were better quality,” says Chris. “Some rose growers didn’t adapt to the change in the market and stayed with in-ground roses. Then prices went down and expenses went up. In the ’80s and ’90s, there were 40 major rose growers in Northern California, from Watsonville on north. Neve Bros. is one of about eight still going. There are three or four major rose growers in Watsonville with operations as large as a million square feet.”

The science of rose growing

Standing in the middle of one of the many huge greenhouses on the Neve’s property is impressive. It appears to rival the size of a football field. And on this day, it feels tropical under the polyurethane sheeting far overhead, a marked difference from the weather outside. In this particular greenhouse, it’s all garden roses, thousands upon thousands being grown, groomed and pampered into mostly single stems with a perfect blossom on top. Roses account for 80 to 90 percent of the cut flowers grown on the property, says Chris.

The family’s operation features 750,000 square feet of greenhouse space at two locations (a smaller operation is on Roblar Road near Bloomfield). Total acreage at the two growing locations is 120, which includes the field-grown flowers. Last summer, the company installed a 260kw solar array at the Bodega Avenue location designed to supply 100 percent of its electric needs on a per-year basis. A 200kw solar generation facility is also being installed at their Roblar road property this year. Additionally, Neve Bros. uses an environment-friendly reverse osmosis filtration system, which filters 50,000 gallons of water each day, giving its flowers nearly 100 percent pure water, improving quality and shelf life. “The recycle system allows us to capture and return 100 percent of our irrigation water. This allows us to be a net-zero in terms of water waste and also allows us to conserve fertilizer consumption,” says Chris.  

Climate in all the greenhouses is computer controlled. Strategically placed sensors suspended above the flowers measure inside humidity and air temperature, and an outdoor weather station tracks wind speed, solar radiation and temperature. “From those five readings the computer is able to dissect how it can best fit the climate parameters we are giving the flowers,” says Chris. “Sometimes we want a particular greenhouse a little warmer or a little cooler, depending on the growing season and what we are trying to accomplish.”

Rose stems must be grown in a medium that will prevent them from falling over, and Neve Bros. prefers a peat comprised primarily of ground coconut husks and some perlite. “It’s light and airy, and we like it because it holds a lot of water and squeezes out almost like a sponge,” explains Chris, who demonstrates. “Hydroponic takes a lot of different forms, and ours is soil-less in fixed containers, with no sand or clay mixed in. In addition to holding a lot of water, it exchanges a lot of water. The medium is completely inert with no minerals or fertilizer, and it doesn’t break down. Each plant receives its nutrients through the emitters.”

The family knows exactly what’s going on in the growing medium at all times. “There’s no mystery,” says Chris. “We can change out the mixture if it tests high for salts or pH, or there’s too much calcium or phosphorous. We run clear water through the system for a day or two and then start back with a new mixture.” Everything in the greenhouses—from the venting to the heating system, the watering system to the energy curtains—is built and maintained so they can micromanage the plants, says Chris. “There’s really nothing we can’t control.”

The Neves keep a close watch on how each individual plant is progressing, and every row of roses is carefully examined and tended each day. Even with all the computer-controlled technology, trained workers must perform the actual plant management of cutting and pruning. “They walk through all these rows daily and manage the cut points on each plant,” says Chris. “They manage the energy of the plant, forcing it to put out a great blossom. You want the plant’s energy to go toward making a really great flower. If we get behind on plant maintenance, our production suffers and our blossom size suffers.”

The economies of cut flowers

Chances are, when you reach for a bouquet of flowers at the supermarket or florist, you don’t notice where they were grown. Check the labels—you might be surprised to find your lovely choice of blossoms came from Colombia or Ecuador. It’s taken at least five days for these flowers to go from being cut and processed in South America, to being transported to California, to being displayed for sale in your local store.

California is the largest cut flower producing state in the U.S., accounting for approximately 80 percent of the nation’s output, according to a 2017 report prepared by the California Association of Flower Growers and Shippers (known as Cal Flowers). About 95 percent of the cut flowers grown in California come from the Central and South Coast, with a majority of production taking place in greenhouse facilities.

According to the report, the cut flower industry makes sizable contributions to California’s economies, and especially to regional economies in the Central and South Coast. For instance, in 2015, the direct value of output from sales of California cut flowers was about $356 million, or $786 million when the direct and indirect economic impacts are factored in. The industry paid direct labor income that totaled $145 million in 2015, and total labor income generated in the state from cut flower production and sales totaled $300 million. In addition, the industry contributed 2,610 direct industry jobs. When considering other factors, the total number of jobs supported in the state was 5,393. The bulk of the cut flower industry in California is concentrated in six coastal counties (San Diego, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Cruz), and most of the direct economic impact in the industry is in those counties.

In the North Bay, Sonoma County leads production values from cut flowers. While neighboring counties have little in the way of commercial floral and nursery crops, Sonoma County posted a value of $4,174,900 in cut flowers in the 2017 county crop report, up from $3,894,400 in 2016. “If that’s what the crop report says, then Neve Bros. is responsible for the bulk of that,” says Chris Neve, choosing to not reveal his company’s revenues. “There aren’t many other pure flower growers in the area.”

