Andy Matsui, a Salinas Valley farmer whose investment in potted orchids in the 1990s blossomed into a national phenomenon and earned him enough money to become one of the most significant benefactors of public higher education in California, died on Dec. 11 in Carmel. He was 85.
Born Toshikiyo Matsui to a farm family in the rural Nara Prefecture in Japan in 1935, he first set foot in Monterey County in 1961 as part of a one-year training program with the Farm Bureau. He and his wife, Mary, decided to return in 1964, settling here permanently. Starting as laborers, they worked their way up and soon established their own greenhouse flower-growing operation.
For the first few decades they primarily sold chrysanthemums and roses but heavy competition compelled them to innovate the flower nursery business in the 1990s. They bet on potted orchids and managed to strike deals to supply Trader Joe’s and other large supermarket chains.
The extravagant and intricately shaped flowers proved wildly popular as a living decorative gifts that did not wilt soon after purchase like cut flowers. The Matsui Nursery grew to employ 200 workers and its greenhouses came to occupy about 2.4 million square feet.
In the 2000s, the Matsui family ramped up their philanthropic giving with a special focus on providing educational opportunities to the least privileged in Monterey County. They have given about $8 million in college scholarships to high school students in the Salinas area since 2004. The biggest gift yet came in 2017, when the Matsuis donated 215 acres of farmland on the outskirts of Salinas to Hartnell College. The land was valued at more than $20 million, making it the largest donation ever to a community college in California.
“Andy Matsui was a pioneer in agriculture and education in his own right and laid down the foundation for others to achieve their dreams,” Hartnell board president Aurelio Salazar Jr. said in a press release.
Matsui is survived by his wife of 62 years, their four children and four grandchildren.
A public event to celebrate Matsui life will be held when the threat of the pandemic subsides, according to an obituary published by the family.