From left, Cindy Luster, Alfredo Gomez and Charlotte Acevedo walk through the California Exotic Specialty Fruits farm in Fallbrook, June 17, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Growers of some of San Diego County’s most lucrative crops — flowers, nursery plants and exotic fruits — can now get federal cash to cover some coronavirus-related losses. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s initial relief program left out these small farmers who contribute significantly to the county’s nearly $1.8 billion agricultural economy

The department expanded the program to include more specialty crops in August and announced last week it would make an additional $14 billion available to farmers through mid-December. Growers could begin applying for the relief this week.

Why this matters

San Diego County has the most small farmers of any county in the U.S., and an agriculture industry worth more than a billion dollars. Among the most valuable crops are flowers, nursery plants and fruits.

Hannah Gbeh, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, called the federal aid “the lifeline our producers need to help weather the economic challenges that came along with the pandemic.”

The addition of flowers as well as cherimoyas, pomegranates and other unusual fruit will make a difference for the local agricultural industry, Gbeh said. 

Flowers and nursery products brought in more than $1.2 billion to the county in 2018, making them the most valuable local crops. Sales plummeted during the spring when florist shops and large event venues had to close to prevent the spread of the virus.

Though some farmers have pivoted to online sales since then, it’s been a struggle.

Michael Mellano, the CEO of flower company Mellano & Co., is shown in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Michael Mellano)

Michael Mellano, president and CEO of Mellano & Co., said his flower business went from a record year to 10 percent of sales in a matter of days when the COVID-19 pandemic led to a government shutdown of businesses in March.

His company is headquartered in Los Angeles, but its fields are in San Luis Rey near Camp Pendleton and in Carlsbad. Mellano said his business went from 300 employees, including retail workers, to a “skeleton crew” of around 20 people in the fields working to keep the plants alive.

He’s now evaluating what changes in his business are temporary and which ones may be permanent. For example, some of his buyers are now using more flowers grown abroad in their bouquets.

“The coming months will dictate our ability to remain open,” Mellano said.

He and other growers worked with Democratic Rep. Mike Levin, who represents North County, to get flowers included in the federal relief program. Mellano said he is in the process of applying for the aid and hopes it will offset some of his losses.

“It will be very difficult if we have to rebuild all these economic engines from scratch after COVID passes, so I really view it as critical that we keep them viable and functioning,” he said.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Camille von Kaenel is a former investigative reporter for inewsource focused on environment and energy in San Diego and Imperial counties. Her position was partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists. Previously, she covered growth and development in San...