Living the American dream one stem at a time
July/Aug. 2008 California Country magazine
By Tracy Sellers
Alfredo Hidalgo owns and operates one of San Diego County's most popular flower businesses.
After more than 30 years in the flower business, farmer Alfredo Hidalgo still enjoys tending to his plants, caring for his family, helping his community and, above all, making people smile as much as he does.
In San Diego, California's second largest city, blue skies keep watch over 70 miles of beaches and a gentle climate begs for a day of leisure. With its ideal weather and seemingly endless amount of sunshine, it's not hard to see why the tourist industry is tops here. But behind that booming business is a blooming one--the floral market is a multimillion-dollar sector in San Diego County. Money, however, wasn't the inspiration for one man to follow his dream of growing flowers here. It was the dream of building a better life.
To meet Alfredo Hidalgo is to love him. It takes only a simple hello and exchange of pleasantries to know this isn't your average fellow--or your average flower farmer, for that matter.
"People love flowers because they're alive and beautiful, because they just give happiness to everyone," said Hidalgo, who owns a 17-acre farm north of the city.
Always with a smile on his face and a flower for an adoring customer, it might be difficult to imagine the long and winding path Hidalgo took to reach this point. Born into poverty, he left Mexico for San Diego in search of a better life. Growing flowers didn't fit into that dream at first. That didn't happen until a relative living in the area invited him for a visit.
Customers of all ages naturally migrate to Alfredo Hidalgo's booth at the Ocean Beach Farmers Market in San Diego--sometimes stopping to shop and, sometimes, to smell the roses and the dozens of other flowers he brings.
"I came to this farm my family worked at in Encinitas and they gave me work for two to three days. I was able to show them how hard I worked and my level of work," Hidalgo recalled. "When I was finished, I thought they were going to fire me. But instead, they said, 'No, no. We have more work for you!' So I kept going and going and going, and here I am today."
Hidalgo ended up working 13 more years with the company before he decided to launch a business of his own. Although he faced a number of challenges--not speaking the language, finding time to care for his family, learning a new way of life--he knew it would be worth it.
"Growing up in Mexico, I never dreamed of having such a good life, especially not from selling flowers," Hidalgo said. "But I wanted a better life for my kids and I knew once I came here and started doing it for a living, it was what I was destined to do and really what I liked doing."
Today, Hidalgo likes just about everything there is about growing flowers. He now owns and operates one of San Diego County's most popular flower businesses. Name a flower from A to Z and it no doubt grows and thrives at Hidalgo Farms, thanks to equal parts of sunshine and TLC.
"You have to get up and go to work every day, seven days a week and make sure all your plants are watered because you have to pay your workers. But it's something I really love," Hidalgo said. "Many times, from a seed so small you can barely see it, you grow flowers that are so beautiful you can hardly describe it."
Being a successful entrepreneur means getting up early and going to bed late--and working about every minute in between. Many of Hidalgo's days begin by watering, harvesting, bunching and sorting more than 100 varieties of flowers. Then, he and some of his 12 workers deliver flowers to businesses all over the county.
With the love and support of his wife, Maury, Alfredo Hidalgo has built one of the most popular flower businesses in San Diego County.
From there, Hidalgo and his wife of 25 years, Maury, head off to one of the 14 farmers markets they work together every week.
Hordes of customers almost naturally migrate to Hidalgo's booth--not only for the beautiful flowers, but for the beautiful personality that makes him a market favorite.
"He has the biggest smile on his face and it just brightens everybody's spirits," said Dave Klaman, manager of the Ocean Beach Farmers Market, one of Hidalgo's most profitable markets. "Sometimes it's hard to tell if people come for his flowers or just to see him. He's like a celebrity around here."
Hidalgo estimates he does about 75 percent of his total business at the farmers markets he works--although he hardly considers it work.
"For me, going to the farmers market is more like having a vacation day," he said with his ever-present smile.
But work it is, and in San Diego County, flowers do mean big business. The county's varied topography creates a wide fluctuation of microclimates, resulting in nearly 30 types of vegetation communities. This diversity encourages more than 200 different agricultural commodities to flourish--everything from strawberries along the coast to apples in the mountains to grapefruit in the desert. But by far, flowers and nursery products are the key commodities.
According to the most recent figures from the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, nursery and flower crops represent about 70 percent of the total value of agriculture in San Diego County, bringing in more than $900 million in profits annually. Overall, the county ranks No. 1 in both California and the nation in the production value of nursery and floriculture.
But for Hidalgo, flowers are more than just a business. They are a way of life--a beautiful way of life.
"It's like selling something that is alive and going to give happiness, no matter what. Sometimes people are sick and they get flowers and they smile. That just makes my day," Hidalgo said. "It makes this all worthwhile."
Also making it worthwhile is the fact that Hidalgo's American dream is living on through his two daughters, Jecenia, 24, and Zulma, 22--both of whom are now in college pursuing their own dreams.
"I have built for them a better life than mine," Hidalgo said. "That is what my real dream has been about this whole time."
Keeping fresh flowers fresh
- Want your cut flowers to last as long as possible? With these tips from grower Alfredo Hidalgo, you'll never have an empty vase again!
- Trim the stems: When you first bring your bouquet home, use a sharp pair of shears to trim about an inch from the end of each stem. Make sure you cut on the diagonal so there's more surface area to soak up the water. Also, to discourage the growth of bacteria, remove any leaves that could end up underwater.
- Add some "sweet and sour:" Put a teaspoon or so of sugar in the vase water and then add about three drops of bleach. The bleach will kill any bacteria in the water. As for the sugar, the flowers will use it as fuel.
- Room to stretch out: Don't try to cram a dozen roses into a bud vase. Not only is that an unpleasant sight, it's also unhealthy for the flowers. They need room to move and bloom. Plus, you'll want some of that space for at least a day's worth of water--or more if you'll be away.
- Water, water everywhere: Make sure there's always plenty of water in the vase. Go ahead and fill it all the way to the top. It's better to have more than enough than for your buds to go dry.
- Making a change: Change the water in the vase every day or at least every other day. If the water sits longer than that, bacteria will begin to flourish.
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.