“We believe successful and sustainable businesses are built on relationships, whether family, employee or business relationships. A company with the longevity we’ve had, the experiences we’ve had, well, it’s the partners we’ve had – whether customers, family members, our extended employee family, university people, what have you – that contributes to what we’re able to do. Relationships are the difference makers and what we use as a basis for operating our company.” – Mike Mellano
Mike Anthony Mellano is one of California’s preeminent flower growers. He serves as Vice President of Production for Mellano & Company, an operation founded by his grandfather in the 1920s. He holds a PhD in plant pathology from UC Riverside.
Mike is currently chair of the California Cut Flower Commission, a member of the USDA’s Floriculture Initiative Task Force and has served for many years as a representative to the “Council for Agricultural Research, Extension & Teaching” (CARET) for the University of California. He also serves on the University of California’s President’s Advisory Commission on Agriculture and Natural Resources.*
He was selected by the San Diego Farm Bureau as its 2014 Farmer of the Year.
Q: Your family has been farming in California since 1925. Your family’s story is a compelling narrative about immigrants, land and a vibrant, evolving, multigenerational family business. How does your family’s unique experience and history influence how you choose to operate your business?
A. We believe successful and sustainable businesses are built on relationships, whether family, employee or business relationships. A company with the longevity we’ve had, the experiences we’ve had, well, it’s the partners we’ve had – whether customers, family members, our extended employee family, university people, what have you – that contributes to what we’re able to do. Relationships are the difference makers and what we use as a basis for operating our company.
Q: As a producer, you face many and varied challenges: water, regulations, market demand and scale. Care to comment on some of these?
A: Those are all challenges we face. You also have to include urbanization, especially for us and for many flower farmers. Flower farmers tend to produce in areas where people want to live. This presents unique challenges. We are very fortunate that we as farmers have the buy local movement emphasized by the California Grown/Buy CA and the American Grown (flower) certification program (cut flower growers across the country who are certified as American Grown)…all these things play into national and movements to buy local and closer to home which helps us as farmers in urban settings.
“The public has its own perceptions of what farming is and should be about. Some of the public perceptions are shaped and influenced by people who lack knowledge of agriculture. That part of it is a constantly changing and growing dynamic that affects our business. We do our best to educate people about our operations, the job we do, how we care for workers, the environment and how it all works. It doesn’t always line up exactly with what a specific person expects or wants to see. We have to work through that with people. That’s the nature of farming.”
We’re in a challenging cycle for producers, which the drought has aggravated and complicated. Farmers have to adjust operations, whether cropping systems, crop choices or even planting. Farming is about cycles. I’m confident we’ll make it through this cycle and in the process, lay a path for what the next cycle has in store for us. And we’ll do it successfully. But the drought is definitely the burning issue of the moment.
A larger platform is the issue of politics. California is one of the most highly regulated and costly places to do business. Our main competitors are not other California growers. Our main competitors are from South America…Ecuador, Colombia. Those countries don’t have same cost structures we have, or face the same degree of scrutiny. At the end of the day is our competitive platform truly fair and equitable? Many of us argue it’s not.
The choices, decisions and regulations put in place by our elected officials are in many instances good, although we’d prefer not to have a forced hand. The system is a bit hypocritical though when you put regulations in place domestically to better a situation, and yet you bring the same products in from offshore that don’t comply with domestic standards and regulations. That’s transferring problems offshore.
Q: The California drought impacts the nation and the world. What changes might it bring about in the nation in terms of thinking about what, where and when we produce. How is the drought impacting your operations? Are there opportunities to be found in this crisis? What might the future hold for California, and agricultural production in the state?
A: California is in a cycle. The state will make it through this successfully and probably for the better in many regards. It’s unfortunate that farmers in many instances have been painted in a negative light relative to drought in terms of water usage and consumption. I don’t think that’s quite fair. The ultimate situation is that farmers are producers of food, fiber and flowers across the country. In some senses, it’s not really the farmer consuming the water…the customer and household are the ones ultimately consuming it, because they are buying what we produce.
“If you look at California’s agricultural water consumption in particular, over the last 30-40 years, the output of agriculture products per gallon of water has improved tremendously. There’s been a huge improvement. This is a testament to how farmers have worked to optimize and effectively use a resource their operations are dependent upon. In San Diego, water technology is incredibly innovative. Our objective is to use water wisely and efficiently for all concerned. Water is very expensive in San Diego – it’s like gold. So not much water is wasted or runs off our property given the high prices.”
