Neve family, now in the fourth generation, is Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year
For more than a half century, the Neve family of Petaluma has strategically adapted to not only survive in the highly competitive flower business but to thrive and prosper, becoming the West Coast’s premier producer of show-stopping roses and other floral delights.
Lou Neve, 68, who runs Neve Bros. with his wife Raelene, and his sons, Nick, 37, and Chris, 34, fourth generation flower growers, said it takes targeted vigilance to stay in tune with shifting markets and changing tastes in flowers. Nick and Chris, who hold positions in production and sales, are committed to a flower growing business that has become their family legacy.
Raelene plays a key role in running the nursery, overseeing the business office, doing payroll, accounting and dealing with all the paperwork associated with insurance and the many reports filed with government agencies. Additionally, she is the point person for the lending institutions that provide financing for the nursery operation.
Neve said flowers are a “beauty business” and subject to the whims of blushing brides and trendy floral designers who cater to the high-end clientele that pay top dollar for Neve flowers.
“Flower growing is a tough, tough business and not something suited to widows and orphans. It’s so much tougher than it used to be and it gets tougher every day,” said Neve, a bottom-line businessman now coping with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic, which has turned the world upside down and triggered an economic downturn, is unchartered territory for businesses like Neve Bros. But in characteristic form, the Neve family is adapting to get to the other side of this unprecedented health and economic crisis. As weddings, proms and other social gatherings are cancelled, the Neves are focusing on selling more of their flowers in supermarkets like the Nugget Stores and farmers markets. Although sales are down, the Neves, who value their longtime employees, are keeping most of their workers on the payroll as they adjust their business.
During this crisis, the Neves look back to other challenges where their strategic planning, decisive action and resolve to survive saved the family business. Until now, the biggest challenge was two decades ago when a massive flood of cheap flowers from South America forced dozens of California flower growers out of business, decimating the state’s floral industry. The Neves rolled up their sleeves and went to work reinventing themselves so they would not be a causality of the cheap imports.
“Change. You have to move with the changes you see coming,” said Neve, who wasn’t about to let the family business go under during his watch. “We adapted by focusing first and foremost on quality and service, which is difficult for the foreign producers to provide.”
Today, the Neve family’s mantra remains, “Quality, quality, quality” in production, sales and service. It’s paid off.
“We are in a good spot but we worked hard for it,” said Neve. “When it comes to producing top quality products like our roses and other flowers, there is always room at the top. I strive for that every day.”
And the Neves are confident their reputation for quality and service will serve them well once the virus is contained and there is a return to better days and some semblance of normalcy.
“We believe there will be a lot of pent-up demand for flowers when weddings and social gatherings come back in a big way as people really celebrate what is important in their lives,” said Neve.
The Neves’ longevity is a rarity for a family farming business, especially one as competitively cut-throat as flower growing. Studies show that only 30 percent of family businesses survive their founders and make it to the second generation. The statistics grow grimmer as family businesses pass into succeeding generations. Only 12 percent of family businesses make it to the third generation and three percent to the fourth generation and beyond, putting the Neve family in a rare category of family owned businesses.
The Neves’ business acumen, dedication to farming and prominent place in the agriculture community have earned them Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year Award for 2020. Farm Bureau leaders say the Neves are exemplary entrepreneurs focused on economic viability and environmental stewardship while being involved in building community and preserving the county’s rich agricultural heritage.
“The Neve family is such an important part of the rich culture of Sonoma County agriculture,” said Jeff Carlton, president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “Very few places in California have such a diverse farming industry as we have here in Sonoma County and we are so fortunate to have a quality flower grower like the Neve Family in our backyard.”
Carlton said the Neve family’s passion for what they do is evident in their success as one of the West Coast’s premier producers of high-end roses and other flowers.
“The Neves are not only stellar farmers, they are also strong community supporters. Time and time again, the Neve Family has provided their beautiful flowers for fund-raising events staged by local non-profit organizations, including Farm Bureau,” said Carlton. “It is our honor to recognize the Neve Family’s many achievements as growers and their generous community spirit through this award.”
The Neve Family will be honored at the Love of the Land event in 2021.
The Neves said it’s a tremendous honor to be an integral part of the Sonoma County agriculture community and to be celebrated by Farm Bureau for their role in sustaining the county’s farm economy and enhancing a way-of-life they value.
“It means so much to be recognized as one of the top farm families and join so many other wonderful farming families who take so much pride in doing the right thing to produce the best food and wines anywhere,” said Lou Neve. “Sonoma County is a very special place where everyone in agriculture feels the need to do their best because of the county’s reputation for quality.”
Neve said the award also pays tribute to his parents and grandparents’ hard work and their sacrifices to establish the family business that he and sons now own and operate. It’s a legacy the family celebrates.
