|by Nancy Piianaia||February 1999||photos by Margie Simms|
What do Cleopatra, Empress Josephine and George Washington have in common? They all loved roses. When she met Anthony for the first time, it is said that Cleopatra filled the room with rose petals. Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, was so enamored of roses that she planted more than two hundred fifty different varieties in her Paris garden. And Washington was the first American breeder of roses at his home at Mount Vernon. One of the varieties, named for his mother, is still being grown today.
Our love affair with roses is never-ending. They are the flower of love and friendship. Nothing says this like a bouquet of long-stemmed, red roses. On February 14, it seems as though all of us want to show our feelings by the gift of this very special flower. It is estimated that more than eighty-four million roses will be sold this Valentine's Day all over the United States.
There are four farms in Waimea currently growing roses. They are Kawamata Farms, J and D Farms, Leland Sung Farms and Watanabe Florals. Miniature roses, grown by the Yoshikami family, are also made into delicate arrangements and sold locally. Watanabe's, the largest grower, is located just below the tree nurseries on Lalamilo Road. Although we think of them as a local business; the company actually began on O'ahu when Ernest and Shizue Watanabe started their first farm on Farmers Road in Waialae- Kahala in 1946. In 1979, they expanded to Waimea when affordable agricultural land became scarce in Honolulu. Waimea's elevation of twenty-six hundred feet, with its lower temperatures and bright sunshine, is ideal for the growing of roses. The Watanabe family harvests twenty-three different varieties of roses on their sixteen acres of land in Waimea, employing thirty five workers to handle the farm and its rose production.
Rose farms are busy places. Because the roses never stop growing, the work must go on seven days a week. At Watanabe's, the day begins early when the first group of workers arrive at 7:00 a.m. to begin the twice-daily harvesting of roses in the eight greenhouses filled with colorful varieties. In the cool, early morning, women with huge gloves move rapidly up and down the rows. They cut the long stems whose blossoms are just beginning to open and bundle them in their arms like babies. In the background, soft music plays because the workers believe that the music nurtures the roses as much as their daily dose of fertilizer and water. As they work, a supervisor moves from building to building, looking for problems and checking for spots on leaves that indicate that a disease may have attacked the precious plants.
By 9:00 a.m., the first cuttings have been placed in big, water-filled buckets. Male employees are busy moving about in vans to collect and deposit the fresh cuttings in the warehouse. When they are not helping with the flower collection, they also build and repair greenhouses, maintain the fertilizing and watering systems, and spray to prevent disease on the plants. By the time the flowers have arrived, everyone is ready for the first break of the day when they gather for a snack, while relaxing and "talking story."
Almost all of Watanabe's employees are first- generation immigrants from the Philippines. They come primarily from the provinces of Ilocos Norte and Isabella.
The majority are children of rice farmers and are used to hard work. In a recent interview, Watanabe's manager, David Oshiro, praised his employees, saying that " . .. they are dependable, honest and loyal workers. We have hardly any turnover. And most of our people somehow manage to send money home to the Philippines in addition to saving to bring over other members of their family."
The group is close-knit and well-disciplined. Several workers have been at Watanabe's for more than eighteen years. Francine Dela Cruz is a familiar face for many Watanabe customers in Waimea since she handles retail flower sales at the front of the warehouse. Trained as a teacher in the Philippines, Francine also works part-time at Waimea School. In the back, Norma Bala, another longtime employee, over- sees the daily picking and sorting operation and helps to maintain harmony among the workers. Often, employees are members of the same family. It is common to find husband and wife, and even their children, all working together. Twelve of workers are grandmothers. The newest arrivals are only eighteen years of age.
Watanabe Florals and the other rose growers and farms in Waimea have also helped to provide employment for workers who have been displaced by the closing of Hamakua Sugar. Others have moved up the hill from the hotels where they have found the employment to be too seasonal and transportation too burdensome. Waimea's farms offer steady employment for these hard workers. Working primarily in the greenhouses and in the fields, they are part of the hidden labor force which is such an important part of Waimea's economy.
