January 29, 1998

Losing The Rose War Unable To Compete With Foreign Growers, Jacobson Greenhouses Closes

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A single stemless rose floated in a small goblet on Don Jacobson’s windowsill last week.

It was the last of the 36 million roses he raised under glass in southeast Spokane.

Jacobson’s Greenhouses closed this month, the victim of cheaper foreign competition and high production costs.

“We’re sad to see it end,” said Jacobson, 68.

Now, land that once grew fragrant blooms for lovers is attracting suitors of different kind.

Word is out Jacobson wants to sell his 12-acre spread at 57th and the Palouse Highway.

The land has obvious commercial potential and has caught the eye of developers. Agents have called regularly.

Jacobson is playing coy. He said he’s worked hard for too many years to fall for the first offer that comes along.

His father, Alfred Jacobson, started the business in 1917 as one of the earliest developments on Moran Prairie. Don Jacobson went to work there in 1953.

The greenhouses made it through coal rationing in World War II, the energy crisis of the 1970s and volcanic fallout from Mount St. Helens in 1980.

In the end, Jacobson couldn’t stem his losses against the flood of cheap foreign roses coming from South America and Mexico.

He and his partner, Allen Williamson, were losing too much money.

“Rather than keep fighting, it is easier to say enough is enough,” said Williamson. “It’s like a death in the family.”

Fully 70 percent of the cut roses sold in the United States come from tropical countries, where labor costs are low and regulations less restrictive. Many South American flower workers earn as little as $3 a day, less than the minimum wage for a single hour of work here.

The Jacobson operation employed 10 workers at decent wages, paid its taxes and complied with worker protection rules.

The use of pesticides - a necessity in growing fine flowers - was rigidly controlled.

In recent years, the government ordered the use of lower toxicity sprays in an ongoing effort to protect worker safety. Those weaker sprays proved to be less effective and more costly.

To make matters worse, the federal government officially supported efforts to establish foreign flower production through relaxed trade laws, foreign loans and technical expertise.

“They couldn’t have done a better job if they’d planned to destroy an industry,” Jacobson said. “Our government doesn’t give a darn is what it amounts to.”

Foreign roses sell at the wholesale level for about 20 cents a flower. Compare that with the 89 cents it cost Jacobson to grow each of his roses last year.

He said the foreign producers a few years ago sold roses for as little as 4 cents apiece in an effort to drive U.S. growers out of business.

The industry’s trade group asked the government to enforce legal protections against the anti-competitive practices of foreign growers, but lost.

In 1991, Congress enacted the Andean Trade Preference Act, which removed tariffs from flowers and other goods produced in countries known to be sources of cocaine.

The idea was to encourage legitimate agriculture to replace the need to grow coca.

According to a report by the U.S. International Trade Commission, the law “had little effect on drug crop eradication in the Andean region in 1995.”

At one time, Jacobson grew 800,000 roses a year on 30,000 bushes in greenhouses covering an acre and a half. The vast majority of them were distributed wholesale to more than 200 retail outlets in the region.

Jacobson prided himself on producing roses that would last up to two weeks. They came with tight buds and slowly unfurled to display their large fragrant bloom, he said.

As a result, Jacobson commanded a slightly higher price, but not high enough to make a profit for the past three years.

By contrast, foreign roses are harvested several days too early and, as a result, often droop and die before the bud unfurls.

The rose growers’ trade association predicts that 100 million roses will be purchased in the United States for the first time this Valentine’s Day.

In the end, consumers will be the losers, Jacobson said.

Americans may not be ending their love affair with the rose, but they are probably going to be disappointed with the quality, said Jim Krone, executive vice president of Roses Inc.

“It’s not unusual for them to last just two days,” he said of the foreign competition.

In the 1970s, the U.S. had more than 300 rose growers. In 1996, the number was down to 165, and continues to fall, he said.

Ironically, the rose is the national flower.

Two wholesale rose growers remain in the Spokane region. They are Hughes Greenhouses in Post Falls and Rosedale Greenhouses in the Spokane Valley.

In an effort to survive the competition, some growers are marketing fresh “vine ripened” roses over the Internet at about $30 a dozen for long-stem blooms.

Jacobson opened a retail outlet at the greenhouses a few years ago to increase sales. They had a loyal clientele, but couldn’t draw enough business to make up for their wholesale losses.

“The market has just gotten tougher and tougher and tougher,” Jacobson said.

“I doubt if there will be any cut roses grown in the United States any more,” he said.

Most growers have been family operations like the Jacobsons.

“It’s the American dream somebody has pulled the toilet plunger on,” Krone said.

Jacobson Greenhouses closed the same day Washington State University played in the Rose Bowl after its 67-year absence.

While they wait to make a real estate deal, Jacobson and Williamson are selling off the bushes, equipment and greenhouses.

He’s not sure how well the shrubs will survive transplanting, but he’s considering a public sale next spring.

The future of the land is in some doubt. Jacobson said growth has been so steady in southeast Spokane that the property is bound to be used for shopping or some other neighborhood services.

Fire District 8 has asked about using the site for a new station, he said.

Currently, the property lies just outside of the urban growth area boundary established last year by the Spokane County commissioners. That means the land could only be used for residential development in the short term.

However, the Growth Management Act requires the county to revise its urban boundary every five years. Eventually, the land could be included in the urban area, which would allow more intense development, said John Mercer, director of long-range planning for the county.

Members of the Moran Prairie Neighborhood Association had no immediate reaction to the possibility of commercial development on the property.

Susan Brudnicki, association president, said she would like to see a park somewhere in that vicinity.

“I really think there are more appropriate uses than a strip mall or another apartment complex,” she said.

Greg Sweeney, a board member, said the county needs to make sure the area has adequate sewers, utilities and streets before allowing larger development.

Like a farmer, Jacobson said he is willing to be patient.

Jacobson regrets putting an end to the family tradition of growing roses, he said, but he’s thankful he had the chance to bring beauty to people’s lives over the years.

“It’s nice to retire, but I’m sorry I’m closing the place down because there won’t be anything there for my grandchildren,” he said.

“There’s always a sad note to these things when they change.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This story also ran in the North Side Voice on January 29, 1998, page N7, in the column Cross-Town Neighbors: News from the South Side.

This story also ran in the North Side Voice on January 29, 1998, page N7, in the column Cross-Town Neighbors: News from the South Side.


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