“These days you don’t see many family flower businesses making it to the next generation and we are in the fourth generation,” said Neve, who is proud that his sons are so passionate about producing quality flowers and continuing the family business.
Through hard work and perseverance, the Neve name has become a hallmark for quality roses. The roses and other flowers are grown hydroponically in greenhouses, spanning over more than 420,000 square feet, on the family’s 30-acre property on Bodega Avenue outside Petaluma. Science and technology are used by the Neves to cultivate the stunning stems that go into Martha Stewart-inspired bridal bouquets or an arrangement in the lobby of a swank San Francisco hotel.
Lou Neve’s father, the late Giovanni “John” Neve, established the Petaluma rose growing operation in 1967 after relocating the family flower business from Colma. The Neve flower business traces its beginning to the early 1900’s when Lou Neve’s grandfather, Lazzaro Neve, an Italian immigrant, became a partner in two nurseries on Geneva Boulevard in Daly City.
Nick and Chris, the fourth generation, relish the diversity of a family farming operation that has grown, expanded and prospered beyond the original nursery on Bodega Avenue. The expansion of the Neve family’s flower growing business took a big leap in 2002 when they bought a 90-acre ranch on Roblar Road in the Two Rock area west of Petaluma. The ranch, a former organic vegetable farm, provides land for the Neves to grow different field grown flowers like sunflowers and dahlias as well as flowers in the greenhouses built on that property.
“The Roblar Road ranch has allowed us to extend our flower growing season,” said Lou Neve. “We can start earlier and go later. It also gives us the land to grow foliage, which gives us a competitive edge in the flower business.”
Nick Neve oversees flower production while brother Chris handles sales and shipping, spending a lot of his time on the phone and computer with customers throughout the Bay Area and the West Coast.
The brothers grew up in the business and, early on, became attuned with seasonal production rhythms, like the crushing demand for their flowers on holidays like Mother’s Day, Easter and Valentine’s Day.
Nick Neve said his career path was clear from the time he was kid. When he was in second-grade he was asked the usual question about what he wanted to be when he grew up. That was easy, he said, he wanted to be a flower grower like his father, grandfather and great grandfather.
“I grew up in this business and always knew I wanted to be part of it. As a kid, I’d help my grandmother sell flowers at farmers markets,” said Nick, who graduated in 2001 from Petaluma’s St. Vincent High School. Nick and his wife Kerri have two children, Jenna and Dominic, who, perhaps one day, will be the fifth generation to carry on the flower farming business.
Chris and his wife, Tori, have a baby daughter, Charley Jane.
Neve Bros. once only grew roses and sold them at the San Francisco Flower Market – the typical agricultural model of producing a commodity and then taking what the market will pay. Today, while roses still account for 70 percent of sales the Neves grow more than 20 different kinds of other flowers, ranging from hydrangeas to gerbera daisies. Instead of selling everything at one market, they have more than 250 customers, both big and small, who want their flowers fresh and locally farm grown. The Neve family is still a major vendor at the San Francisco Flower Market and at farmers’ markets throughout the region.
The Neves say tastes in roses and other flowers are constantly changing and they closely monitor the trends to stay ahead of the curve. They read bridal magazines and pay attention to what catches the fancy of décor maven Martha Stewart. In recent years brides have become smitten with old-fashioned garden roses, like the frilly floribunda roses growing in grandma’s yard. That means some of the elegant, long-stemmed hybrid tea roses that were once popular have to be pulled out to make way for the roses that are in demand.
“We have to stay on the cutting edge,” said Nick. He said as a grower the fastest way to financial ruin is to be sentimental about a rose that he personally loves but for some reason has fallen out of favor with customers.
“We can’t grow what we like, we have to produce what the market wants. If a rose isn’t selling, it’s time to get rid of it and move on. Adios. That’s business,” he said.
The ranch on Roblar Road also is where Lou Neve pursues another of his passions: breeding Thoroughbred race horses. Like his flower business, Neve strives for quality and good breeding in his horses. He purchased the foundation stock for his horse breeding operation from leading stables in Kentucky and is proudly pleased with what he has accomplished in breeding top quality horses. Several of his horses will race this year at Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita.
Neve said his passion for breeding fine race horses propels him in his pursuit of excellence each and every day.
Neve considers himself a very fortunate man, saying he has a wonderful family and many friends, a prosperous flower business and a paddock of thoroughbred horses. And topping it off, he lives in Sonoma County, which as plant wizard Luther Burbank famously described as the chosen spot of the earth.
Neve said he just wants to keep doing what he’s doing. He and his wife Raelene relax and socialize on the weekends but, he said, by 3 o’clock Sunday afternoon he is ready to get back to work Monday morning, poised to conquer the challenges and to seize the opportunities that arise.
“I will be here until I die,” Neve said.