Summer festivals often reflect the harvest of a region. Watsonville has the Strawberry Festival. For Gilroy, it’s garlic. And Capitola hosts the annual Begonia Festival.
But after 65 years, that event will have its final run this weekend. That’s because the last local Begonia grower is closing up shop.
From the start back in 1952, the Begonia Festival was a perfect match for Capitola’s Begonia farmers. Growers aren’t after the beautiful blooms the cover the festival’s nautical floats. Flowers are just a bi-product that usually fall off and die. Growers want the tuber.
“A tuber is just like a potato. These are generically called bulbs, so we’re bulb growers,” says Worth Brown, Sales Manager at Golden State Bulb Growers in Moss Landing.
His great grandfather started the business more than a century ago in Capitola on his 41st Avenue farm. Back then it was known as the Brown Ranch.
At one point the company became the largest commercial grower of tuberous Begonias in the world. It, along with other Capitola farms, helped the seaside city become known for its fields of vibrant flowers.
Over time other growers closed, or were bought out and left Capitola. Golden State moved to its 15 acre property in Moss Landing in 1989. Now it's getting ready to close for good.
“We just can’t survive. It’s a hard decision especially after 107 years of being in business, but we would rather do this on our own terms,” says Brown.
He says business never fully bounced back from the recession. And though the company long ago diversified into other bulbs and cut flowers, European growers can supply the same bulb in the U.S. for less.
That plus the California minimum wage will work its way up to $15 an hour in 2023. Brown says the numbers no longer add up, and the company wouldn’t make a profit.
“We can see the inevitability of this coming, and we had to make this hard decision. Now everyone can plan for the future,” says Brown.
The decision was made last year. Operations will phase out in 2018. Brown says that has given the company’s 150 full time employees and 400 to 500 seasonal workers time to prepare.
It also gave the Capitola Begonia Festival some time to make this 65th anniversary event a grand finale. Golden State Bulb Growers is the last provider of free Begonias for the festival’s floats.
Float builders pick the flowers themselves from the company’s fields near the landfill in Marina on Saturday. Then hustle to get the floats done.
“Well over 15,000 blossoms per float. Yes they hurry back here. Most of them have already started their frameworks,” says Laurie Hill, President of the Begonia Festival.
The nautical parade on Soquel Creek in Capitola Village is the signature event of the festival. This year there will be eleven Begonia decorated floats. Nels Westman’s team is working on a bi-plane float.
“It’s bittersweet. The Begonia Festival had a heck of a good run. It’s a special festival, I think. Very family oriented, very positive. But when you don’t have blossoms the end is the end,” says Westman who was on the festival’s planning committee for 20 years.
The Begonia Festival runs through Labor Day. Hill says all events are free and family friendly.
You can watch float builders work on their floats starting on Saturday. The nautical parade is Sunday at 1:00pm. Golden State Bulb Growers’ Worth Brown will be a judge.
Find a complete list of events here.