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San Diego greenhouse owner offers potted perfection

Mar./Apr. 2005 California Country magazine

San Diego resident Tony Godfrey is in the business of creating potted plant perfection.




Olive Hill Greenhouses owner Tony Godfrey, right, supervises nursery worker Andres Nieto Trovar, who carefully snips a bromeliad before shipment.

Tony Godfrey plucks leaves as he walks the acres of greenhouses at his plant nursery in Fallbrook. He checks greenhouse temperaturs and drip irrigation systems, all the while scanning for imperfections. His eyes and fingers never stop.

He surveys the sea of verdant green--punctuated with color shooting from pots on the bedding tables--and he decides if what he sees is good enough: good enough to sell, pretty enough to show, worthy enough to be a special gift.

The company has more than 700,000 square feet of greenhouse space at two locations in San Diego County, all filled to capacity prior to the traditional New Year's sales surge. Although the millions of decorative plants grown at Olive Hill Greenhouses are a riot of good health, Godfrey sometimes finds a leaf that's slightly curled or faintly brown on the tip.

He just can't stand to see a plant that's less than perfect. He says he has always been like that, from high school days when he worked at a retail nursery after school through his college years at Cal Poly Pomona, where he studied nursery and greenhouse operations.

Now, more than 40 years later, Olive Hill Greenhouses is among the nation's largest greenhouse growers.

But it's still a family business, one that has survived through hard work, luck and a lot of love. Both daughters, Denise and Kristina, work for the company their parents founded, as does Denise's husband, Will McGregor.

When not pinching and plucking, Godfrey is active in the San Diego County Farm Bureau and is a leader in the county's $900 million nursery and flower sector. He's also a new grandpa, thrilled with the family's newest sprout, Emma, who just had her first birthday.

California is the leading state for producing potted flowering plants, accounting for 23 percent of the national value, though California's total sales of these horticultural products fell 7 percent in 2003. Olive Hill Greenhouses, however, is bucking this trend.

The company continues to thrive and expand through an unwavering commitment to quality and by carefully defining its markets. At the same time it has consistently incorporated new technology and sustainable practices.

Through the years, Olive Hill Greenhouses has incorporated many water and energy conservation technologies to help control operating costs and reduce environmental impacts. The company uses reclaimed wastewater in its drip irrigation systems, energy efficient heating and cooling systems and rolling greenhouse tables to maximize growing space and reduce energy consumption.

Godfrey said the greenhouses are managed with a strict integrated pest management program to reduce the use of chemicals and eliminate pests on the plants.

"The tolerance for pests on ornamental plants is zero," Godfrey said. "Which means our IPM program must be completely effective. All of our employees understand this and support the program."

A sustainable approach to production is increasingly important in all of California agriculture, but it's especially important for growers like Godfrey who farm in an area that's rapidly urbanizing and that has very high operating costs.

That pressure has intensified since Godfrey started out in 1973 with little more than college training in horticulture, some personal belongings and a Volkswagen bug. Adapting to these social and environmental pressures and changing local and state regulations has driven some greenhouse operators from the business.

Olive Hill Greenhouses has hung on and not only supplies high-quality decorative plants to major wholesalers, it also sells to large customers like the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas and entertainment venues like Disneyland. The day after Christmas launches Godfrey and his 80 employees into a frenzy of packing and shipping.

On Dec. 26, shopping malls, big hotels, office centers and banks start changing out their holiday floral displays, replacing poinsettias and pine boughs with more spring-like flowers and foliage. It's out with the old and in with the bromeliads, anthuriums, spathiphyllums, pathos and ivy.

"Although the volume of shipments is heaviest around the New Year, Olive Hill Greenhouses regularly packs and ships about 250,000 plants each month.

"It's always surprising to me to go to San Francisco and see our plants in a hotel lobby," Godfrey said, as he removes an odd shoot from a bromeliad, automatically picking up the pot and rotating it for a circular inspection. "When we travel, we see our plants everywhere."

