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Gone?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While January’s rains were a blessing for the county’s citrus and avocado growers, they were a horticultural nightmare for many others tilling the soil for profit.

Flower farmers, who should be busy harvesting for the Valentine’s Day rush, are now ankle-deep in soggy mud, clearing dead plants from their fields and worrying about the future.

“It couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” said Kim Okamura, owner of K. Okamura Flowers in Somis. “We lost probably 50% of our crop during the rain.”

Okamura grows primarily decorative baby’s breath, the small, white crown-like flowers used in floral arrangements. They are in especially big demand this time of year.

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Okamura is still calculating losses because of the rain, but the amount could run into tens of thousands of dollars.

Though light, intermittent rains are ideal for flower cultivation, the storm that stuck to the Ventura County coast like dried molasses pounded flowers into the mud and ripped the budding petals off their stems.

Now instead of harvesting their pastel-colored crops in anticipation of a big Valentine’s Day paycheck, they are looking to the Easter holiday as a way to make up for lost profits.

“My customers are mad,” said Sumi Arimura, owner of Camarillo Floral in Oxnard. “I’m scared that we’re going to lose some customers because of this.”

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Arimura, who grows a variety of flowers for sale back East, said he has lost about 35% of his crop and expects a loss of more than $30,000.

Flower cultivation is a booming business in Ventura County, with $32.9 million in sales in 1995, according to the Ventura County Agricultural Commission. That was up from about $28.7 million in 1994.

Rex Laird, chairman of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, estimated that the cut-flower industry is one of the county’s 10 largest cash crops.

But Valentine gift givers needn’t worry about a shortage of flowers. Roses were unaffected by the rain because they are generally grown in hothouses and are protected from the elements.

However, that won’t keep the price of roses down.

As the holiday approaches, florists expect to begin gradually raising prices, which will range from $30 to $120 for a dozen long-stemmed roses.

January’s deluge dumped more than twice the county’s average annual rainfall on the area. For example, Oxnard, which normally sees about 8 inches of rain by this time of year, has been swamped by more than 13 inches so far.

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The excessive rain also had strawberry growers in a panic because the notoriously fickle fruit is easily damaged by rain.

“We were a little concerned,” said Michael Conroy, operator of Conroy Farms in Oxnard. “But it was a cool rain and it’s still so early in the season that I don’t think it’ll have much of an effect at all.”

However, with the excess moisture, growers have had to use more fungicides to protect the sweet red fruit from mold and fungus.

Conroy thought that in the long run, all the rain would benefit strawberry growers, just as long as they don’t get too much more until after the June harvest.

Avocado, lemon and other citrus growers, however, cheered as more and more rain fell on their crops.

“I can’t remember a year when the rains began so early,” said Link Leavens of Leavens Fairview Ranch in Moorpark. “It’s been absolutely great because there’s been so much and it’s been so consistent. It’s definitely going to be good for us.”

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Besides giving citrus trees plenty of water for fruit to ripen, Leavens said the rain helps cleanse the soil by leeching it of harmful minerals like calcium.

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But National Weather Service meteorologists predict that farmers will have a chance to dry out in February. Ventura County can expect to receive normal amounts of rain, about 3 inches, and above-normal temperatures.

That’s good news for flower growers who hope to make up for the loss this spring.

“I just hope the rest of the winter is nothing like we’ve seen so far,” Okamura said. “It’s been frustrating.”


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