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Nursery owner uses orchids to fund college dreams

June 18, 2010 8:03:46 PM PDT
If you have an orchid plant in your home, it most likely came from Matsui Nursery in the Salinas Valley. Andy Matsui's plants can be found from Safeway and Trader Joe's to the San Francisco Flower Mart. But Matsui's nursery is doing more than growing flowers, it is changing young lives.

Matsui knows, in business, what is beautiful is not always profitable. In 1997, cheap cut flowers from Latin America flooded the market. For his nursery to survive he needed to sow new seeds; his solution was potted orchids.

"In those days we didn't have much commercial production of orchids in America. I said, 'This is the one, our future,'" Matsui said.

Matsui wanted the once exclusive bloom to be affordable for all. He hired Yin-Tung Wang to help create what is now the largest orchid nursery in the United States. The science of mass orchid production literally begins in a bottle.

"We have agar, water, minerals in here and you have to get the right concentration or they won't grow or they grow too slowly, which makes it more expensive," Wang said.

It can take two to three years to move the plants from sprouts to store shelves. At any one time Matsui Nursery has 10 million potted orchids in production. The Salinas Valley nursery spans 75 acres. The orchids are shipped from Washington State to Washington D.C.

Sharon Cheng is a frequent buyer. She sells the orchids like the exquisite lady slippers to the more familiar phalaenopsis at Pin Nursery in the San Francisco Flower Mart.

"Seventy different colors, yellow, orange, red, I can't remember that many," Cheng said.

It turns out Matsui is not just passionate about orchids. He is using his success to help young people do something he never did -- go to college.

Six years ago, the nursery owner started the Andy Matsui Foundation. Every year, the non-profit selects 18 students who have the grades for college but not the money.

Karla Lizaola is one of this year's recipients. She will use her $40,000 scholarship to attend San Jose State University.

"I'm going to live my dream to go to college and study nursing and be the first one in my family to go to college and I am very proud of that," Lizaola said.

So far, the orchid blooms have funded 78 scholarships totaling more than $3 million, which means the Matsui Nursery is cultivating much more than potted plants.

"Mr. Matsui is growing dreams actually, and the dreams these students and what they hope to accomplish in their lives, I think is going to be tremendous," North Salinas High School Principal August Caresani said.

At age 75, Matsui knows his business decision more than a decade ago is paying unexpected dividends. His goal is to give away $100 million in scholarships.

"I am looking around 2,000-3,000 kids that I am trying to send over to the university. They might make a difference, I hope," Matsui said.

That is why Matsui's orchids are even more beautiful they first appear.


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