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Shaz Lint of the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, Sylecia... ( Dan Coyro )

WATSONVILLE -- The Monterey Bay Greenhouse Growers Open House launched its fourth annual greenhouse tour Friday with an amateur floral design competition among four spirited, local politicians and businessmen.

Watsonville Mayor Lowell Hurst won the competition and later declared, "I'd rather cut flowers than the city budget."

Local was the theme of the event, which continues Saturday when six area greenhouses open their doors for free public tours of the farms where they grow roses, succulents, edible flowers and more.

Even with a diverse and viable local greenhouse industry, 80 percent of cut flowers in the U.S. are imported, with the majority coming from Colombia and Ecuador, according to Kasey Cronquist, chief executive officer of the California Cut Flower Commission based in Watsonville.

"We're trying to teach people about the field-to-vase relationship and that not all flowers are created equal," Cronquist said. "We're trying to let people know they have a choice."

Consumers have more than one choice for local flowers. California boasts 225 cut flower growers, providing an annual economic benefit of $10.3 billion to the state, Cronquist said. Monterey and Santa Cruz counties are home to $700 million worth of cut flower activity.

"If people just knew where flowers came from, I think that number would be a lot bigger," Cronquist said.


Every day, seven to 10 freight planes loaded with cut flowers land in the U.S. from South America, Cronquist said. In preparation for Valentine's Day, 35 planes arrive daily. And local farms aren't the only things that suffer.

The carbon footprint from those planes full of flowers is part of the reason author and gardening expert Debra Prinzing advocates staying local for flowers.

Prinzing said there is often no price difference between a bouquet shipped from New Zealand and sold in a grocery store and one grown here and sold at a farmers' market.

"Americans are so price focused that we want to buy cheap flowers because we don't think they last very long in the vase," Prinzing said. "The reason we don't think they last long is because we've been disappointed by flowers that are imported. If you buy local flowers, you are getting flowers that were cut yesterday or today, so they last a lot longer."

In Prinzing's book, "The 50 Mile Bouquet," she discusses the resurgence of American flower farming, an industry with a rich local history.

Watsonville farmer George Marciel's family has lived the rise and recent decline of that industry. His great-grandfather was the first farmer to grow roses commercially in California.

Marciel said Pajaro Valley was home to more than 100 rose growers 30 years ago. Now, two remain.

A fourth-generation rose propagator, Marciel is responsible for selecting which new varieties of roses will be grown at California Pajarosa Floral, one of the greenhouses on Saturday's tour. Each year, more than a hundred different genetic samples arrive from breeders in Italy, France, Germany, Holland and New Zealand. Marciel monitors them and selects varieties based on factors such as color and disease-resistance. This year, he said he chose three new varieties to clone and grow. Some years, none make the cut.

"It's an art, and some people never figure it out," Marciel said.