A History of Brown Bulb Ranch and Golden State Bulb Growers
Over 100 years ago Mr. James A. Brown was forced to retire from a wholesale car and buggy business in San Francisco, partly due a lung infection and economic devastation from the 1906 earthquake. The same health issue had caused him earlier to quit the profession of mining engineer in the mid-west, for which he had received technical training. Faced with the necessity of supporting a family and the need to gain back his health by living in the country, he moved to the seacoast south of Santa Cruz, purchasing five acres of land near the small village of Capitola. This took nearly all of the capital he had saved from the buggy and car business he had liquidated. His plan was to play with farming for a year or two, until the doctors would allow him to return to active business again in San Francisco.
The five acres, which Mr. Brown bought, were in the midst of a great field, there were no trees or buildings, the soil had been sapped of its strength by fifty years of wheat production. There was no water with which to irrigate, nor any neighbors for half a mile. The only asset was a splendid climate. Over the years he and his two sons added to the acreage until there was nearly 100 acres, which provided a home for twenty families, and the support of fifty more. Seventy-five miles of pipe with seven deep wells supplied the water, and a variety of crops and farming activities were tried, with varying degrees of success.
Initially Mr. Brown planted several acres of different types of berries and achieved considerable success in marketing them in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. By 1914 Three to five tons of strawberries were being harvested and shipped daily. He also became interested in the culture of freesia bulbs, which at the time was still an experimental crop. Eventually he had fifteen acres planted in freesias and gladiolas. He became the first local grower of flower bulbs selling in the wholesale market. By this time he forgot his plans to return to business in San Francisco. Montbretias, tulips, and tuberoses were added and by 1916 forty acres were in bloom.
In 1917 fifty acres were acquired in Monterey County where sweet pea, nasturtium, and other flower seeds were raised to sell across the United States and Europe. The principle reason for Mr. Brown’s success during this period was the personal contacts he made in the eastern US circulating his wholesale bulb and seed catalogs. Mr. Brown made from one to two trips each year for this purpose.
In 1920 Mr. Brown made a trip to Europe where in Holland, Belgium, France, Italy and Germany, Mr. Brown became acquainted with the methods of propagation in use in those countries where floriculture has been and art for2 centuries. He made contracts for seeds to be supplied to English and Scandinavian seed houses, resulting in thousands of pounds of sweet pea seed shipping there yearly from his ranch. While in Europe, he purchased over 750,000 bulbs of various types for trial in Capitola. Tuberous begonias and calla lilies were amongst the bulbs purchased. He became the first tuberous begonia grower in the US, and by 1921 had widespread distribution. Also during this period, over 3 million freesias were produced and harvested at Brown Ranch. One of the principle problems Mr. Brown encountered at the time was acquiring a constant and quality supply of fertilizer. Cow manure was the most readily available source of the day, but transport was distant and at a great cost. In addition, it was impossible to get quantities needed for commercial use and that were free of weed seed and plant diseases, which could adversely affect the growing bulbs.
Moo Cow Dairy
In 1919, to remedy this difficulty, the Brown Ranch purchased the registered herd of Guernsey cattle owned by Judge Curtis H. Lindley of Paul Sweet Road in Santa Cruz. It consisted of thirty milking cows and fifty head of dry stock. Mr. Brown arranged to resell forty heifers at a price, which nearly covered the cost of the entire herd. Many of the cows in the herd had originally been imported from the Isle of Guernsey, first coming to the East Coast of the US and then shipped on to the West Coast. A complete dairy was built on the Brown Ranch prior to the arrival of the cattle herd. The cattle were kept in corrals where they were fed only feeds which contained no weed seeds. In this way the Brown Ranch had an abundance of the finest fertilizer available to grow its bulb crops. The milk produced by these cows was originally sold at low prices, creating a financial loss, but Mr. Brown, with his proven aptitude for developing new markets, contracted to supply the Southern Pacific Railroad with milk for their dining cars. For six years this was the only milk customer of the “Moo Cow Dairy” as it was called, raw milk being shipped nightly to the Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles commissaries of the Southern Pacific from where it was taken on passenger trains to Chicago, Portland and New Orleans.
