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Tuesday, March 28, 2000

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Waihale Products owner Alvin Tsuruda, surrounded
by anthuriums, calls his work a labor of love.

flower business

More than 50 nurseries
compete to find homes
for their creations

Flowers top Hawaii's diversified rankings

By Peter Wagner


ORNING comes early at Leilani Nursery, an eight-acre garden of marigolds, 'ilima and petunias tucked away in quiet, backcountry Waimanalo.

Up before dawn, owner William Durston strolls among his potted flowers, hundreds of thousands of them laid out in glorious array. Standing sentry is solitary Mount Olomana, its sharp pinnacles showing a single blade from this angle.

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Leilani Nursery owner William Durston, above,
standing amid petunia colorbowls, says selling
flowering plants to big-box retailers has helped
him increase his business 20 percent.

Automatic sprinklers pop on, throw a sudden mist, then quickly fall silent.

A tiny cellular in Durston's pocket will soon begin to ring. Another day of growing, wheeling and dealing beneath the steep Koolaus.

"Competition in this business is fierce," he said. "I talk on the phone all day."

Durston graduated from the University of Hawaii 30 years ago with a biology degree. He helped a friend run a small nursery in Waimanalo, eventually taking over the operation.

Today he runs one of the biggest nurseries in Waimanalo, where more than 50 farms large and small tend everything from orchids to rare native loulu palms.

Durston has 20 employees, five delivery trucks, and a walk-in cooler to keep flowers from blooming too soon. With Easter just around the corner, he's got 18,000 tulips tucked into the refrigerator, holding back time.

"Our big thing right now is Easter," he said.

The chilling tulips, wholesaling from $4 to $6, represent $90,000 in merchandise.

Ten years ago, before Hawaii's economy began its slide, Leilani and other nurseries were growing shrubs, trees and other landscaping plants. That was when golf courses and housing subdivisions were springing up everywhere.

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Waihale Products owner Alvin Tsuruda says he
treats his business like a hobby and sells only
what he can personally grow and deliver.

Durston had to retool in the aftermath, finding a niche in flowering plants sold at big-box outlets like Eagle Hardware and Home Depot. While mainland discount stores have wreaked havoc on smaller local businesses in recent years, they accounted for a 20 percent increase in business at Leilani last year.

Clients also include churches, flower shops, grocery stores, hotels and folks who wander in on weekends hoping to save a few bucks on a hanging basket or coleus bush.

But it's a tricky enterprise.

"These are ready to sell," Durston said, pointing to a colorful row of three-week-old flowers. "In five weeks they're overgrown and we have to throw them away."

Flowers are easy to grow but hard to sell, Durston said. Timing is everything. plantings must be planned six months in advance. And if a bloom is blemished, it's worthless.

Another problem has been steadily rising shipping costs in Hawaii. Both Matson Navigation Co. and CSX Lines, Hawaii's primary lifelines to the West Coast, recently announced new fuel surcharge hikes on top of recent rate increases. The climbing costs hurt, Durston said, because he brings in 50 percent of his seedlings from Florida and California.

"I don't think anyone realizes the impact oil costs have on businesses," he said. "It trickles down."

Flowers are also hard work.

Fred Humphrey several years ago scaled back his efforts at his small nursery in Waimanalo.

"Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week," said Humphrey. "It's tough."

As for romantic notions of sunny days and sweet-smelling flowers, Humphrey douses the dream.

"Think about when it's pouring rain and it's cold and you're working outside," he said. "Or think about putting on a heavy raincoat in hot weather to spray chemicals."

Down the road, Alvin Tsuruda quietly snips at his anthuriums. The Zen-like horticulturist dips his shears into a disinfectant after each careful cut, a precaution against bacteria.

"You have to enjoy the work," said Tsuruda, who grew up on a farm in Haleiwa. "You have to practically live on the job."

The 49-year-old farmer spends much of his time in the shade of a half-acre greenhouse where he fawns over 50 varieties of anthuriums.

Asalu, Speckled Pink, Kalapana, and Tropical Fire show their varied faces, each a child to Tsuruda.

He admits he hates to part with them.

"You grow them up from when they were tiny little babies," he said.

Tsuruda cleared his 5.5-acre nursery, Waihale Products, in the state agricultural park on the north end of Waimanalo, about eight years ago.

It's been a labor of love.

"Unfortunately, I'm in the wrong business because I treat this like a hobby," he said wistfully. "I like it so much a lot of my space is taken up with plants that don't generate any income."

Working alone, unable to afford help, Tsuruda sells only what he can personally grow and deliver. He relies almost exclusively on plant sales and flower shows, where he grossed less than $40,000 last year.

Barely enough to cover fertilizer, equipment and other costs. And, a sucker for plants, he keeps adding to his collection.

"I sometimes buy as many plants as I sell at the shows," he said.

But things are looking up at Waihale Products. Last year, for the first time, the company made a profit.

"I made two dollars," Tsuruda said with a smile.

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