Nurseries feel the chill

Times Staff Writer

Arctic cold blew a hole through Gilbert Lopez’s nursery business this month, blackening his begonias with ice and crowning his violas with frost.

The chill destroyed 35% -- or $80,000 worth -- of the 480,000 plants at his Gardena Hills Nursery, which supplies small retail garden centers in Southern California, Lopez said.

The loss continues to climb as more plants on his nearly 7-acre property succumb to injuries inflicted by the cold.

“We lost the plants,” he said. “Now, we’re going to lose our sales.”


The damage to California’s $3-billion nursery industry comes as shoppers normally would be planning purchases to get gardens blooming by spring.

Ruined inventories at growers and retail nurseries approach 50% in some cases and have left some owners of these often small businesses without the resources to clean up their fields, pay employees or replenish their plant supply.

Overall, the freeze is estimated to have caused as much as $1 billion in damage to California’s $32-billion farm economy, largely to the citrus, avocado and strawberry crops. An estimated 12,000 farmworkers lost their jobs.

Nursery losses in Ventura County alone amounted to $85 million, said Earl McPhail, the county’s agricultural commissioner. The damage in Los Angeles County is still being tallied, though some nurseries have reported 50% to 60% inventory losses, said Richard Sokulsky, deputy agriculture commissioner.


“I think there’s going to be more damage that shows up,” Sokulsky said.

About 45 nurseries are asking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare Los Angeles County a disaster area. The governor already has declared a state of emergency in 17 counties, including San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura, clearing the way for federal aid.

Adding to the woes of growers and retailers are customers who, fearing more bad weather, are holding off on purchasing plants.

“Everybody’s going to be set back,” said John Schoustra, president of the Nursery Growers Assn., which represents 270 members, mostly in Southern California.


“The hopeful little thread is that we’ve lost a lot and we’ll be two months behind in the market, but a lot of homeowners lost plants, so there will be a lot of demand,” he said. “The silver lining is that they’ll be able to sell what they have to sell.”

But some growers say that the silver lining will be a costly one for home gardeners.

The plant loss has tightened supply and could lead to higher prices, said Vera Martinez, office manager at MB Landscaping & Nursery, a wholesaler that lost a third of its crop -- about $1 million in damage.

“Not only has it affected nurseries, but it will affect consumers -- gardeners and people who want to buy flowers,” said Martinez, noting that Southern California provides plants and flowers to Northern California and other states. “Ultimately, they are going to pay more because of the shortage of the plants.”


Lopez estimates the price increases could be in the 8% to 10% range, probably starting in February.

But others in the industry are skeptical that the freeze will have much of an effect on the retail market.

Local growers don’t have the ability to raise prices, said Schoustra of the nursery association, because of competition from Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and other regions that grow plants to supply retailers.

Moreover, the big players on the retail side of the business -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Cos. -- are unlikely to change their pricing structure. And any plant losses suffered by the big chains are tiny in relation to their overall sales.


“We do have some colored products growing outdoors, but those are with growers or vendors that have the ability to cover their plants with frost cloths,” said Jennifer Wilson, a spokeswoman for Lowe’s. “The growers we work with -- they’re equipped for things like this.”

Home Depot spokeswoman Kathryn Gallagher said the chain’s customers wouldn’t see an increase either.

“There may be delays on the availability of a specific product because a crop was damaged, but it will be short term,” Gallagher said.

For most customers, Schoustra said, the freeze isn’t going to be that big a deal.


“There are going to be a few items that won’t be replaceable, but you can grow 400 [different] trees in California. So what if the ficus froze?” he said. “People have options, that’s the main thing. If you can’t buy a Toyota, there’s plenty of Hondas.”

But for small businesses, such as Lopez’s, the bite of the frost still stings.

“This is going to cost a whole lot of money,” he said. “It could be $150,000, just for a little guy like me.”