Due to popular demand and natural increase of the herd, retail and wholesale milk routes were put into effect in Santa Cruz County in 1925. The dairy volume increased rapidly due to importations of new stock and the multiplication of the herd. In 1927 the herd numbered 175 head and a modern ice cream and candy factory was built on the ranch. Retail stores much like soda fountains called “Moo Cows” were opened in Ben Lomond, Capitola, Gilroy, Hollister, Monterey, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Watsonville. By 1928 eleven “Moo Cow” stores were in operation. In addition, a very successful trade developed from the sale of pure bred bulls due to their excellent ancestry as well as to the high official production records made by their offspring in the herd. Ice cream was made from fresh milk and cream. The Dollar Line cruise ships carried it for their entire three month voyage around the world; the Panama Mail South American Lines used it for three months on their tropical voyages and the ice cream kept in excellent condition due to the purity of the ingredients. The Panama Pacific, American Mail and Matson Australian cruise ship lines were also customers. Other outlets of the famous ice cream were many hotels and restaurants across the country. There were distributors in four countries marketing Moo Cow ice cream. When the first Miss California was selected in Santa Cruz, James Brown was quick to arrange a photo session for the reporters with his prize milk cow sharing the limelight with Miss California.
During the period of expansion of the dairy, the bulb and seed departments also grew. In 1924 and succeeding years twenty-four thousand square feet of glass houses were built for the propagation of begonias and gloxinias. Seven acres of lath houses were constructed for the cultivation of begonias, gloxinias and lilies. Each fall a day was scheduled for the public to view the lath houses in full bloom and to inspect the Dairy and Ice Cream Departments. On October 28th, 1931 over 9,000 people visited the ranch for its annual “Open House”. They were given ice cream, milk and soda pop after seeing them produced. This proved to be excellent advertising, as it showed the public just where the products came from.
In 1928, James’ eldest son, Allan graduated from Washington State College with a degree in Veterinary Medicine, joining his father at the firm. In 1932 James Brown died at the age of 49. Worth A. Brown, James’ second son, then in his final year at Stanford University, joined Allan to take on the arduous task of running a complex business built by their father. Both sons were in their early 20’s. New bulb distributors were contacted and new business was created by Worth, now in charge of the company’s sales and marketing. This more than made up for the loss of business experienced during the depression years. The bulb growing operation was enlarged to around 100 acres on properties in both Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.
In 1935, the company bought 50 acres in Marina, near Monterey, specifically for growing begonias. In the cool climate and sandy soil, the crop could be grown in the open without added shade in this foggier climate. Lath houses were necessary to shade begonias in sunnier Capitola. Some 30 acres were devoted to begonias and the rest to other bulb crops. Each year begonia planting would begin in May. Begonia seedling plants, which had been reared to the age of sixteen weeks in greenhouses in Capitola, were transported by truck to the Marina growing fields. A similar schedule is followed to this day. Irrigation is supplied almost daily, along with weeding until when the bulbs are lifted and harvested in late December. Allan took charge of begonia hybridizing for the firm, developing the world’s largest begonia blossoms, branded as “Rancho” Begonias, with new flower forms and colors. The fully double “Camellia” begonia was introduced to replace the old European double. These later developed into what is called Roseform today. Soon the first fully double pendula, or Hanging Basket, was offered in place of the old single flowers. As the years went on, larger flowered begonias including the Double Ruffled “ Ballerina” were introduced. Other improvements included Picotee or Bi-Color begonias, where two distinct colors appear on the same flower.
To this day the firm continues to hybridize for better plant and flower characteristics to improve the begonia strain. It is not uncommon to see begonia blooms 8-10” in diameter because of these efforts. During the fifteen years after the death of James Brown, the dairy gradually became less important as the bulb business took on a larger role at the ranch, now known as Brown Bulb Ranch. Begonias became the largest crop and the firm became the largest single grower of tuberous begonias in the world. During WWII over half the milk produced from the Moo Cow Dairy was supplied to the US Military stateside.