Q: How have American trade policies impacted producers like you? What trade policies would benefit producers?
A: If you look at the cut flower industry over the last 40 or 50 years, you can clearly see the impact of imports. Since the late 1970s or early 1980s, California has represented the bulk of cut flowers producers in the United States. Today – and most people don’t know this – about 80% of flowers sold in the United States come from South America. The majority of flowers purchased by American consumers are no longer produced in California or the United States. They are produced in Columbia or Ecuador. Roses, carnations, chrysanthemums…the vast majority are produced down there. This is a direct result of the cost of production, regulations and trade policies.
“How do you create a trade scenario that’s good for everybody? It’s hard…it’s daunting. American consumers benefit vastly from trade agreements, but these trade agreements are often impacting producers across the country in a negative fashion, or forcing the hand of change more rapidly than producers can accommodate.”
Now if we’re going to have free trade policy, definitely things like environmental, labor concerns and human rights really need to be part of the equation. And it needs to be fair across the board. We should be looking to raise quality of life thresholds across all economic thresholds, whether in the United States or abroad. Why do we create a vehicle for goods and services across borders, but not other resources like labor?
Q: Are there particular models engaging your interest right now? Any trends you see?
A: We have definitely felt a strong benefit from the California Grown movement. The California cut flower growers have a large number of farms participating in the California Grown program. It’s really raised the identification of California producers. The success of this resulted in us forming an American Grown certification program.
The American Grown program includes farmers from California to New York and into Alaska and even down to Texas. We have members from all across the country, although the vast majority of producers are from California. Seventy-five percent of domestically produced flowers come from California. But it’s great that we have such broad representation across the country, with people who are passionate about cut flowers and serving the domestic marketplace.
Consumers are really responding to the buy local and American-sourced flower certification programs. The red, white and blue really resonates with people. The same bouquet of flowers going into supermarket with an American or California Grown label has seen a very significant (sometimes a double-digit) increase in sales once it’s known it’s a domestic product.
Q: California Grown. Should supporting local flower producers be as important as supporting local and regional food producers? What do you want consumers to know about your products, your work and your aspirations?
A: The short answer is YES. Supporting local and domestic agriculture whether it’s flowers or wine or food products is always good and reinforces the effort that we all put in to our farms day to day. Not to mention how it helps our local, state and national economies. Our industry is quite large and provides quite a number of jobs …. all the way from the workers in the fields through the sales and distribution aspects, not to mention the secondary jobs created through the supporting industries whether they are fertilizer and seed suppliers through to the companies that move our products around the country, it is a large and significant economic impact.
What people don’t always recognize about our products is that when they’re grown in California, just by the nature of how the state operates – whether flowers or food – it is the most environmentally-sound product, and the safest food supply in world without a doubt. Yet people find themselves fearful at times. We work really hard to make sure our products are the best they can be.
The work we do here is broad facing. We do a lot of work on our own farms and are invested in our local community and the state of California, and the nation for that matter. I, my cousins and my uncles do a lot of work with our local, state and national floral associations. As an example, I am proud to say that I serve on the UC PAC (University of California President’s Advisory Committee) and have the honor of advocating for the land grant university system through my role as a CARET (Council for Agriculture, Research, Extension & Teaching). In addition, we all work with our county farm bureaus and various national organizations. We put a lot of effort into relationships, and we think it’s important for us to participate on a lot of levels.
Q: What should consumers know about farming in general?
A: Farming is hard on a lot of fronts but all farmers I know do a fantastic job as stewards of land and resources used to produce our crops. As much as you try to avoid it, people are emotional beings and emotions drive a lot of decisions and so it seems at times that this emotion combined with a lack of knowledge creates conflict. It’s hard to get away from this. You see it happen all the time. What the public needs to become aware of is the need to step away from emotion as much as possible and try to use resources – like the university system – to lay out and understand the science behind what’s going on. Without a doubt we have the safest and best production system in the world.
Going beyond flowers…agriculture needs to feed 9 billion people. The marketplace and the desire for products that come out of all these different production schemes…it’s exciting and fantastic. But at the end of day when you look at the big picture, agriculture has a big responsibility…how to feed 9 billion people. Partnerships between land-grant universities, major manufacturers and agricultural conglomerates are often criticized, but all these interests have to work hard together to figure out the systems that are going to most safely get that done.
