specialty crops

March 22, 2001 - 00:00

A Prickly Business in Southern California

Carl Volkers and Jim Kampwirth are the envy of every stamp collector and coin enthusiast around. They too were once collectors. Not of books or baseball cards, but of cacti. Volkers would find a rare species here or come across some unusual seed there, then take it home to germinate and grow in his backyard hobbyhouse. What was once only a hobby is now their business, their life. C&J Cactus Nursery Inc., a thriving cactus and succulent wholesaler in Vista, Calif., is the direct result of two men who turned their passion into their livelihood.


"I used to get so frustrated because I simply couldn’t find certain plants I wanted," said Volkers, co-owner of C&J. "So I started growing my own cacti, and everything just evolved from there."


He got lists of cactus nurseries in southern California and made several trips out from the Midwest in the early ‘70s.


"It was disappointing at first because nobody was doing anything unusual; most were growing the same 20 or 30 species. We saw literally millions of barrel cactus and jade – the same old stuff."


So Volkers actively sought out seed dealers, many from Europe, to buy different species.


"We got to know the dealers and bought as many unusual varieties as we could," said Volkers.


In 1976, Volkers had collected or grown enough of an inventory to fill the length of one 90-foot greenhouse bench. So he made the move to California, bought a house and garage on five acres of land and made cactus growing his permanent vocation.


"We had the basic stock plants to get started and a great point from which to grow."


Cactus: Not Just for Deserts Anymore


When you think of cacti, images of arid, sandy deserts come to mind. But for Volkers, cactus means southern California.


"Most people don’t realize that the climate just outside L.A. and San Diego is ideal for growing cactus and succulents," he said. "The temperature is just perfect, it’s not too hot or too cold. None of the houses need to be heated, and the inland airflow from the ocean saves a fortune on electric fans."


According to Volkers, the biggest misconception about cacti is that they don’t need water.


"Cacti are water storage plants," said Volkers. "They can live without water, but only to a certain point."


Volkers waters his cactus inventory less in the winter months but insists that cacti should still be watered 52 weeks a year.


How Does Your


Cactus Grow?


C&J is capable of growing about 1,500 different cactus species, most of which come from the nursery’s own seed stock. "You really can’t buy enough seed for a large crop," said Volkers. "Even if you could, the seed is so expensive you wouldn’t end up turning a profit."


Instead, C&J propagates seed from its own stock of plants. Seed is sown in flats which hold, in most cases, a minimum of 10,000 seeds. The seedlings are transplanted in groups called "clump flats" where they grow for six to eight months. Greenhouse workers, who protect their fingertips with masking tape, then manually break apart the clumps and transplant the cacti into sets to continue growing.


"We only sell wholesale," said Volkers, "we never had the time or space for retail."


Shortly after purchasing the Vista location, Volkers built two greenhouses. "I blew all my money on the property and the first two houses so the next three or four facilities weren’t built until the late ‘70s."


By 1980, C&J was utilizing every square inch of free space on the property. Seven homemade quonsets had been constructed as well as several cold frames that held about 24 flats each. The nursery continued it’s aggressive expansion into the 1990s: a large greenhouse and a packing shed were built in 1981; the family home was remodeled in 1982; a double gutterhouse was built in ’85, followed by two more between 1986 and ‘87 to replace the small quonset; four single greenhouses were constructed in 1988; and between ’88 and ’95 the operation went from 60 cold frames to 250.


"Despite so much expansion over the years, we simply had no space for selling," said Volkers. "It was extremely frustrating; demand was at an all-time high by 1995, but we had so many clump flats and so much space tied up in our growing area, we couldn’t take advantage of the market."


So Volkers bought a former bromeliad nursery with 10,000 square feet of existing greenhouse and added another 11,500 square feet to the operation.


"It took us less than two months to fill the new facility in Buena Creek, but it gave us more room for transplanting seeds," he said.


C&J currently has more than 30,000 flats of production space with 125,000 sq. feet under cover.


Well-Traveled and


Disease-Free


Volkers’ cacti find homes all over the world. Some of the nursery’s larger buyers visit the Vista location and simply load up their trucks. But much of what C&J ships out ends up in locations as exotic as the varieties themselves.


"Cacti are dormant over the winter," said Volkers. "So it makes shipping much easier. We can ship product overseas in February to Europe or Asia with very few problems. Even if it takes four or five weeks to get there, losses are minimal."


In addition to traveling well, cacti are more resistant to disease than the average greenhouse plant. The "Mediterranean" climate and fresh ocean breezes that surround C&J Nursery also go a long way in keeping the plants healthy.


"There are a few things that can plague cactus, but the key to preventative maintenance is fresh air," said Volkers. "If you’re growing in a humid house with no air flow you’re asking for trouble."


Very few fungal diseases attack cacti, and many pests can’t easily spread disease within a crop because of the plants’ tough exterior.


Some powdery mildews have become a problem, and a particularly fierce fungal disease, Helminthosporium cactavori, which actually digests plants, has made the list of enemies for cactus growers, but crops are overall far less susceptible to disease than ornamentals.


For THe Love


of the plant


C&J Nursery is one of the last large cactus wholesalers in the southern California region.


"There’s not a lot of newcomers to this business and that’s a shame," said Volkers.


The boom in the "southwestern" style a few years ago gave a boost to retail cactus sales and sent consumers looking for pastel clay pots filled with sand and a cactus, but it didn’t do much for wholesalers like C&J who sell exotic, hard to find plants.


"Business is still good for us, and I think it will be for a long time. A lot of people could care less if they were selling cactus or nuts and bolts. But that’s not how we do things here," said Volkers. "I am still passionately interested in new varieties and interesting forms. The sheer beauty of these plants is what keeps me involved."

About The Author

Beth Meneghini is editor for GPN.

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