Indoor floral and nursery crops in San Mateo County increased value last year, so it came as a bit of a shock to some that Bay City Flower Co. announced on Sept. 10 it was closing its doors. The company’s been a fixture of the Coastside agriculture industry for decades.
The closure will affect dozens of jobs, but local service providers say they are ready to offer assistance.
“Due to today’s changing business environment and the challenge of selling locally grown flowers, potted plants and specialty crops in recent years, our family-owned business will be closing after more than 100 years and four generations,” the company stated in a prepared release. The last day the business will ship flowers is Nov. 10, according to the company.
Workers told officials at Coastside Hope and Puente de la Costa Sur they had been laid off. Puente Executive Director Rita Mancera said she was told that 60 people had been laid off and that as many as another 190 could follow. Bay City Flower executives declined to comment on the exact number of employees affected.
“This is a real blow to the community,” said Half Moon Bay Mayor Harvey Rarback. “It’s a horrible tragedy.”
Former mayor and local farmer John Muller recalled working for the Higaki family, which has run the company since its inception, in 1963 to save money to attend his senior ball.
“It was kind of a mud hole in those days. They’re a hardworking family; it’s very emotional,” Muller said. “It’s an alarming sign of the times for small businesses in America.”
San Mateo County has a rich history of producing potted plants, largely due to the ideal climate for nurseries.
“Before urbanization, (San Mateo County) used to be one of the most productive flower-producing regions in the world,” said county Agricultural Commissioner Fred Crowder.
In 2018, the value of potted plants grew to about $81 million from $76.4 million the year prior. Production square footage dipped from last year, but prices increased slightly as operations continued to transition to higher value products, according to Crowder. In the county, there are currently 16 greenhouse operations producing ornamental plants, foliage and flowers.
Although Crowder said it’s a little surprising Bay City Flower closed, he knows the California industry is competing with rising costs of labor and production.
“It’s a low-value commodity that involves significant amount of labor. Imports are so much cheaper and get produced for less of a cost,” Crowder said.
However, potted plants do not face the same threat from foreign competition that locally produced consumable vegetables have because they cannot be imported because of the soil, according to California Cut Flower Commission Interim CEO Dave Pruitt.
Pruitt explained that it’s not the economic climate that has changed in the past decade. It’s the general cost of operation in the state. Unable to speculate on Bay City’s closure, Pruitt noted that potted plant growers in other areas of the state can produce for less money.
It remains to be seen how the company’s existing greenhouses might be used after the closure, but utilizing them to grow cannabis is a potential option. Bay City’s property sits on both Half Moon Bay city limits and in an unincorporated area of the county. The property within the city limits is not eligible for cannabis production and the section in the unincorporated area would be subject to the county’s regulations, according to Deputy City Manager Matthew Chidester. The release stated only that the company would seek “alternative uses” for its infrastructure on the coast.
Meanwhile, as the first wave of workers got their pink slips last week, organizations such as Coastside Hope are preparing to help anyone suddenly jobless.
“I do not think anyone was expecting it, so it feels very sudden,” said Coastside Hope Executive Director Judith Guerrero.
Some of the agricultural workers have been in the same industry for years, making the transition to a new profession difficult, Guerrero explained.
“There is an adjustment period. Individuals are going to have to be open to working in a different industry,” Guerrero said.
Puente of Pescadero and Half Moon Bay-based Ayudando Latinos a Soñar are also doing outreach with anyone impacted.
“A place closing with five, 10, 15 employees is going to have an impact. So, a company of this size, the word that comes to mind ... is it’s traumatic,” said Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Bureau CEO Krystlyn Giedt.
Giedt, who’s been with the Chamber for a little over a year, said she heard several positive stories about the Higaki family and Bay City Flower. “The business community clearly has a profound respect for the family and the business itself,” Giedt said.
Bay City Flower was founded in Redwood City in 1910 by Nobuo Higaki, a Japanese immigrant who grew cut carnations, roses, chrysanthemums and gardenias, according to the company’s website. Now, the business sells blooming plants, such as succulents and hydrangeas, primarily to supermarkets, including Trader Joe’s.
The family was forced into internment during World War II. After the war, Harry Higaki, the first son of Nobuo, returned to the Peninsula farm and incorporated the business under its current name. The company relocated to Half Moon Bay in 1959.
In 2012, Bay City Chief Executive Harrison Higaki was named Farmer of the Year at the annual Farm Day Luncheon in Half Moon Bay.
“It’s very sad, but I am confident our community, as it always does, will come together to help those affected by this,” Guerrero said.
Various government agencies and nonprofits offer services that might be useful to those impacted by Bay City Flower layoffs.
Coastside Hope: The nonprofit has a food pantry on-site. For help with food, housing, CalFresh, Medi-Cal, or similar issues, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or (650) 523-3536.
Puente de la Costa Sur: A South Coast nonprofit assisting with economic security, advocacy and community health can be reached at (650) 879-0973 in Pescadero or (650) 747-0284 in La Honda.
Ayudando Latinos a Soñar: This nonprofit provides help to farmworkers. (650) 243-1725.
CalFresh benefits: Contact getcalfresh.org or (650) 594-5917.
Unemployment benefits: edd.ca.gov or 1-800-480-3287 (English) 1-866-658-8846 (Spanish).