MOUNT VERNON — Rows of snipped red blooms lay crumbled on the ground at RoozenGaarde Tuesday — remnants of a Skagit Valley Tulip Festival that never happened.
With sunnier-than-average weather, third-generation tulip farmer Brent Roozen thinks 2020 would have been a record-breaking year for the event, which annually draws roughly 400,000 people from all over the world to rural Skagit County.
This year, the acres of vibrant pink, yellow and red flowers, normally buzzing with tourists and selfie-takers, lay silent.
The festival was called off last month amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Stubbly stems are all that remain of RoozenGaarde’s renowned sea of blooms.
Roozen said they had to cut the flowers to keep people from driving out to see them.
“With people coming up here and asking to use the bathroom or whatnot, this is why we’re asking people to stay home,” Roozen said.
His family’s business Washington Bulb Company and its fresh flower counterpart RoozenGaarde have more than 1,000 acres of bloom fields in the Skagit Valley.
In March and April, the company counts on tens of thousands customers purchasing flowers and bulbs for about 90% of its income, Roozen said.
“You put in 10 months of work for six weeks of payoff,” he said.
Without that revenue, tulip growers and the businesses that depend on tourism traffic from the festival are scrambling to ensure next year’s festival can still happen.
“It’s not a real good outlook for the festival,” the event’s executive director Cindy Verge said.
The festival, held since the 1980s, has survived past recessions. People usually still attend because it’s a low-cost activity, she said. But each year its effect on the economy — and not to mention traffic — reverberates in surrounding counties, as Seattleites, Canadians and just about everyone in between flocks to the Skagit River valley to ooh and ahh at the tulip rainbow.
“It is truly bizarre to be in a situation where you’ve developed this festival and wonderful enjoyment of spring beauty and you’re telling people ‘don’t come,’” she said.
At Tulip Town, one of the largest flower farms in Skagit County, chief executive officer Andrew Miller is making sure people can still experience the blooms even if they aren’t able to physically visit the fields.
“We decided early on that crisis can drive creativity and new connections,” Miller said.
It’s his first year managing the farm with four other Skagit Valley natives.
After Gov. Inslee announced a state-wide stay-home order March 23, Miller said the team completely redid Tulip Town’s business plan in 72 hours. The stakes are high, Miller said.
“We’re thinking people will support us in ways they haven’t before,” he said. “If not, we won’t have Tulip Town next year.”
They’re missing out on the $10 admission from the roughly 100,000 people that visit Tulip Town each year.
To recoup some of that loss, they’re selling fresh-cut bouquets of tulips for delivery — something the farm has never done before.
Miller said they’re getting orders from all over Washington and beyond. Some are from Key West and Louisiana.
“Tulips are very personal,” Miller said. “When someone gets a bouquet of flowers they’re like, ‘Oh, someone thought of me.’”
But he also wanted a way for people to experience the vast, dizzying colors of the fields themselves. So the farm contracted a drone crew to film the fields at sunrise. The footage is being developed into an application that lets viewers fly over the rows of color-blocked blooms and see them sway in the breeze up close.
“We are still in the smile business,” Miller said. “We just had to take it mostly digital.”
They’re currently testing the beta application, and hope to release it within the week.
Tulip Town developed a few other ways for people to help ensure the farm’s survival. Fans can buy memberships to access farm dinners, bulb plantings and private visitation to the farms. Members have the option to put someone’s name on a stake in the tulip fields.
At RoozenGaarde, Roozen said they’re sharing photos and video on social media.
“Every spring our goal is to share the beauty of our blooms and we’re still trying to do that,” he said. “Financially it’s not helping us, but it is cool to see the difference it’s making in peoples’ lives right now.”
According to Washington State University Skagit County Extension, the tulip festival brings in an estimated $65 million in revenue to Skagit County.
“A little of that is trickling in, but basically it’s gone,” Verge said. “It’s a pretty devastating impact.”
Next year’s festival isn’t yet front-of-mind for Roozen.
“Right now, we’re just trying to make it through the spring before we figure out what to do for next year,” he said.
Roozen said some new ideas are now off the table for 2021.
Verge is hopeful that the festival’s supporters will pull together and make next year a possibility. But right now, the 2021 Skagit Valley Tulip Festival is still a question mark on the calendar.
“The economics of it,” she said, “is I don’t know.”
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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