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Blooming Profits

His knowledge just blows me away, said Charlie Hoffman, who owns A New Leaf, a Chatsworth wholesale operation that distributes flowers in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties. In the industry, people know if you've got questions, Ben's the guy to go to.

Ben Gill, California Proteamanagement Founder

During the 36 years that he's been in North San Diego County agriculture, Gill, 52, has run his own protea ranches as well as managed those for other people. Three years ago, he founded California Protea Management using his own money.

The company propagates and develops varieties of protea and other exotic plants and offers advice on growing them. The firm also brokers and markets the flowers from its small complex in the Harvest Farms cluster of agricultural businesses at Valley Center.

The operation employs six workers full time, including Gill's son, Gabriel, and six more workers at peak season. Revenues this year, he said, should slightly exceed $1 million.

The most popular protea varieties are ones that have soft, artichoke-like leaves nestling a furry center, and ones that resemble fuzzy thimbles with pins protruding from the base. The flowers grow in shades of pink, yellow, orange, scarlet, violet, dusty blue.
King Protea

As consumers have become more aware of the blooms, the protea industry has grown. To help meet current orders and expand the market even further, Gill is developing a 35-acre ranch on one of the highest and most scenic of the area's hill sides. There are times now when demand exceeds supply. "We've run into that three or four times in the last four years," he said.

During peak harvest, which runs from September through May, California Protea Management packs and ships 4,000 to 20,000 flowers a week to wholesale customers in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Japan. England is the company's latest market target. Hoffman at A New Leaf has been a part of that growth. "I'd say over the last five years, we've been bringing in about 15 boxes a week, 10 times what we used to," he said.

One stem of a popular variety, such as a King Protea, can cost from $1.50 at a farmer's market or swap meet to as much as $7 at a florist shop. The price might discourage some buyers, Gill concedes. But, with a vase life of 10 to 15 days, proteas remain fresh longer than most flowers, and they even look good dead, he said. We're trying to educate people that they don't die, they dry, he said. I don't know if they're just catching on or people are realizing they're affordable.

The main obstacle to expanding sales, however, remains the fact that potential customers don't know they exist. Some florists don't use proteas unless they're asked for them. "We have to develop a system where the consumer will pull the flower through the supply chain," Gill said. To do that, he's turning to the Internet in hopes that Web pages, links to floral associations and other e-commerce tactics will inform more people of the plants' existence and decorative possibilities and provide customers with more opportunities to purchase proteas and other exotic plants.

As a member of the board of directors, Gill helped to create the website for the California Protea Association, which is based in Vista. Now he's developing one for his own company. Besides increasing customers, he expects the strategy will raise the number of growers.

Despite San Diego County's international prominence as a protea region, no more than a dozen of the hundred or so locals producing the flowers are commercial operators. Many of those with a few plants cut the blooms to supplement their income. Advising both types of growers is an important part of Gill's business at California Protea Management. It's that expertise that has helped stimulate overall production and sales of the unusual flowers, said Noble Hamilton, manager of Brannan Street Wholesale at San Francisco's flower market. "He's done a wonderful job bringing a lot of the different varieties of protea from Australia and other areas," he said. "Who knew they grew on trees? They look like something from Mars," said Hamilton.

Pink Mink Protea

Nowadays, a lot of designers want these flowers. Proteas, however, are not easy to grow. "They have a tendency to die off pretty early. People kill them with kindness. The best way to grow them is to neglect them. Soil content and early care are critical," he said.

It takes at least five years to get the plants into production. But if the ranch is set up right, the plants will continue to provide flowers for 20 years. Gill said his own business endeavors have encountered relatively few problems. That doesn't mean, however, that everything has gone perfectly. "A friend said you haven't arrived until you've killed 100,000 plants, and I've done that, he said. But I'm developing an industry that's much larger than I can ever be ... I love this. It's my life."


This article was previously published in the San Diego Union Tribune, September 1, 1999.

 

 

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