In 1954 The Capitola Businessmen’ Association inaugurated the First Annual Capitola Begonia Festival. And proclaimed Capitola to be the Begonia Capital of the world. Worth A. Brown, nearly as aggressive a promoter as his father, not only added new crops to the firm’s product line, but set out to market a full line of popular bulbs. Each fall and spring, bulb shipments would arrive from Holland and many other production areas from around the world. Brown Bulb Ranch employees would package the great variety of bulbs into bags and displays with colored pictures of the flowers they would eventually produce. These would be shipped to retail garden centers and nurseries throughout the country. In 1954 an office and warehouse opened in Seattle to serve the Northwest. By 1957 the dairy completely closed partly due to larger more efficient dairies and higher milk producing and lower fat content of milk from the Holstein (black and white) cattle breed. Todd Brown, Worth’s youngest son, majoring in animal husbandry at Cal Poly in San Dimas, received a call from his father to change his major to Ornamental Horticulture due to the dairy’s closure.
Joel, son of Allan; Barclay and Todd, both sons of Worth, comprised the third generation, joining the family business in the fifties after completing their college education. Eventually Todd took over the responsibility of field production, and Barclay handled sales and marketing of the bulbs. Joel oversaw non-horticultural business interests for the company. By 1960, Worth A. Brown had broken new ground by marketing a complete line of packaged bulbs to national chain stores, retailers who had never before carried bulbs or any other plant material. Woolworth was the first to try bulbs soon followed by Sears. The firm expanded in size, becoming the largest distributor of bulbs to retailers west of the Mississippi River. In the early 60’s Rancho de Las Flores was opened in Baja California for the production of Ranunculus, seed onions but primarily for dried flowers including Cardoon Puffs (artichoke flower), Strawflower and Safflower. This operation closed in the late 70’s due to declining sales because of inexpensive imports of synthetic flowers from Asia. Additional land named the “Calla Ranch” was acquired in Marina for the increasingly popular Calla Lily. A sales office was opened in Los Angeles to serve the increasing populations of the Southwest.
By the time Allan and Worth retired, the company had hundreds of employees and was the largest distributor of bulbs on the West Coast. A decision was made to go back to the roots of the company, and concentrate more energy on growing bulbs and less on the distribution of bulbs from other growers. In 1983 the wholesale distribution operation was sold along with the name Brown Bulb Ranch to a large bulb firm located in the Southern US. The growing operation changed its name to Golden State Bulb Growers and only sold bulbs it produced.
In 1989 Golden State Bulb Growers moved its headquarters, including offices, greenhouses and warehouses from Capitola to Moss Landing. Colored Calla Lilies become the firm’s largest crop sold under the trade name Callafornia Callas®, with about 200 acres in production. By 2007 about 1,000 acres of callas are farmed for bulb and cut flower production. The company continues to grow tuberous begonias, known as Amerihybrid® Begonias and other specialty bulb crops. The company was the first and is now the last remaining grower of tuberous begonias in the US. Golden State Bulb Growers is known worldwide for its unsurpassed quality bulbs. The fourth generation of the family now operates the business. Justin Brown, overseas crop production. Nolan Brown manages warehousing and inter company transportation. Worth C. Brown, works in bulb sales and Lance Brown in cut-flower sales. As of 2010, the first fifth generation family member joined the firm, Joel Kaupert, grandson of Todd Brown.
The cut flower division of Golden State Bulb Growers is established. CallaCo®, a sales and marketing company, utilized the exclusive Callafornia Callas® breeding program and over 80 years of growing experience by its parent company to bring fresh cut callas to wholesale and retail markets alike.
Today, CallaCo® represents the largest grower of callas in the United States and markets Callafornia Cut Callas throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico. CallaCo® is the recognized leader in fresh cut Calla Lilies and our rainbow of colored callas are known for their elegance and exquisite beauty and quality.