A high-ranking official of the United States Department of Agriculture toured the Neve Brothers flower operation in Petaluma and other farm and food companies in Sonoma and Napa counties to discuss key issues including immigration reform, trade agreements and the buy-local movement.
Michael Scuse, acting deputy secretary of the USDA, spent two hours at the Neve Bros. flower growing operation where owner Lou Neve and his son, Nick, explained their business, now in the fourth generation, and the challenges they face as family farmers in a global economy. Scuse also visited a vineyard in the Napa Valley and Amy’s Kitchen in Santa Rosa before heading to Sacramento to meet with officials of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Since 2009 Scuse, formerly the secretary of agriculture for the state of Delaware, has held top leadership positions in the USDA’s Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, overseeing programs that expanded exports of U.S. food and farm products.
Lou Neve told Scuse that he and his family are among the survivors in the California cut-flower industry, which has been devastated by a flood of cheap flowers imported from South America and Mexico.
“There used to be 100 rose growers in California, now there are only six of us,” Lou Neve told Scuse during a tour of the Neves’ green houses on Bodega Avenue outside of Petaluma. Neve said other types of flowers also have been impacted by imports.
“Today, you can’t buy a California grown carnation,” said Neve, “Once there were 18 to 19 carnation growers in California.”
Flower growers in the United States were sacrificed for other agricultural commodities – rice, beef and wheat – in free trade agreements with Columbia, Panama and South Korea that Congress passed in 2011. It opened the door to flower imports from Columbia, which has captured more than 80 percent of the United States’ cut flower market.
The stakes are high because flowers are a $10.3 billion market in California.
Additionally, Neve said, his family business is having more difficulty finding the labor needed to grow and harvest his family’s roses and other flowers. Neve said immigration reform that includes a farm worker program is essential to the future of agricultural production. California growers are imploring House Republicans to follow the Senate and pass immigration legislation to legalize 1.5 million farmworkers and their dependents, and provide a future flow of new temporary workers.
“I could use four or five more guys to work here and they aren’t around,” said Neve.
Scuse said it was enlightening to learn about the challenges and survival strategy adopted by the Neve family. He said the USDA is behind the “buy local” movement and efforts by farmers like the Neves to market their products locally and regionally.
“The flower industry is an amazing industry that is important to the state of California,” said Scuse. “We need consumers to think locally and regionally when they shop, supporting the farmers and ranchers who live in their communities.”
He said the USDA can help by supporting efforts to create awareness and demand by educating consumers about the important role that agriculture plays in their lives.
“It’s not just three meals a day but the clothes on their back and the fuel in their automobiles,” he said. “Agriculture is part of their life every single day.”
Nick Neve and his brother Chris plan to continue in the flower business like their father, grandfather and great father before them.
For a half century, the Neve name has been synonymous for quality roses, big long-stemmed beauties grown hydroponically in green houses on the family’s 30 acre farm on Bodega Avenue outside of Petaluma. The Neve brothers’ grandfather, Giovanni Neve, established the Petaluma rose growing operation in 1967 after relocating the family rose business from Colma where it started in the early 1900’s.
The Neve’s longevity is a rarity for a family business. They will tell you their survival isn’t through luck but the willingness to change and adapt to the market.
The Neve family has continually reinvented itself over the years so it can stay in business and pass to the next generation. When cheap flowers imported from South America and Mexico were driving most of California flower growers out of business, Lou Neve adapted by focusing first and foremost on quality and service, which is difficult for faraway foreign producers to provide. He realized he couldn’t do what his father and grandfather did, the business had to change with the times. That meant expanding the line of flowers grown and marketed and producing high-end flowers that passed the beauty test for finicky brides and persnickety hotel managers. Instead of selling just roses at one wholesale market, the Neves now sell a variety of flowers to more than 250 customers, mostly high end floral shops that want their flowers fresh and locally farm grown.
While the Brothers Neve run the day-to-day operations at the Bodega Avenue property, patriarch Lou Neve oversees flower growing on the family’s 90 acre ranch on Roblar Road in the Two Rock area west of Petaluma. The ranch provides the land for the Neve family to grow a range of flowers including hydrangeas, sunflowers and dahlias.