Many today are fearful of GMO’s. There’s a good reason to be skeptical and cautious. But when we have science behind us and the potential of what could be…this could be huge, game-changing stuff. When you’re looking at golden rice that solves childhood blindness, that’s a huge opportunity to help a lot of people on this planet…how can we ignore that especially if it’s thoroughly vetted by the scientific community? And new methods of insulin production and being able to do something like that more economically and safely in plants and get that medicine to people who are suffering from diabetes…again, that’s game changing for millions of people. These technologies need to be vetted certainly, they need to be determined to be safe and put through processes that prove that’s the case, but people shouldn’t be overly fearful of advances to the point that they eliminate the technology.
Q: You have children that are young adults. Are they choosing to work in your family’s operation?
A: I have four kids and they’re all young adults and in different life phases. At this point, my four children are not really involved in the family business on a day-to-day business, although they do periodic projects. My daughter Kathleen worked for a year when she was between college and graduate school. My youngest daughter – Suzi – is working for me right now, putting together videos. We don’t have children immediately at this moment getting into the family business.
We’re starting to talk about different ways we’re going to sustain the family operation…and it’s probably going to be different. As to why they chose the careers they did, well, they are independent and they make their own decisions. They are influenced by what their life’s ambitions have brought to them. I couldn’t be happier or prouder of each of them. Their independence means that my wife and I were successful in helping them achieve their life’s dreams rather than feeling obligated to continue ours.
We’ll figure it out though, and you never know what’s around the corner. They may decide to join the family business or marry someone who’s interested in farming…who knows. There’s still time for that to be sorted out. There are also lots of Mellanos up and down the age and generational chain so maybe some of them will choose to get involved. One thing is certain and that is in order to survive as a family business into the 4th generation and beyond, the business needs to be professionalized and develop processes that insure success whether a family member is in charge or not.
“Farming is hard work…and it’s not an easy business. There is a lot that goes into it. Some is in your control and a lot is outside your control. Kids watch that, they understand what things take and ultimately must make their own decisions. Added to the mix are the costs and regulations that are thrown on top of you…and this may not make farming an attractive choice to the next generation. We need to change that perception and make sure it’s profitable and attractive. There are opportunities there to make a good living and we need to make sure that kids, whether they are mine or not, understand that and embrace the opportunities in agriculture. University research and technological advances that result from that research are KEY to insuring that will happen and that agriculture can meet the expectations of public scrutiny.”
Q: I’m giving you a super power. You can change one thing about the food and agricultural system with that super power. What change would you make?
A: The super power that I would hope for would the ability to impart truth and understanding to people I come across.
Q: Can you tell our readers what it’s like to supply Rose Bowl floats?
A: You know, we don’t supply that much off our farm, although we supply some. My brother Bob in Los Angeles is the Rose Parade supply guru.
My earliest childhood memories are of delivering flowers to the Rose Bowl with dad and grandpa, out of Los Angeles. I was 8 or 9, maybe younger. I remember it vividly. I remember going into Los Angeles, working at the Christmas holidays, helping my dad and grandpa put orders together that were going to be on the floats. It was so exciting…so much fun. We were doing so much for everyone involved. I clearly remember this, especially today, when we’re doing our California Grown certification at the Rose Bowl.
My grandparents used to have a New Year’s Eve party every year in Silver Lake. It was a traditional Italian New Year’s Eve party, lots of people, very festive. One year, we got a call from a float builder, saying that the arch on their float had collapsed. We had to rush into downtown Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve to get extra flowers and greens…we loaded them into a truck and raced to Pasadena. When we got to Pasadena, there was a full police escort waiting for us at Colorado Boulevard and people lining the street. And we drove down Colorado Boulevard with this police escort and truck full of flowers. It is something I’ll never forget. We off loaded all the products for the customer and went back to my grandparents’ home.
After celebrating New Year’s Eve, we turned on the TV to watch the Rose Parade in the morning. And there was that float, going down the street with the arch intact and functioning. Those are my earliest memories of Rose Parade.
In terms of our family’s relationship with the Rose Parade…my grandfathers built those relationships and understandings on how to work with float builders and my dad continued that. And today, my brother Bob continues those relationships and has advanced the art of procuring the huge variety of flowers that are used to create the wonderful floats for the parade today.
* From UC Agriculture and Natural Resources sources: “President Richard C. Atkinson established the PAC in 1998 to bring together senior leaders from UC and its stakeholder groups to share information, ideas and advice and to help identify emerging issues and challenges where the University and ANR can be of assistance through our research, cooperative extension and natural reserve system programs.”