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Sutton's Iris Gardens leaving Porterville
Internationally-recognized business moving to Idaho
Sutton’s Iris Gardens, California’s largest commercial iris nursery and one of Porterville’s most distinctive businesses, is leaving the state.
After more than 24 years at its rural location just north of Avenue 160, on Road 208, the owners will be moving the gardens to Idaho in mid-August.
Mike Sutton, son of George and Margaret Sutton, said there are many reasons the family-owned business is leaving town, but most are, in essence, a matter of operating costs.
The owners first contemplated leaving the area 10 years ago, when things were “somewhat OK,” Mike Sutton said.
“It wasn’t feasible at that point...and then tax increases kicked into effect and regulations are getting heavier — it’s getting more and more difficult to run a business in this state,” he said, adding that labor costs are about 17 percent less in Idaho and the cost and availability of water is getting to be so worrisome, “you can see the writing on the wall.”
The business began as George Sutton’s hobby. He first entered a few iris in a local show in the 1970s when he lived in Ukiah and won a few ribbons. His small success led him to acquire more varieties of the bearded iris to show. In the process, he discovered hybridization of the flower and started creating his own. Eventually, he started selling excess to local iris club members. The increase in the sales led to the launch of a business in 1983, under the name Sutton’s Green Thumber.
In 1988, the Suttons moved to Porterville, the town that adopted the purple iris as its city flower in 1963. Mike Sutton joined his parents in 1994, when it was decided to expand his father’s business.
“It was expensive at first, but within about five years, we had 120 acres in flowers and it was going well,” he said, adding that they began by clearing 10 acres of walnuts at a time, leasing some land and opening wholesale accounts with several iris resellers.
During the expansion, George Sutton approached the Porterville Chamber of Commerce with the idea of establishing an iris festival which would include visits to the garden and activities in downtown.
In 1999, the city organized the first Iris Festival which drew about 2,500 people and 30 vendors. In 2012, the event grew to a record 243 vendors and had more than 30,000 attendees.
This will be the last year festival attendees will have an opportunity to visit the gardens.
Besides the jobs that will be lost, the city will also lose out on tourism dollars. The gardens had turned into a popular tourism site that welcomed busloads of guests from throughout the state. The gardens also served as the host site for conferences of the American Iris Society, further contributing to the economies of Porterville and Tulare County.
Chamber president and CEO Donnette Carter said it’s an unfortunate loss for many.
“It’s sad that we are going to be losing this business that is internationally recognized and really put Porterville and the iris on the map,” Carter said, noting that the gardens served as a great compliment to initiate the festival each year. “We’re sad that we will no longer be able to offer a garden visit, but the event itself has become sustainable over the years and it will continue.”
Mike Sutton said the chamber and the community have been very supportive in their decision.
“Everybody seems to be understanding, a little sad, but understanding. The choice really came down to turning it back into a hobby or continue on as a business and we kind of like it as a business,” Sutton said, adding that he hopes to leave it as a legacy for his children.
He said his mother and father, now ages 80 and 78, will all be moving to Idaho.
The business will be central to the Idaho cities of Boise, Meridian, Eagle and Star. Sutton said they chose Idaho because it’s clean, small, and the weather is milder.
The gardens will be open for the 16th annual Iris Festival from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 27.
There will be on-site iris sales and shuttle service to and from the city.
Contact Denise Madrid at 784-5000, ext. 1047. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseMadrid_.