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Summer gave way to autumn's golds and yellows here weeks ago, replacing the deep reds of most home-grown roses. Except at the Sphars' place.

Gary R. and Lynn M. Sphar still grow them, but they are struggling to sustain Western New York's last home-grown rose business.

They want to improve their slumping revenues enough so that their son, Matthew, 17, already skilled in growing roses, might see his way to become the fourth-generation Sphar to operate the business.

They are fighting their own battle against the hundreds of millions of tariff-free roses that flow into the United States from the South American nations of Colombia and Ecuador.

"They had reduced our revenues by 23 percent since 1992, when we took over the business from my father, Orvel Sphar," said 40-year-old Gary. He had run the business that his late father, John Sphar, bought in 1961.

As rose growers go, Sphar's is not huge. The family operates 11 greenhouses 365 days a year off Stroh Road, just north of Attica. "We have 25,000 rose plants from which we cut 500,000 stems a year," he said. "About 80 percent are red roses and the remainder are yellow, peach, pink and white.

"Four times a week, our driver delivers 1,500 stems to a Buffalo wholesaler who then resells them to retailers," Sphar said. "After commissions, we have been averaging about 20 cents a stem."

Keeping the business going has been difficult the last couple of years. The North American Free Trade Agreement ended rose tariffs and the U.S government began encouraging South Americans to raise flowers instead of marijuana, he said.

"We are the last of the eight commercial Western New York rose growers," Mrs. Sphar said. "It's hard to compete against conditions we do not control. The lower prices we have been getting for our roses and the higher prices we have had to pay for fuel forced us to borrow money for the coal we burn to keep the greenhouses at least at 67 degrees in the cold seasons."

Roses Inc., a trade group, has been fighting to help its members. So far, its biggest success has been to exempt rose growers from certain pesticide application restrictions. But it has failed to bar rose imports that are treated with pesticides that American growers are forbidden to use.

In their struggle to survive, the Sphars are resorting to marketers' weapons.

"Our roses are better than the imports because they last longer, a week or more, because after being cut they are kept in water," said Sphar, an Alfred State College graduate.

"Roses need water," he added. "The imports are not in water when they are flown to Miami and then trucked around the country. They are shipped with dry ice. Every hour out of water shortens the life of roses. Imported roses usually droop after a day or two."

Price and direct sale are the Sphars' other weapons.

"While city retailers get from $30 to $45 for a dozen long-stemmed roses, we charge $18 a dozen at the greenhouse and $6 for short-stemmed sweetheart roses," he said.

"We are here seven days a week," Mrs. Sphar added.

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