As coronavirus wilts the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, a farm adapts

Faced with massive financial loss, Tulip Town makes a play for virtual strolling.

Farm workers pick tulips for bouquets at Tulip Town in Skagit Valley, March 27, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Andrew Miller walks on a dark brown path of sawdust that leads to a mound of wood chips. The path circles 7 acres of flat-leaf foliage that will soon burst with tulip blooms in red, yellow and pink — the trademark crop of the Skagit Valley. As a small group of workers wearing hooded sweatshirts and blue latex gloves tends to a few dozen rows of early bloomers, trimming and picking flowers for bouquets, Miller recalls his teenage “spinach bus days.”

“The bus left at 7 o’clock in the morning, and you’d have your lunch pail and all your friends, and you’d roll out to a field like this,” Miller says as he crouches over a tulip sprout, demonstrating how he and his fellow seasonal workers would pick and remove the male spinach plants from the females.

Working on the spinach bus was a rite of passage for many Skagit Valley teens. Now in his 40s, Miller, previously a global manager of health and security at Amazon, has returned to the fields to become a full-time farmer. But instead of picking spinach, he’s growing tulips.

“I have friends that are lifelong farmers and they said, ‘Andrew, you picked a hell of a year to start farming,’ ” says Miller.

In June of 2019, Miller got together with four friends — all of whom graduated from Mount Vernon High School 26 years ago — to found Spinach Bus Ventures (a nod to their youth). As their first business venture, Miller, Angela Speer, Donnie Keltz, Randy Howard and Rachael Ward Sparwasser purchased Tulip Town from Tom and Jeannette DeGoede. The DeGoedes owned and operated the farm for 36 years and played a pivotal role in starting the region’s annual Tulip Festival.

The Spinach Bus crew planned to develop the longtime tourism industry, and keep it locally owned.

“Nothing’s more iconic in our valley than tulips,” Speer says. “We share a vision and we share values and principles, but we’re all very different people … we have very different talents. The five of us coming together — it just worked.” 

Of course, none of them foresaw the global COVID-19 pandemic, nor the corresponding halt to all recreational gatherings and group activities. (In a normal April, Tulip Town could expect 100,000 visitors walking along the fields and taking photos.)

The virus has taken a toll on the state’s flower industry. Without tourists visiting the fields or buying bouquets at markets, flower farmers have lost their main source of income. Tulip Town is just one of many growers feeling the squeeze.

Half of all vendors at Pike Place Market are flower farmers, from Carnation, Fall City, Duvall, Auburn and Kent.

“Many of the farms selling tulips at Pike Place Market have been doing so for 20 to 30 years and are very small family farms,” Madison Bristol, Pike Place Market’s public relations representative, says by email. “Most are not equipped to deal with a disaster of this magnitude.”

To some extent, neither are commercial growers. RoozenGaarde, Skagit Valley’s other longtime tulip farm and the state’s largest producer of tulips, ships bulbs across the country every year. It decided to close its display garden March 21, two days before the state was put on a stay-at-home order, and 10 days before the customary opening of the Tulip Festival on April 1. Roozengaarde’s main source of business, wholesale bulbs, also declined. 

“We were getting ready to ship a couple of million tulips on March 14. On March 13, we got the call to just cancel them,” says Brent Roozen, third-generation owner of the family business. “That's when it really hit us.”

Like RoozenGaarde, Tulip Town does not sell flowers at Pike Place Market, relying instead on flower sales onsite during the Tulip Festival (which Miller estimates at up to 10,000 bouquets a season). This year, though, if sales from its roadside stand and bouquet shipments offsite don’t flourish, many bouquets will likely be donated to workers at hospitals and retirement homes. In addition, tulip bulbs can be harvested and reused for crops in years to come.

When Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings larger than 250 people on March 11, Tulip Town quickly adjusted its viewing gardens for car tours, which it branded a “tulip safari.” The field already had a wide enough path surrounding the rows of tulips. Adding wood chips to the muddy road would allow people to still visit but avoid human contact by staying in their car. 