Godfrey said he got interested in greenhouse operations after visiting a number of Southern California nurseries on college field trips.

In 1965, Godfrey began working in the Ornamental Horticulture Unit at Cal Poly Pomona. In 1966 he became manager of the unit and met his future wife, Sue. Although studying for a degree in nutrition, Sue had taken a floral design class as an elective and one blossom at a time, the couple developed a personal arrangement.

Later Godfrey landed a job as a supervisor at a commercial nursery in San Diego County and his career in the horticulture business developed from there. In 1973, he and some friends formed a partnership and leased a small amount of land in Fallbrook to build a greenhouse.

The plants did fine, but that partnership shriveled. Sue and Tony, however, got married the same year and took over the business themselves.

Sue Godfrey said, "We started out with nothing. We used the back seat of Tony's VW for a couch and avocado crates for end tables. Tony made deliveries in the bug. Eventually we got a VW mini-bus so we could take bigger loads."

Months later, Godfrey said, "Things really started to happen. My college model assumed that $3,000 a month was an ideal cash flow, but in a few months we were doing double that. By June of 1974 we were adding enough greenhouse to double our size.

"We'd been renting two acres for greenhouses and started negotiating to buy the entire 20 acres where ours stood," he recalls. "Nobody would give us a loan. The bankers just smiled and said it was just a matter of time before we stumbled."

Within a couple of years the company's sales tripled and quadrupled and it started building new greenhouses.

"We graded two pads for greenhouses and nearly filled the first one that same year," he said. "We were living in a small house on the property and were able to add a living room and a patio to the structure. We bought a used Mercedes Benz. We were living larger than we'd ever dreamed.

"Then, on St. Patrick's Day 1977, Sue called me at Covina Tropicals where I was making a delivery. She told me she was pregnant. I'll never forget the day. Our daughter Denise was born Nov. 15."

That December, the Godfreys took delivery of a new Peterbilt tractor and a set of 27-foot "doubles" trailers. They were so excited they bundled up their newborn baby and took the rig out for a spin.

"We used to joke that ‏Pete' was Denise's little brother," he said, reaching up and snapping a pothos leaf from a container hanging overhead as he talked. The couple's youngest daughter, Kristina, was born in 1980.

Building Olive Hill Greenhouses into a leading nursery operation had plenty of challenges, Godfrey stressed.

There were years in the 1980s when economic conditions meant flat sales, and government red tape kept mounting. He said it was a vicious cycle of complaints, lawsuits and regulations, with opponents trying to push his business out of the neighborhood, even though it was zoned for agricultural use.

One of the issues neighbors raised with the Regional Water Quality Control Board was the building of a pond on the property. Water used in the greenhouses runs off to the pond and then is reused on the property for other plantings, including a citrus grove.

A tour of the pond, which normally is filled with wildlife, and of the greehnouses helped defuse neighbors' concerns. Ultimately they dropped their complaints and one them even nominated Godfrey a few years later for a "citizen-of-the year" award.

"If one of my neighbors has a complaint, I don't duck it," he explained. "I try to address concerns immediately and be fair about it. I think it's best to be open and responsive and participate in the life of the community."

By 1992 sales were up a healthy percent again, Godfrey said. "Our new greenhouse came into production just as Florida was getting hit by Hurricane Andrew. The result? We needed more greenhouse space."

The Godfreys made their way back to the bank. This time they explained they needed to expand and they wanted a smaller home, since their daughters were grown. After decades of struggle and putting everything they had back into the business, the couple found that not only was the bank happy to talk to them about a loan for the greenhouse expansion, they were stunned by how much the bank was willing to lend for a new house.

As it turned out the "smaller" home the couple built on Olive Hill turned out to be five times bigger than the one they'd lived in for many years.

"What a nice way to end the day," Godfrey said as he studied a spray of orchids, looking for blemishes. "It's hard to believe after all these years, when things were so bleak and making it work was such a struggle, that we'd end up here. I never dreamed."

(Kate Campbell is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)


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