A Monterey County ordinance aims to help flower growers whose businesses have been undercut by cheap imports. (Mark Fiore/KQED)
Rows of dilapidated greenhouses line the little farm roads on the southeastern outskirts of Salinas. People once called this area the "flower basket of America." Most of the flowers are now gone, but they could soon be replaced with marijuana.
It’s legal to smoke recreational marijuana in California, but you still can’t grow it commercially. The state plans to start issuing permits sometime in 2018, and people around California are angling to get in on the cash crop. In Monterey County, many who want to start cultivating cannabis -- like George Omictin -- once made a living growing flowers.
Omictin’s family owns a plot of land southeast of Salinas. The property has a house under construction surrounded by a clutch of rundown greenhouses. A few already have collapsed. Others are in sad shape, leaning to one side or the other, huge holes in their plastic. Omictin said the family had to reinforce the greenhouses; otherwise, a strong storm could have come through and blown more of them down.
His parents were immigrants and migrant workers. They bought property in the early 2000s, trying to become owners instead of laborers. But then cheap flowers from overseas undercut the U.S. market. At one point, Omictin said they were selling bouquets at 10 cents a bunch just so they wouldn’t rot in the greenhouses.
The family hasn’t grown flowers since 2008. Instead, they have been renting out the greenhouses, trying to make enough money to stay afloat while they search for a sustainable way to earn a living and hold onto their land. The family has debts to pay off. To do that, they will no longer grow pretty flowers, Omictin said, but perhaps smokable ones.
Monterey County is helping flower growers get into the marijuana business. It passed an ordinance saying you can grow cannabis only in old greenhouses. Aaron Johnson, a local lawyer who specializes in marijuana, says the county is trying to do two things: to save the greenhouses and prevent new cannabis farms from springing up all over the place.
“You have these vast crop lands. They didn’t want those to be paved over for greenhouses,” Johnson said. “So they basically said, ‘Look, keep it at the existing greenhouses, use these things that are falling down.’ ”
The ordinance suddenly turned the eyesore greenhouses on the outskirts of Salinas into valuable commodities.
“Literally within a period of two weeks I saw the prices go from $50,000 an acre for undeveloped industrial land to about $300,000 an acre,” Johnson said.
“Basically, the county threw a life vest to save us now,” Omictin said.
At first, Omictin’s conservative father was reluctant to grab the life vest because marijuana is a drug. He worried SWAT teams might come in and raid the place. His son eventually convinced him that cannabis could be a lifesaver. And the fact that the federal government still labels marijuana a drug was actually a big part of its appeal.
Because cannabis is in a legal gray area, it may be a more commercially reliable crop than flowers. Marijuana cannot be legally transported across international borders the way flowers are. They pour in from South American countries where workers are paid far less and the flowers are far cheaper.
The stream of cheap flowers from places like Colombia has put many U.S. growers out of business, said Kasey Cronquist, CEO of the California Cut Flower Commission. Today Cronquist said only a handful of rose or chrysanthemum growers are left in the country and not a single farmer who grows carnations.
"People can't believe it,” Cronquist said. “How did we do this? How did we get here? Well, it goes back to these trade agreements in the early '90s, and the rest is history."
That history begins with cocaine. Starting in 1991, the U.S. signed trade deals aiming to get South American cocaine growers to cultivate flowers instead. First there was the Andean Trade Preference Act, and then in 2012 the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Through these deals, the government has sent hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, and it has cut tariffs on South American flowers.
Cronquist said the U.S. overlooked the microeconomic effects of these trade deals on individual industries like cut flowers. Instead, he said the country focused on the diplomatic effort to limit cocaine production, which despite U.S. intervention still continues in South America. Cronquist called the whole endeavor “trade policy run amok.”
To survive the cheap U.S.-subsidized flowers streaming in from South America, farmers here sought protected niches. Some tried potted flowers. They are in soil that is very difficult to transport across borders because of customs restrictions. Other farmers got into edible crops like lettuce, which are highly perishable.
In Salinas, families like the Omictins are now betting on cannabis. They hope the feds won’t crack down once they start growing. But at the same time, they want marijuana to remain in enough of a legal gray area that it is protected from the forces of globalization. Otherwise, marijuana farmers overseas could start shipping in boatloads of legal product at dirt-cheap prices.
Then they would be right back where they started: with greenhouses filled with weeds that no one wants to buy.