Califonia Bountiful

Blooming business

May/June 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Rene Van Wingerden works to bring floral beauty to your home




Photo: © 2021 Stephen Osman

Carpinteria, roughly halfway along the coast between Santa Barbara and Ventura, has long been a hotbed of flower farming. Nestled among all those greenhouses, some of which you'll easily see from Highway 101, is Ocean Breeze Farms, started nearly 50 years ago by a Dutch immigrant with family roots in farming that go back centuries.

Rene Van Wingerden launched Ocean Breeze Farms in 1973, using what he learned from his father and from Future Farmers of America in his school days—as he put it, "I went to the College of Hard Knocks."

Once upon a time, Van Wingerden and his relatives grew chrysanthemums, but he discontinued that flower several years ago amid intense competition from imports.

"Now, we are focusing on gerbera daisies," he said. "We have oriental lilies, and we do have some hydrangeas. We try to try different things and see what fits into our marketing program."

Cut flowers grown in California contribute more than just beauty—the state accounted for 74% of the country's wholesale production value, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, at $4.02 billion in 2019—the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Fresh as a daisy

A gerbera's journey from Van Wingerden's farm to your home actually begins more than half a year earlier, when gerbera plants arrive at the farm as tissue cultures in trays. "It takes 10 weeks from that stage in our propagation house," Van Wingerden said, "then another 10 weeks before we pick our first flowers, and then it takes another 20 weeks before we actually have a commercial production."

In the greenhouse

Here's the dirt on growing daisies: Van Wingerden doesn't use any. Gerberas grow hydroponically in his greenhouses. "You take it out of the soil, and you put them in a pot with what we call a substrate," he said. "We use cocoa fibers." Carpets made with cocoa fibers are long lasting, and the growing media is the same, he noted. "It keeps its structure instead of becoming mush."

Going Dutch

Van Wingerden came to the U.S. in 1967 when his parents emigrated from Holland, along with three of his uncles and their families. "I always say I am a very lucky person that I was born over there," he said. "I got a certain amount of upbringing over there. I was 13 years old when I came over here, and I said I'm luckier yet to live in America, living the American dream."

Going coastal

Why Carpinteria? After Rhode Island and Colorado proved too snowy for the Van Wingerden brothers, they made their way to California. One morning at breakfast in Santa Barbara, one of the uncles noted the ideal coastal climate and said, "This is it, guys." Flower farmers want warm days and cold nights, Van Wingerden noted, something the Central Coast and interior have. "So they kept going down the coast to Carpinteria, and they found 28 acres," he said. "That's how history was laid out."

Life in the slow lane

"I am in my last five or 10 years of work," Van Wingerden said. His son Ivor now runs the Ocean Breeze branch in Nipomo. One niece, Casey Rosenberg, is general manager in Carpinteria; another, Cagney Miller, runs the mass-marketing arm, Mobi's. "I don't think I'll ever retire, because I wouldn't know what to do with myself, but I'm very proud of my nieces and my son, that they are one of the few flower growers left in America," Van Wingerden said.

The impact of imports

What might surprise people about the flowers they find in the store? "We have taken polls, and the consumer thinks that everything comes from America," Van Wingerden said. In reality, only 20% are from America; most of the rest are from South America. "Ask where your flowers come from," he suggested. "Are they certified American grown?" Details on U.S. blooms are available at americangrownflowers.org.

Kevin Hecteman


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