According to the Napa County 2017 crop report, floral and nursery crops had a significant drop in production value—$651,700 in 2017 compared to $2,133,400 in 2016. The report indicates the reduction was due primarily to the closure of several production nurseries and wet weather conditions. Among these crops are lavender, irises, cut flowers, and other nursery stock. The production area in square feet also decreased dramatically from the year before—348,590 in 2017 compared to 538,700 in 2016.

Marin County is even less fruitful when it comes to nursery stock. It has about 160,000 acres zoned agricultural and nearly all—99.5 percent—is used for seasonal grazing of dairy cows, cattle and sheep. In 2017, nursery products were grown on just under 8 acres, compared to 9.43 acres in 2016. With fewer acres in production, the crop value fell 33 percent, from $360,000 in 2016 down to $243,000 in 2017.

Labor challenges

Neve Bros. once used seasonal workers at their operations, but it’s a practice they stopped in recent years. “Labor is tough in California,” says Chris. “There’s no longer a pool of good agriculture labor like there used to be. We’d like to be able to slim down staff a little in winter because that’s how we’d always done it, but now we maintain the same number of workers year-round, about 30.” That includes employees in Petaluma and San Francisco, delivery drivers, greenhouse workers and family members.

For many years, Neve Bros. has operated a stall at the San Francisco Wholesale Flower Market on Brannan Street. “With delivery routes and schedules, we need many workers for a minimum of 10 months out of the year. We must keep the people we have, and it’s usually not difficult to keep everyone busy,” says Chris.  The company is mainly wholesale to the trade, says Chris, working with florists and also supplying its flowers to consumers through many local markets. Neve Bros. roses and bouquets can be found in 13 Safeway stores in the Bay Area, Nugget Markets, Andy’s Local Market in Marin, Good Earth Natural Foods stores, and others in the region.

Because weddings are big business in Sonoma County, many of the roses Neve Bros. grows are geared toward that market, especially the white and light-colored varieties. Not just because these are popular colors, says Chris, but because it’s good for the company’s bottom line to grow them. “They drive the wedding business. White and pastel roses don’t ship well, so Colombia can’t compete. They grow mostly red roses in South America, and we don’t grow many red roses anymore. Imported red roses are cheap to produce, and we can’t fight that. So we picked our battle to go this way.”

The Neves grow a multitude of blossoms, including garden roses, hybrid tea roses and spray roses in pinks and whites, yellows and earth tones, lavenders and purples, and such “novelty” varieties as “Grasshopper” and “Splash Eye.” The company also grows alstromeria (Peruvian lilies), gerbera daisies and seasonal flowers such as dahlias, sunflowers, and viburnum.

Keeping flower dollars here

According to Kasey Cronquist, chief executive officer of the California Cut Flower Commission, the top five cut flowers purchased by consumers are tulips, lilies, roses, gerbera daisies and irises. “The order can shift around a bit, but these five are generally the most popular,” he says. The commission represents flower growers up and down the state with lobbying, marketing and promotion efforts.

July is American Grown Flowers Month, established to increase awareness of why it’s important to look for “CA Grown” or “Certified American Grown” logos on the sleeves of bouquets, says Cronquist. “Buying domestic flowers instead of imports gives consumers assurance their dollars are going where they intended. Someone in New Jersey in winter, for instance, can buy fresh California-grown flowers and still feel good that they bought American. People naturally understand the value of keeping those dollars in our country. For every dollar a flower farmer earns, 92 cents goes back into our economy.”

Despite the impact of imported roses, Cronquist says many floral designers prefer to work with California-grown roses. “They have more malleability, and when you compare a California rose with an imported rose, you notice the difference. California roses have a more natural appearance, like something you’d grow in your own backyard. Also, unlike imported flowers, California’s flower farmers face a very strict regulatory environment with real enforcement from agencies like the California EPA, California Department of Pesticides Regulation, the Coastal Commission, County Ag Commission, the Water Board and the list goes on.” Chris Neve concurs. “I can’t speak to pesticide use in Colombia and Ecuador, but our regulations here are stringent. There are products we can use, and those we can’t, and we’re checked regularly for compliance,” he says.  

Among other products, Neve Bros. uses a preventive silicone-based spray that’s extremely safe for humans. It coats the leaves of the plants so mildew can’t take hold and pests can’t get their footing. “We’re doing our job properly if we don’t end up with pests and mildew,” he says. “And let me add that I’ve been doing this my whole life and never feel the need to scrub down every time I touch a leaf.”

The Neve family puts a lot of effort into making its flowers perfect and cookie-cutter like, says Chris, but it’s still interacting with nature and all the variables that can entail. “Every single flower we grow is measured on its looks, so everything we turn out must be perfect. A tomato farmer can sell their sadder looking fruits for making juice, but there’s no after-market for less-than-perfect flowers.”



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