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Field of dreams: Teamwork turns rocky ravine into thriving family business

Mar./Apr. 2010 California Country magazine

Kendall Farms in San Diego County is growing with "new, trendy and hot" cut flowers.


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Cousins Troy Conner, left, and Jason Kendall grow more than 115 varieties of exotic flowers and greenery on the rugged hillsides of eastern San Diego County.

By most definitions, Kendall Farms doesn't look like other California flower farms. You won't see elegant roses and ruffled carnations being pampered in protective greenhouses.

Instead, the 115 floral varieties grown on the farm's rugged hillsides in eastern San Diego County are surrounded by chaparral and cactus. Kendall Farms specializes in hardy Australian and South African flowers and greenery that thrive in the area's harsh desert environment.


Protea

"The unusual plantings draw considerable curiosity," farm owner Jason Kendall said. "Visitors are often surprised at the wide variety of plants and the range of colors and textures we grow."

Floral trendsetters, looking for fresh design options, are equally impressed. They routinely call the farm asking, "What's new? What's trendy? What's hot?"

And Kendall Farms has answers.

Their Australian pincushions, for example, command attention with their creamy green centers and hot orange tips. Floral wholesalers and designers are also snapping up proteas, native to South Africa, because of their showy blossoms and muted colors.


Teddy Bear Sunflower

Then there's brilliant red cockscomb, blooming yellow acacia, orange kangaroo paw and deep purple artichoke flowers—all non-traditional florals used to dress up arrangements with unexpected touches. Added to that are cattails, russet-colored broomcorn, spear-shaped flax and other foliage that provide visual interest and fullness to floral designs.

Kendall said specialty cut flowers and greenery like these compete with traditional hot-house varieties, which are often shipped to U.S. markets from international growers located thousands of miles away. He points out that California-grown floral products can be cut at the farm in the morning and be in a shopper's home the next day.


Pincushion

"Not only is the shorter trip to market better for the environment, it also means fresher, longer-lasting flowers for the consumer," Kendall said.

Field-grown flowers and shrubs are harvested year-round at the farm, founded in 1987 by Kendall's father, Dave. Starting with a lot of optimism and 50 acres of land, the former IBM salesman saw beyond the rugged terrain to a future that included a lush and colorful landscape—and a flourishing family business.

Although the elder Kendall died in 2002 before fully realizing his vision, his son, daughter, nephew, other family members and committed employees have kept the dream alive—even in the face of daunting setbacks.


Ring-of-Fire Sunflower

Kendall Farms now sells its floral products nationwide using both conventional and organic farming techniques on 500 acres. Many of the plants are perennial, blanketing the steep hillsides year after year. The permanent crops are kept lush through in-fill planting and they are changed out to reflect consumer demand.

In the farm's flatter areas, the fields pop with a variety of colorful sunflowers, daisies and asters.

Maintaining this patchwork of color is no small feat. Soon after Jason Kendall and his cousin, Troy Conner, took over operations, the farm was hit by a major flood. Then, in 2007, a catastrophic wildfire destroyed three-quarters of their permanent plantings and badly damaged the farm.


The packing shed is where the farm's production comes together. Workers like Efigenia Avalos, center, pull the flowers and greenery into market bunches, carefully checking quality before shipping.

"We're all about family," said Conner, when asked why he walked away from a promising career in law enforcement to become the farm's general manager. "And, we're committed to being part of a beautiful business.

"We knew we couldn't quit on the family," he added and grinned, "Besides, even if we wanted to, who'd buy a burned-out flower farm?"

One of the things the young farmers did to recover was switch to organic growing practices. Because the farm essentially had to be rebuilt and replanted, Kendall said it made sense to transition to more sustainable practices.


Rose and Jason Conner check to see if the amaranthus crop is ready for harvest. Floral designers use the amaranthus and the cattail to add visual interest to bouquets.

In addition to being certified organic growers for a number of their flower crops, Kendall Farms was the nation's first floral farm to be certified by VeriFlora. The international program ensures that participating flower growers meet strict environmental, social and quality requirements—from soil preparation and planting through growing, harvesting and distribution.

Although certification requirements are rigorous, Kendall and Conner said they think the approach is a win-win situation for everyone—consumers, the environment and Kendall Farms.

"We aim to grow not only the highest quality flowers, but also ensure the land is receiving the best possible care," Kendall said. "We want to keep farming here indefinitely."

Kasey Cronquist, executive director of the California Cut Flower Commission, said consumers can support local growers like Kendall Farms and help keep jobs in California by the choices they make in floral departments, farmers markets and flower shops. In 2007, those purchases totaled more than $330 million in sales of California cut flowers and foliage and supported more than 19,000 local jobs, along with more than 250 family farms.

To promote the sale of locally grown floral products, the commission has launched a new "hint" campaign. It includes an attractive postcard that can be picked up in the floral departments of participating retailers, including Safeway and Vons.

With messages like "I'm cooking dinner. Are you bringing the flowers?" and "I dare you to buy me flowers," Cronquist said the whimsical cards can be tucked into lunch boxes, left on computer keyboards or stuck to car windshields.

The cards are an extension of the "California Grown" campaign that has been going on for some time, Cronquist said. "Consumers have a choice when they purchase flowers. We want them to know that."

Across California, flower growers like Kendall Farms are hoping consumers will take the "hint" and choose to buy locally grown floral products.

"We offer unusual flowers and bouquets year-round," Kendall said. "We're counting on shoppers to see the beauty and value and take home California-grown flowers."

To find out if a floral selection is from California, check stickers on packaging for the distinctive "California Grown" label or look for individual California farm logos. Most floral department staff welcome questions about the source of the products they sell.

More information on California cut flowers is available online at www.ccfc.org.

More information about Kendall Farms is available at www.kendall-farms.com.

Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or kcampbell@californiacountry.org.

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