Miller and his crew had started laying out wood chips on the paths for this last-ditch effort, but paused that day at 3 p.m., shortly after Inslee announced the order for people to stay home, except for essential outings.

Mount Vernon has been home to the Tulip Festival since 1984. Thousands of people from across the U.S. and 83 other countries visit Skagit Valley during early spring, starting in late March and into April. Events span four weeks and range from the Kiwanis salmon barbecue that raises thousands of dollars for local charity to the downtown parade and street fair. This year the entire festival, like Holland’s annual Tulip Time event, is canceled.

Even before the stay-at-home order was announced, Tulip Festival executive director Cindy Verge had been inundated by cancellations as coronavirus spread and people began to hunker down at home. In her more than 30 years of living in Mount Vernon and seven years heading up the event, Verge says, the festival has never canceled for any reason — not even after 9/11, nor in 2008, when The Great Recession hit. 

“People were looking for fun things they could still do,” she recalls of the previous national crises. “We still had people that wanted to come and experience something like this, mainly to get their minds off of what was going on.”

Verge says the local community is on edge. The loss of the festival traffic affects the economy of the whole area. Wait staff at restaurants said goodbye to their most productive season, and hotels saw a deluge of canceled reservations.

Statistics provided by Washington State University in 2018 estimate that the festival brings upward of 300,000 people to the valley (three times the county’s population) every year,  generating $65 million in yearly revenue. The region accounts for 75% of the commercial tulip industry’s production in the U.S. and “averages about $20 million in annual gross income, $3 million of which is in bulb sales,” according to the report.

As a stopgap measure, Tulip Town started #ColorForCourage, a campaign encouraging people to purchase bouquets for hospital workers on the front lines of COVID-19. RoozenGaarde will still have flowers available for sale at Safeway and Albertsons, and is also encouraging people to buy flowers for hospital workers.

Last summer, Miller and his high school buds saw promise and opportunity in the tulip industry. The Spinach Bus team estimates it invested more than $2 million in enhancements to Tulip Town, adding a store, cafe, a beer and wine garden and a virtual order station with big-screen TVs and iPads.

Now, the circumstances imposed by the pandemic have pushed Spinach Bus Ventures to take other chances. A provision in the statewide stay-at-home order identifies artists as essential workers, which means even though the public can’t crowd into the rows of flowers, painters and photographers could possibly access the field. Tulip Town is looking into the possibilities.

And in even more creative thinking, by mid-April, after the majority of the tulips have bloomed and reached peak beauty, Tulip Town will be available virtually.

“Like any farmer, you hope for the best, but this is a calculated risk,” Miller says of the plan for a high-tech tulip tour.

The farm has hired an Arlington-based company, Level5 Interactive, to create an augmented reality experience of the 7-acre field. This would allow people to view the gardens from the comfort of their living rooms, and even hear the sounds of the wind and chirping birds. (The occasional wafts of cow manure and salty sea breezes experienced in the real fields are not included.) The digital experience will consist of an app with an option for use with virtual reality headsets. The move to virtual is one that could cost Tulip Town an additional $20,000. 

“We have the most compelling case for the use of augmented reality,” Miller says. “The obstacle now is how do we monetize it.”

Whether people will buy in to support the virtual endeavor is still unknown, but Spinach Bus Ventures considers itself a nimble company, quick to adapt. And the business partners say they don’t want to squander all the value they’ve created at Tulip Town.

“At Amazon we would call this extinction level events,” Miller says. “Our next couple of moves could make a difference in whether tulips are grown at all next year.”

Given the importance of tulip producers to the Skagit Valley economy, such an “extinction” would have a huge impact on the region. “We are fighting for our farm, but also our community,” he says.

In moments of stress, Miller says he walks out to the field and looks at the flowers, most not yet blossoming — still waiting to open themselves to the sunlight. “I went out and sat on the tractor and it was just fine,” he says.

Even in normal years, tulips are a fickle crop — one Miller says comes with “a lot of drama.” But the crop’s classic beauty offers a reprieve that Miller knows personally. He hopes Tulip Town can still share this specific peace and joy amid the pandemic.

“For us it’s really about connection,” he says. “All the ways we can connect people with tulips.”

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