Fields Aflame

The annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival reigns in western Washington, but for how much longer will the flowers grow?

By David Laskin

Tulip farming is an endangered way of life in the Skagit Valley, with farmland threatened by development and sprawl, and the industry subject to bulb prices set in Holland.

Credit: Wade Clark

No matter how many times you've been here, no matter how many photographs you've seen, that first glimpse is always a shock. Beyond the sprawl of Seattle and the surrounding rich farmland, after the blur of freeway and the reassuring stillness of country road, the tulip fields appear as a sudden, brilliant mirage: a perfect stripe of lipstick-red half a mile long rolling east toward the ragged Cascade Mountains, then a swath of purple, a smoky lilac, and another line of lipstick. As you get closer, you see that each stripe is composed of a single variety of tulip, tens of thousands of blooms for every block of color.

In the Skagit River Valley of western Washington, just an hour north of Seattle and a bit more south of Vancouver, the annual explosion of tulips is a big deal and the accompanying tulip festival big business, drawing 300,000 to 400,000 visitors to barbecues and musical performances, art shows and walking tours. The hundreds of acres of riotous blooms, however, are the main draw, transforming this part of the Pacific Northwest into a little bit of Holland.

Jeanette DeGoede, a robust grandmother who with her husband, Tom, runs one of the last remaining tulip farms in the valley, smiles when she remembers how it all got going. "Back in the 1960s, we were pretty much stone-broke trying to make a living selling bulbs," she says, gazing out her office window on a rainy morning in mid-March. "I was out picking one day when these people drove by and asked if they could walk in the fields. We had some planks down—that was the only way to get across the drainage ditches. They saw the trays of flowers I was picking to sell wholesale and asked if they could buy them. I sold five trays."

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