After a short break, the picking crews return to the greenhouses, while the sorters begin sorting and grading the different varieties of freshly picked roses. The roses are then packed in ice in huge boxes and are loaded for shipment to the main facility in Honolulu. Twice a day, drivers make the trip down the hill to Kona Airport where the roses are loaded onto the first available Hawaiian Airlines flight to Honolulu. There the shipments are met by other Watanabe's employees and rushed to the warehouse for immediate sorting and distribution on 0'ahu. Eighty-five percent of the roses grown in Waimea are sent to Honolulu. The majority are sold wholesale to florists. As in Waimea, however, some are sold directly to the public out of Watanabe's Kalihi warehouse.
Throughout the state, local growers are struggling to survive. Their primary competition are the roses imported from South America. Grown high in the Andes mountains in Equador and Columbia at altitudes of ten thousand feet, these slower-growing rose plants produce huge blossoms with long stems. Since workers earn less than ten dollars a day, labor and production costs are extremely low on these farms. Government controls are also less stringent on the amount and types of pesticides that can be used. It takes two to three days for the South American roses to reach Miami from Columbia, then another two days over land to reach the West Coast. Roses are sent out by air on the day of arrival if possible, but almost a week goes by before they finally arrive in Hawai'i. Despite the lack of freshness, these imported roses still sell for sixty-five to eighty-five dollars a dozen in local flower shops.
Hawai'i's growers have watched their market share drop as the South American roses have taken over. They now command forty-five percent of the market. Down the road from Watanabe's, another long-term grower, Raymond Kawamata, after watching his business drop off forty percent in the past two years, pulled up many of his rose plants. Kawamata is a second generation grower in Waimea whose father started with vegetables and successfully converted to roses when the competition was statewide. Faced with the recent decline in rose sales, he decided to convert part of his farm back to vegetables. Kawamata's first new crop was tomatoes. Now he is expanding into red and yellow peppers and the gourmet cucumbers. In his choice of new plantings, Kawamata has been strongly influenced by local chefs who are looking for fresh and flavorful vegetables to use in their island cuisine.
Responding to the challenge, Watanabe's decided to continue with roses, but to concentrate on the shorter, ten to twenty-two inch sizes that are not imported. They also sell roses at a much lower price, hoping that customers will buy their many varieties more frequently than just for special occasions and holidays when roses are the tradition gift.
Nevertheless, Waimea's rose farmers still depend on the "big days" for maximum sales of their flowers. Mother's day, graduation and Valentine's Day are the most important times. Growth is controlled to produce the largest possible amount of roses at these times. Valentine's Day is the most challenging sales occasion for the grower. "I wish it were in the middle of the summer," Oshiro said wistfully, as he gazed over at his calendar. He explained that flower production slows down as a result of the colder days and longer nights of the Waimea winter.
At Watanabe's, preparation for Valentine's Day began back in December when workers pinched back the rose plants, debudding them to slow production so that there would be maximum blossoming the second week of February. But Mother Nature is impossible to predict, and Oshiro says that is a "hit or miss" proposition. In the summer, it takes forty-two to forty-five days to grow and harvest the rose flowers. In winter, it takes forty- five to sixty days. The colder the nights, the longer the stem and the larger the flower, but if the grower misses the target date of February 10 to 12, then it may be too late to sell all the flowers. After all, who wants roses on February 15th?
For the workers in Waimea's rose farms, the month of February is spent giving careful attention to the plants, nurturing the blossoms in order to provide the greatest yield for the holiday. It means: long days of cutting, packing and shipping as many' roses as possible. If you are among those lucky enough to receive roses on Valentine's Day, whether they be from our community or elsewhere, all those who have cared for the delicate blossoms hope that their efforts will be appreciated and the flowers will last long!