With the earliest Easter in 95 years, Oregon growers faced a tough test this year

In more than 30 years of hanging his livelihood on Easter, Harry Harms has never seen the holiday fall this early, nor will he ever again.

Yet Harms remains unfazed by the earliest Easter in 95 years, just as he took 2000's unusually late Easter — April 23 — in stride. It's just one of many challenges farmers of the holiday's traditional flower weather in the "Easter Lily Capital of the World."

"Every year, it's a delicate balancing act to get this all done," says the general manager of Hastings Inc. in Brookings. "It's always kind of a panicky push."

Of all the potted plants sold in the United States, Easter lilies — or Lilium longiflorum — have the narrowest sales window. While poinsettias are marketed for the entire holiday period leading up to Thanksgiving and lasting through Christmas, growers' timing of Easter lilies must be impeccable, Harms says.

"Easter lilies, man, they are all sold within a two-week period," Harms says.

Glasses instantly fogging up as he crosses the greenhouse threshold, Harms surveys the near-empty shelves. About 90 percent of the approximately 10,000 lilies Hastings forced for the holiday have been shipped off to Ray's Markets, florists and garden centers, many of them in the Rogue Valley. Still others have been consigned to the walk-in cooler to supply churches "in the 11th hour."

Easter was still 12 days away, but Harms knows that the biggest demand he'll face will come the week before the holiday.

Unlike other nearby competitors who rely on hundreds of thousands of finished lilies as a major component of business, Hastings forces bulbs dug from their own fields in the fall, mainly to ensure quality, Harms says. Many more of their bulbs end up at greenhouses around the country, where they are then manipulated to bloom in time for Easter.

"We are personally not trying to compete with our other bulb customers," Harms says.

Founded in 1945, Hastings is one of six farms between Brookings and Smith River, Calif., that produce almost 100 percent of the Easter lily bulbs sold in the United States and Canada, plus hundreds of thousands of finished plants.

At any given time, about 750 acres of lilies are growing within this 15-mile coastal corridor straddling the state line. Four times that acreage is dedicated to the crop, but because lilies are grown in a rotation cycle that takes place over four years, more land lies fallow than abloom in lilies, says Lee Riddle, manager of Easter Lily Research Foundation in Brookings. Farms like Hastings graze beef or dairy cattle on the lush pastures or grow other plants, such as seedling trees for reforestation.

"It's the perfect combination of exposure, deep, well-drained soil and temperature — a micro-climate, if you will," Harms says.

"We are working the micro-climate of micro-climates."

That climate proved ideal for lilies when Louis Houghton brought the first bulbs in 1919 to Oregon's south coast. When the Japanese supply of bulbs was cut off with the advent of World War II, the region's lily growers scrambled to cash in on suddenly high prices. By 1945, production had expanded north to Vancouver, British Columbia, and south to Long Beach, Calif., among some 1,200 lily growers.

The industry died back in the following decades, returning to the coastal borderlands of Oregon and California, where reliable growing conditions produced the biggest, highest-quality bulbs. The number of operations has since dwindled from about 25 when Riddle started at the research foundation 32 years ago. As farmers retired, their companies were bought out by the remaining firms, and acreage was consolidated, Riddle says. Today, it's an industry estimated at about $8 million.

As margins have gotten tighter over the years, growing lilies has become an exacting science, Harms says. Picking all the buds off plants maturing in the fields has been standard practice since the 1980s, Harms says. Bigger and stronger bulbs are the result, but growers sacrifice the allure of acres of alabaster lilies in flower.

"On a full-moon night, there's nothing prettier than a 25-acre field of lilies," Harms says, recalling the view from a trailer he used to occupy near one of Hastings' fields.

"Oh, the fragrance is overwhelming when you've got 25 acres blooming."

With their natural bloom cycle coming in early summer, lilies that emerge for Easter sprout from bulbs wrested from the ground in October and lulled into a false winter for six weeks until greenhouse growers bring them back into the light. In 60-degree air, the lily bulbs sprout stems and leaves, which greenhouse workers count to determine how far the plant has to go before setting buds, which should be visible by Ash Wednesday, about six weeks before Easter.

"To get 'em here, we're doing a lot of manipulating," Harms says. "It's merely a function of heat."

While the ideal temperature for maintaining lily plants — including in the home — is about 65 degrees, greenhouse gardeners use their heater dials to dictate the rate at which lily blossoms start to unfurl. Turn the heat up, and the plants' buds will turn "puffy." If they reach that stage too soon, it's into the 45-degree chill of a walk-in cooler to slow their progress.

Because Easter came so early this year, the whole cycle started that much earlier, Harms says. Hastings dug and shipped bulbs on Sept. 23. Greenhouse proprietors had to heat their buildings hotter in the colder climes of mid-winter instead of maintaining lower temperatures through February and March, Harms says. Shorter days during the artificial growing season can make for leggier plants that are harder to ship, some with smaller and fewer buds, Harms says. And the lilies came at an increased cost, to boot, he adds.

"It's been a tough Easter, and one that's been tough to force for," Harms says. "It really meant just paying the piper on the fuel bill."

A lot of growers, Hastings included, were more tenacious about raising prices this year because they knew the crop would come at a cost above normal increases for fuel and labor. Hastings charged C&K Market Inc., the parent company of Ray's Food Place, about 20 cents more per lily plant than last year, says Allen Carlson, C&K produce specialist. But the grocery chain priced lilies exactly the same as last year, Carlson adds.

Despite their hurried upbringing, the lilies, Riddle says, are poised to grace another holiday with their beauty — a symbol of resurrection that over the centuries ensured their prominence at Easter.

"When it's really a challenge like this, people work really hard and make it happen," Riddle says.

"It's the biggest challenge you can do to make this Easter."

At least for the next 152 years.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.