Fresh Cut Leadership

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As the new chair of the California Cut Flower Commission (CCFC), Wilja Happé’s No. 1 goal is to create value for the growers who pay into it.

CCFC is a state promotion order for cut flowers and cut greens. It was established by California cut flower growers in 1990 and has survived three referendums, which are held every five years. Growers who gross at least $500,000 in annual sales pay an assessment of 0.005 percent. That qualifying sales threshold started out at $100,000 and has climbed over the years.

The non-profit public corporation’s mission is to market California cut flowers and cut greens and represent the growers on governmental issues. Funding research also has been a component. Between 80 and 100 growers currently pay into CCFC, but the entire California cut flower growing universe is about 275 growers representing $316 million in annual sales. About 73 percent of all domestically grown cut flowers are produced in California.

On the flip side, this production accounts for only 26 percent of the cut flowers sold in the United States, with imports dominating. In the traditional big three — carnations, chrysanthemums and roses — California’s share is less than 5 percent for carnations and chrysanthemums and 10 percent for roses. Specialty crops, like lilies and gerbera, make up for lost ground. About half of California’s production is sold outside the state.

“My biggest goal is to create value for growers who pay into CCFC,” Happé says. “It’s return on investment, our responsibility is to show value to the growers. The last referendum was 1 1/2 years ago and the program was renewed by a very small margin. It was easier before and I understand why. It’s hard to show both larger and smaller growers the value. Sometimes those interests are not the same. The smaller ones are more focused on the floral wholesaler and the larger ones on mass market venues.”

Dedicated To The Industry

Happé, who owns Brand Flowers in Carpinteria, Calif., became the new chair in January. She has been a member of CCFC board of commissioners since 1999 and has served on the executive committee for four years. Happé has a distinguished record of service to the floral industry, including being a past president of the California State Floral Association and a past board member for the Society of American Florists (SAF), Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau and the Buy California Marketing Agreement. Prior to her appointment as CCFC chair, Happé chaired CCFC’s governmental relations committee and was an active member of the promotion and marketing committee.

In addition to being the new chair of the organization, she is involved in California Women for Agriculture and the national Floral Marketing Funding Initiative and serves on the local school board. She has five children and two grandchildren and is a busy lady.

A Blooming Dutch Heritage

Born in 1963 in the Netherlands, Happé was surrounded by greenhouses but did not have a floriculture background. She graduated in 1986 with degrees in social work and psychology from Hogeschool van Amsterdam. Shortly after immigrating to the U.S. and settling in California, she co-founded Brand Flowers Inc., then its subsidiaries in 1989 and then became its sole owner in 2005.

Brand Flowers

Owner: Wilja Happé
Founded: 1989
Size: 1.4 million square feet of greenhouse, 1.8 million square feet of shade, 2.5 million square feet of outdoor production, plus 17,000 square feet of coolers and 11,000 square feet of freezer space.
Locations: Carpinteria, Calif.
Main Crops: Fresh cut flowers, including lilies, tulips, gerbera and snapdragons. Expanding into potted bulb crops.
Market: Half to wholesale florists and half to mass-market channels. A subsidiary fulfills orders for online florists.

Ranked at No. 61 on our 2006 Top 100 Growers list, Brand Flowers is a leading cut flower and cut greens nursery and bouquet manufacturer specializing in Dutch flower varieties.

“We were one of the first to grow lilies on a large scale,” she says. “For the longest time we grew freesia, but the problem has been it has little value to the consumer. For our bouquets, we choose our own crops first and see what’s plentiful and in season. When certain varieties are not, we will outsource and buy in to supplement. We’re continuing to test and grow new varieties on a daily basis, especially lilies.”

Just outside of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria is the most vibrant pocket of the domestic cut flower industry, established by Dutch entrepreneurs. “Most of us here in Carpinteria are first-generation immigrants,” Happé says. “We still have the drive to succeed and innovate. We also go back to Holland at least once a year to learn about new techniques and new varieties.”

Historic epicenters of California cut flower production have been San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area. Rising land values and business pressures have prompted most to sell their land to developers or become developers themselves.

The Domestic Advantage

CCFC focuses on promoting advantages California-grown cut flowers offer in freshness and quality to florists and consumers. Last month, it rolled out its new Web site — www.ccfc.org — redesigned by industry veteran William Carlson of Flower PR, LLC.

“The floriculture industry has a compelling story to tell and the Web is a great tool to reach audiences, especially new entrants into the marketplace,” Carlson says. “Building the CCFC Web site was a real joy for us because of the wealth of high-quality and innovative materials they produce.”

The site has been a great resource for buyers to source varieties from growers, as well as providing design tips and inspiration for florists and consumers. CCFC also reaches out in person by attending and exhibiting at key events and working with a national network of floral designers, Happé says.

“I want to ensure that CCFC’s marketing efforts help California farms sell the flowers that are available during their natural season,” she says. “It is vitally important that we make our marketing efforts within the state directly applicable to what our members have for sale, during the time of year we naturally grow the product, and that we focus on the colors and varieties that are available.”

Her other goals for CCFC’s future include helping to finalize a coalition and management agreement with the California Association of Flower Growers and Shippers and encouraging all California cut flower growers to participate in a cold-chain agreement between growers and the major flower trucking lines. Freshness is a must.

“What any California grower can do is ship bouquets in water,” she explains. “It’s fresher, looks fresher and the consumer gets a fresher product. Importers can’t do this on a plane. It’s where the niche is for California and Florida growers. We offer quality and freshness with cold-chain management from the field to the cooler on cold trucks in cold water to get the best possible product to the end consumer.”

Contrasting with imports, she adds, “You cannot harvest a rose on Jan. 1 and sell it Feb. 14. It’s a betrayal to the consumer. Next year, customers are not coming back to buy flowers. They will buy wine or chocolate.”

International Relations

For several years, CCFC did support the Flower Promotion Organization, a joint marketing effort with Colombian producers, but had to withdraw for financial reasons. Several of the California growers themselves are still active.

One area that has been cause for concern is SAF’s decision to switch from a neutral position on trade issues to support the Andean Trade Preference Act in favor of imported product. “We feel SAF has taken a proactive stand to promote offshore product. This is the first year they’ve taken a stand that’s pro imports,” Happé says. “As domestic growers, that’s very hard for us. I understand that 70 percent of cut flowers sold here are imports and 30 percent are domestic, but that does not mean there is not value to that 30 percent.”

Happé still supports SAF. She attended Congressional Action Days in March and is actively involved on the committee of domestic growers and importers exploring the development of a national promotion order for cut flowers and cut greens as part of the Floral Marketing Funding Initiative.

“This initiative is the best thing since PromoFlor. I truly hope it does pass,” she says, adding that she is pleased the leaders steering it are taking the time and effort to build consensus. “PromoFlor had a very positive impact. ‘Think Flowers’ was the message. Be nice to yourself, go to the dentist and get yourself flowers. We need a really strong message to the American consumer.”

When asked if the U.S. floral industry has reached a stage of maturity or flattening off, she exclaims, “We’re still in the baby stage! If every American spends one or two dollars more a year on flowers, do you know what it would do for the industry? If people just bought one bouquet a year, we’d have a hard time supplying them all.”

Delilah Onofrey directs Flower Power Marketing for the Suntory Collection. She can be reached at donofrey@gmail.com

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