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CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8 | cbs8.com

New COVID-19 funding now available for San Diego County farmers

The executive director of the SD County Farm Bureau called it “the lifeline our producers need to weather the economic challenges that came along with the pandemic.
Credit: Zoë Meyers/inewsource
From left, Cindy Luster, Alfredo Gomez, and Charlotte Acevedo walk through the farm of California Exotic Specialty Fruits in Fallbrook, June 17, 2020.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Growers of some of San Diego County’s most lucrative crops — flowers, nursery plants and exotic fruits — can now get federal cash to cover some coronavirus-related losses.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s initial relief program left out these small farmers who contribute significantly to the county’s nearly $1.8 billion agricultural economy.

The department expanded the program to include more specialty crops in August and announced last week it would make an additional $14 billion available to farmers through mid-December. Growers could begin applying for the relief this week.

Hannah Gbeh, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, called the federal aid “the lifeline our producers need to help weather the economic challenges that came along with the pandemic.”

The addition of flowers, as well as cherimoyas, pomegranates and other unusual fruit, will make a difference for the local agricultural industry, Gbeh said.

Flowers and nursery products brought in more than $1.2 billion to the county in 2018, making them the most valuable local crops. Sales plummeted during the spring when florist shops and large event venues had to close to prevent the spread of the virus.

Though some farmers have pivoted to online sales since then, it’s been a struggle.

Credit: Courtesy of Michael Mellano
Michael Mellano, the CEO of flower company Mellano & Co., is shown in this undated photo.

Michael Mellano, president and CEO of Mellano & Co., said his flower business went from a record year to 10 percent of sales in a matter of days when the COVID-19 pandemic led to a government shutdown of businesses in March.

His company is headquartered in Los Angeles, but its fields are in San Luis Rey near Camp Pendleton and in Carlsbad. Mellano said his business went from 300 employees, including retail workers, to a “skeleton crew” of around 20 people in the fields working to keep the plants alive.

He’s now evaluating what changes in his business are temporary and which ones may be permanent. For example, some of his buyers are now using more flowers grown abroad in their bouquets.

“The coming months will dictate our ability to remain open,” Mellano said.

He and other growers worked with Democratic Rep. Mike Levin, who represents North County, to get flowers included in the federal relief program. Mellano said he is in the process of applying for the aid and hopes it will offset some of his losses.

“It will be very difficult if we have to rebuild all these economic engines from scratch after COVID passes, so I really view it as critical that we keep them viable and functioning,” he said.

inewsource is a nonprofit, independently funded newsroom that produces impactful investigative and accountability journalism in San Diego County. Learn more at inewsource.org.