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Ecke Ranch sells to Dutch-based company

ENCINITAS — Ecke Ranch recently announced it was acquired by Agribio Group, a Dutch plant and flower grower, for an undisclosed amount. The deal has yet to finalized, but Paul Ecke III said he expects it to be completed by mid-September.

“It was a tough call, but I think the right thing to do,” said Ecke.

Ecke said a number of factors played into the decision, most of them relating to the flower industry consolidating. Flowers are increasingly sold at retail and supermarket giants that demand standardization and other requirements from flower producers, making it hard for smaller operations to keep up.

“Through no fault of our own, we used to be a bigger company, now we’re smaller because of all the global competition that came in,” Ecke said.

In recent years, the company hasn’t been able to expand as much as it hoped because it can’t access capital as easily as larger flower producers like Agribio. And Agribio’s extensive supply chain gives Ecke Ranch reach into more markets, he said.

“I’ve been saying our situation is analogous to Porsche,” Ecke said. “It’s a smaller company that’s great, yet limited in what it can do. So it agreed to become a part of Volkswagen.”

Though he’ll stay in Encinitas and likely continue working with the Flower Fields of Carlsbad, as well as with local charities and other groups, Ecke said he will no longer be a part of the company his family is known for, both at home and abroad. The Eckes have been growing flowers in Encinitas for almost nine decades and have been credited by many with putting poinsettias on the map.

The company also operates in Guatemala and to a smaller degree in Denmark.

The Ecke Ranch name will continue, and will be a subsidiary of Agribio, according to Andy Higgins, president of Ecke Ranch. Management, sales and flower-growing operations will remain in place at all locations, and while “positions are being evaluated,” there are no current plans to layoff employees, he said.

Ecke Ranch headquarters will stay in Encinitas, Ecke said.

Higgins said the sale took eight months to negotiate. Agribio approached Ecke Ranch because of its strong brand recognition and reputation for producing poinsettias, he said. New types of flowers could be grown at Ecke Ranch, but “poinsettias will remain our number one focus,” Higgins said.

This spring, the Leichtag Foundation, a Carlsbad-based nonprofit, signed an agreement to purchase the 67-acre property at Ecke Ranch. Eventually the foundation plans on using the property for educational opportunities and community activities like farming.

The Leichtag Foundation acquisition is separate from the Agribio deal. Agribio will lease a portion of the green houses for at least three years, while the Leichtag Foundation will own the Ecke Ranch property, as soon as that deal is finalized on or before March 2013, Ecke said.