California poinsettia grower is branching out to survive

Bloomberg News

Poinsettias, the red-leafed symbol of Christmas, are on display in homes, offices and churches worldwide this week. At the same time, the California farm that produces most of the plants is fighting to survive.

The Ecke family has grown poinsettias in the seaside town of Encinitas, about 100 miles south of Los Angeles, since 1923. The Paul Ecke Ranch provides about 70% of the U.S. crop, down from 90% 15 years ago, and about half of all poinsettias sold worldwide.

Local voters rejected a rezoning attempt backed by the Eckes last year that would have allowed the sale of land from the 68-acre farm to raise money for upgrading greenhouses and equipment. The loss has prompted the family that pioneered the Christmas poinsettia to expand its line of plants and offer sale promotions with retailers such as Home Depot Inc.

"It swings us into survive mode rather than thrive mode," said Paul Ecke III, 51, who in the early 1990s became the family's third generation to run the farm named for his grandfather. "But I'd rather survive than die."

The company had found ways to cut costs by developing cuttings at farms in Guatemala, Mexico and Costa Rica, while keeping the plant breeding programs at the ranch in Encinitas.

The ranch sells about 60 varieties of poinsettia, named in the 1820s after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Ecke's grandfather touted poinsettias in the 1920s as a holiday flower because they bloom in the coldest months.

By the 1960s, Ecke's father was showcasing the plant in displays on the Dinah Shore and Bob Hope Christmas television specials and on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."

The ranch sells cuttings to more than 3,000 growers in the U.S. that nurture the plants to maturity, and to growers in 50 countries. The Eckes developed the top two varieties of poinsettia in the U.S. -- Freedom and Prestige. More than 65 million poinsettias were sold in the U.S. in 2000, making it the No. 1 flowering potted plant, Department of Agriculture data show.

Encinitas voters rejected a ballot measure last year to subdivide the poinsettia farm. Ecke had backed a proposition to change zoning on more than half the farm to residential from permanent agriculture to sell 101 lots to developers.

"I don't need 68 acres anymore," Ecke said. "I need 20 modern acres with robots, energy efficient boilers and modern greenhouses built for automation."

At issue was a 1994 agreement between Encinitas and the Eckes, who promised at the time to preserve the land for agricultural use after they were granted permission to develop portions for more than 1,000 homes, a shopping center and golf course.

Voters rejected the plan because it went beyond the agreement in 1994, said Encinitas Mayor Jim Bond.

"We support their modernization, but the public wasn't ready to say we'll fund it," Bond said.

Ecke, who this month presented Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with a "pumped up" poinsettia tree stretching 8 feet tall, said the ranch had to focus on ways to "add value" to its blooms in the eyes of retailers and consumers.

This has led to marketing programs with chains such as Atlanta-based Home Depot, which is the exclusive seller this season of Ice Punch, a vivid red poinsettia with white markings. Retailers are selling plants such as Kris Krinkle, which has crinkly leaves, with special growing pots, Ecke said.

The Ecke Ranch is also adding different plants through the acquisition in July of Connellsville, Pa.-based Oglevee Ltd. for an undisclosed price, creating the only North American breeder and producer of poinsettias and geraniums.

"We have to explore ways to keep the business alive," Ecke said. "We don't have a large pool of capital to tap into that we might have had."

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