Producer says new technology will allow him to hang on in tough market

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

BROOKINGS, Ore. -- From his farm in this small Southern Oregon coastal town, lily bulb grower Harry Harms is far removed from the annual crush of potted Easter lily sales.

But his livelihood is intrinsically attached. And with the price of lilies barely covering the cost of his production, his future as a lily bulb grower could hinge on a breeding advancement.

Harms is among a half-dozen growers in Southern Oregon and Northern California who produce 98 percent of the U.S. supply of Easter lily bulbs.

The industry, which during World War II shifted from Japan to a 30-mile stretch straddling the Oregon-California border, has seen its ups and downs. Rarely, though, have growers' fortunes turned on margins as slim as today.

In the 1970s and '80s, a grower could make a mistake, lose a couple of acres and still turn a profit, said Harms, general manager and part owner of Hastings Bulb Growers Inc.

Not so today.

"Now if I lose 2 acres, we probably lose money," he said.

Several factors have contributed to the industry's recent decline, Harms said, not the least of which is a reduction in sales, brought on by a change in retail practices.

Retailers in recent years have dramatically reduced their "shrink" or excess product, he said, which is contributing to less sales.

"There is no way to know whether there is unmet demand because retailers are so cautious about how much product they handle," Harms said.

Low margins, brought on by increased costs for transportation, labor and farm inputs, have contributed to less production, Harms said. Without the promise of new, better bulbs, he probably would pack up and get out of the industry.

In the breeding pipeline, carrying his future hopes, he said, are new bulbs that produce high flower counts at small sizes and take less time to mature to commercial specifications.

"If it weren't for those (cultivars), I would have hung up my spurs a long time ago," he said.

Smaller bulbs reduce shipping weight and allow nurseries to use smaller pots, two factors that will help reduce shipping costs. Reducing the time it takes for a bulb to reach commercial specifications will dramatically reduce his production costs.

The hope, Harms said, is growers can eliminate an entire year of production. The new bulbs, he said, could be ready for production in two to three years, instead of the three to four years it currently takes.

Currently, bulbs are dug, cleaned and replanted by hand two to three times before they reach commercial specifications.

Bulbs are harvested in the fall and either replanted or shipped to nurseries, where they are pushed to bloom at Easter, several months before their normal summer bloom.

Like much of agriculture, Easter lily bulb production has consolidated over the years. The number of farms in Easter lily bulbs shrank from around 30 during the 1980s and 1990s to the half-dozen in operation today. Acreage in Easter lily bulbs grew over the years until it peaked in 2004 at around 500. Today, about 400 acres are planted to the bulbs. The number of bulbs produced also has dropped from its peak in 2004 of around 13 million to around 9 million today.

Harms, who today manages about one-third of the U.S. Easter lily bulb acreage, downplays the possibility that low margins will run the industry out of Oregon.

"The Easter lily is the enduring symbol of hope and new life and everlasting life," he said. "And I'm counting on that."

Staff writer Mitch Lies is based in Salem. E-mail: mlies@capitalpress.com.

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