Pilot story and photos by William Lundquist

FORT DICK, Calif. - Everything was coming up irises on the final Hospitality Tour Wednesday.

It might have been one of the coldest, cloudiest days of this balmy winter, but spring was definitely in the air when 35 tour participants visited Sun Valley Floral Farm just south of the Smith River.

The flower farm, a mile north on Bailey Road just off Lake Earl Drive, features 180 acres of irises, along with some hydrangeas and colored calla lilies.

The farm is part of the Sun Valley Group, headquartered in Arcata, Calif., which has six growing locations in California.

Tara Johnson, who gave the tour, is the daughter of James Johnson, the division manager of the farm.

She explained the farm ships cut flowers to Arcata, which markets them wholesale to large buyers like Safeway.

The Arcata division sells flowers grown from bulbs, such as irises and tulips, not roses.

The farm, said Johnson, does not retail its products, except for the third Sunday each July, when it holds an open house with tours and a floral competition.

Johnson, by the way, has never placed in the competition. She explained that her father and husband are the expert flower growers at the farm. She comes in once a week to do the paperwork.

Johnson started the tour in the bulb room, where Dutch iris bulbs are stored at a constant 44 degrees. One crate can contain 43,000 bulbs.

The bulbs are planted under andquot;the hoops,andquot; large metal frame greenhouses covered in plastic. The ends are open, but can be closed with flaps and doors if the weather gets too cold.

Telstar irises being picked during the tour had been planted Dec. 10. Irises planted March 1 were still small.

Johnson said the farm uses mostly drip irrigation, and the andquot;drip stripsandquot; are mounted on a frame that rises as the flowers grow taller.

Chemicals are used to control disease. Though the farm is not totally organic, said Johnson, the chemicals chosen are the best available for the flowers, soil and people.

The area is also a stop for thousands of migrating Aleutian geese, though that is no problem for the flower farm.

The geese, said Johnson, eat short grass, and the flower farm does not cut its grass.

The geese are becoming a problem for neighboring dairies, she said, eating their pastures, though the dairies helped bring the geese back from near extinction.

The California Department of Fish and Game, said Johnson, is now mowing state land adjacent to the flower farm and dairies to give the geese more short grass pasture land. After eight to 10 weeks, she said, the geese fly farther south.

Several dozen flew over, honking their thanks, while the tour participants were walking to the hoops.

Once the iris stems have grown to their full height in the hoops, the stems are pulled from the bulbs by pickers.

The farm employs about 25 people year-round, and doubles its employees during the peak harvesting season.

The pickers gather the stems in bunches of 10. Johnson asked one picker how long it had taken him to gather 86 bunches. He said about 40 minutes.

She said only perfect irises are picked. The stems must be straight, not curved.

Fields of andquot;volunteerandquot; irises that come up year after year are also harvested. Johnson said they have been doing well in this year's mild winter.

The bulbs in the hoops, however, are removed and discarded so the ground can be tilled again. Only the expensive calla lily bulbs are saved and used year after year. The plastic covering the hoops is also replaced annually.

The picked bunches are taken to a refrigerated shipping room. They are then trucked to Arcata and distributed them to customers.

Johnson said the iris stems are shipped dry, but remain in refrigeration until they reach the stores.

andquot;It's a short turnaround time,andquot; she said. andquot;We want our product to be as fresh as possible.andquot;

After the tour, Johnson distributed free bunches of irises to tour participants.