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Monterey County Helps Former Flower Growers Switch To Marijuana

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If on this Friday you find yourself picking up a bouquet for your favorite person, there are some pretty good odds that those blooms were grown in Colombia. Turns out, the U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing the flower industry in Colombia. It's all part of an effort to undercut cocaine production there. As a result, American flower producers have been squeezed out of business, and California is now thinking creatively about how to help them. Here's Sam Harnett from member station KQED.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC BILLOWING)

SAM HARNETT, BYLINE: This plastic flapping in the wind once covered a greenhouse in what was known as the flower basket of America. We're on the outskirts of Salinas, farmland made famous by John Steinbeck's writing. In the early 1990s, dozens of families had thriving flower businesses here, but now many of the greenhouses are dilapidated or abandoned.

GEORGE OMICTIN: This used to be greenhouses here, and it collapsed.

HARNETT: George Omictin is standing in the ruins of one of his family's greenhouses. His parents were immigrants from the Philippines, migrant workers. They bought property in the early 2000s, trying to become owners instead of laborers. But then cheap, imported flowers undercut the U.S. market and their business.

OMICTIN: For a bouquet, we even sold it for 10 cents a bunch. That's how low we were selling them 'cause we had to get them out as soon as possible.

HARNETT: The family hasn't grown flowers since 2008. Instead, they've been renting out the greenhouses and looking for a way to hold on to their land.

OMICTIN: Yeah, we do have debts to pay off.

HARNETT: That won't happen with pretty flowers but perhaps smokeable ones. Monterey County is helping flower growers enter the marijuana business. It passed an ordinance stating you can only grow cannabis in existing greenhouses on old farmland. Aaron Johnson is a local lawyer who specializes in the growing marijuana industry. He says the county is trying to do two things, rejuvenate the greenhouses and prevent new cannabis farms from springing up all over.

AARON JOHNSON: You've got these vast croplands. They didn't want those to be, you know, paved over for greenhouses. So they basically said, look, keep it at the existing greenhouses. Use these things that are falling down.

HARNETT: The ordinance turned these falling-down things, the eyesore greenhouses, into real estate gold.

JOHNSON: The price has gone from 30,000 or 40,000 per acre to about 300,000 an acre.

OMICTIN: Basically, the county has, you know, threw a life vest for us, you know, to save us right now.

HARNETT: Omictin says, at first, his conservative father was reluctant to grab the life vest because marijuana's a drug.

OMICTIN: He's scared that if, you know, SWAT or helicopters came down in and - where are we going to live then?

HARNETT: But the legal gray area is actually what eventually convinced his father cannabis was a good bet - at least better than flowers. Because marijuana is a drug, it cannot be legally transported across international borders. The commodity is protected from globalization, unlike flowers. Today, there's hardly a single rose or chrysanthemum grower left in the United States says Kasey Cronquist. He's CEO of the California Cut Flower Commission.

KASEY CRONQUIST: People can't believe it. How did we do this? How did we get here? And it goes back to these trade agreements in the early '90s, and kind of the rest is history.

HARNETT: Since 1991, the United States has sent hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to Colombian flower farmers. Labor costs there are low. And on top of that, the U.S. cut tariffs on their flowers.

CRONQUIST: That's what I think is kind of a trade policy run amok.

HARNETT: To survive, U.S. farmers sought protected niches, like lettuce, which is highly perishable. Or potted flowers - they're in soil, which is a customs nightmare. In Salinas, flower-growers like the Omictins are now considering the marijuana business, which is ironic because at the same time, the U.S. keeps sending money to Colombia hoping drug producers there will get into the flower industry.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Harnett in Salinas.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS' "ACID RAINDROPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.