As April comes to a close, so does Washington state’s iconic tulip season, epitomized by the tight rows of tulips that line Skagit Valley, about 80 miles north of Seattle. One of two growers that makes up the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival — which runs annually April 1 to 30 — Tulip Town was founded in 1983 by the late Dutch immigrant and farmer Tom DeGoede. And despite the farm’s longevity and popularity, this past month has been strange and unprecedented.
“For the first time since 1984, the annual four-week long Tulip Festival was canceled, and our farm was simultaneously shut down,” said Andrew Miller, chief executive officer of Tulip Town. “The tulip bloom here is something hundreds of thousands of people from across the world look forward to every spring, and hundreds of small local businesses join together to create and share value with our guests.”
The Tulip Festival brings in an estimated 300,000 visitors and $65 million in revenue to Skagit County, according to 2018 data from the Washington State University Skagit County Extension. For the area, the loss of this revenue is a big blow.
The farm, however, also has a cohort of new owners, who bought Tulip Town and several other area businesses last year under venture capital group Spinach Bus Ventures. Miller is one of five to make up the company — all of whom grew up in Skagit Valley and have known each other for more than 30 years.
This group — which collectively has experience in law, tech, military intelligence, economic development, real estate investment, accounting, and insurance — wasted no time innovating and pivoting their business model to stay afloat while giving back throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
And yes, tulips still take centerstage.
“We have these world-class flowers, these field-grown tulips, that are so iconic, that have connected so many people together,” Miller said. “In this crisis, we’re looking at how we can get these special, field-grown, hand-picked tulips to people since they can’t come to us.”
Tulip Town has about six acres of tulips growing in any given year in a three- to five-week window, which usually aligns with the month of April — hence the four-week festival. This April, without tourism traffic to rely on, Tulip Town’s owners have bootstrapped initiatives that allow people nationwide to order fresh flowers, take a virtual tour, and buy memberships for year-round experiences that focus on local activities beyond what the blossoms offer, such as an autumn harvest festival and a summer farm camp.
“We knew there was opportunity in this, and we wanted to figure out what that was,” Speer said. “We started shipping flowers, which we’ve never done before. We came up with the Color for Courage campaign, where people can buy bouquets online and donate them to frontline nurses, or people in nursing homes, or military families.”
The owners have a special interest in caring for the land, giving back to the community, and building business strategies that are sustainable in the long term. In fact, doing so is the entire reason the five of them returned to their hometown — where they spent their summers boarding a bus to work all day in the spinach fields, starting at age 11 — and started the aptly named Spinach Bus Ventures: They wanted to keep land in local hands and prevent it from being overdeveloped.
“We are 80 miles from two of the hottest economies in North America,” Miller said, referring to Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. “The unique value proposition for Skagit Valley is in food and agriculture, as well as arts, culture, events, and entertainment. So, we don’t want to throw up a bunch of houses on the farmland — we want to figure out how to maximize the economic return on what we have that’s consistent with our values.”
Spinach Bus Ventures officially formed last March, purchasing the Fairhaven Mill, an almost 50-year-old certified organic flour mill, and finalizing a contract next month with Skagit Valley Gardens, a garden center located on 25 acres that was established in 1982. The acquisition of Tulip Town finalized in June 2019 after the group discovered that previous owners Tom and Jeannette DeGoede were looking to sell and wanted the farm to continue being locally owned.
This year’s Tulip Festival would have been the new owners’ first time around the block in the driver’s seat, and they spent 10 months organizing, training, and equipping themselves for the event.
But the pivots made necessary by COVID-19 have given Spinach Bus Ventures an interesting — and surprisingly fruitful — platform on which to practice its value-based economic model.
“We had about 72 hours to scrap our entire strategy and start over,” Miller said. These new strategies — like forging a partnership with Canlis to deliver tulips with to-go meals and figuring out what virtual offerings look like — have strengthened community connections, helped other local businesses, and solidified positive operations that can still run post-pandemic.
And though the process has been exhausting, requiring 12 to 14-hour days and creative innovation from the entire team, Speer said that they wouldn’t do anything differently given the choice.
“You know, the previous owners were in their 80s — I don’t think they could have adapted the way that we’ve done in the past month,” Speer said. “The challenge has been, how do we create value and how do we put a positive spin on it? We’ve been able to do that, and we wouldn’t change a thing about it.”
As for their total dedication to the success of the businesses Spinach Bus Ventures has acquired, Miller said there is absolute value in such businesses being owned and operated by locals.
“Doing business here, trust is huge, and it takes time to build,” Miller said. “Being from here, we already have that trust, and we won’t run a business in a way that is going to be detrimental to our community.”
Added Speer, “We’re all grateful for how were raised — what that did to instill values of hard work and accountability very early in our lives. There are easier ways for us to carve out a living than this path we’ve chosen, but in terms of impact on our community, there really is nothing better.”