Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “do it for the ‘gram.” The “gram” in question is Instagram, and the idea is someone is taking a photo or a video specifically for posting it on social media, for likes and for shares. The more photogenic a scene, the better. Think about that if you’re thinking about starting a tulip festival.
The topic of tulip festivals was addressed by Alexis Szarek, the founder and CEO of Bloom Flower Festivals, during a winter NAFDMA webinar. She grew up on a commercial cut flower farm near Vancouver, BC, Canada, and with this experience, she started the Abbotsford Tulip Festival in 2016. They planted 10 acres of tulips with an expectation of drawing 30,000 visitors. More than 100,000 visitors showed up in just four weeks. The sixth Abbotsford Tulip Festival will take place in spring 2023.
With Bloom Flower Festivals, Szarek has brought five tulip festivals, two beer tasting corn mazes and two sunflower festivals to more than 350,000 visitors. She said tulip festivals “seem to be the next hot topic in agritourism.”
“Each spring, I am left in awe at the folks who drive, sometimes eight hours, to enjoy the beauty of tulips,” Szarek said.
Tulips are rated for hardiness zones 3 – 8, and they need to overwinter for 12 to 16 weeks. As versatile as tulips are, they are high maintenance, Szarek said. They need to be planted in a dry and well-drained area. And, while tulip festivals are stunning, growers ultimately have little control over actual bloom time, so that’s one thing to consider when thinking of starting a festival.
The larger consideration is how a festival will fit into your existing operation. “Think about the labor and work you’re already doing,” Szarek said. You’d have to order the bulbs in summer, plant the bulbs in autumn, plan the festival over winter and then the tulips will bloom in spring (but then it can be difficult to predict how long they’ll last). “You need to be versatile and adjust based on the weather. When they’re done blooming, you start again. It’s a wonderful crop, and it brings a lot of color to your operation, but they are a year-round thing.”
Szarek also said that while technically a perennial, for festival purposes, treat tulips as annuals, meaning that you will need to spray/kill them every year. This will minimize any volunteers that show up the next season, as they are one of the largest causes of the fungal disease called tulip fire. Once infested, it only becomes more serious in succeeding crops. The solution for it is crop rotation (and fresh bulbs).
She recommended planting a new field every year for five to eight years to avoid or get rid of tulip fire. That means a 10-acre festival field would require a minimum of 50 acres of accessible land. A nitrogen-fixing cover crop is a good choice for the off years, and fall-planted rye good for weed control, according to Szarek.
As for the size of your festival, fields can range from two to 40 acres – the latter being more than you’ll ever need, Szarek said, but a good size if you’re also harvesting bulbs – with more than 20 varieties of tulips planted. Planting mixed varieties can create a stunning effect for a U-pick field. You’ll also need wide pathways for strong photo opportunities for visitors.
“Remember, you are farming experiences, not flowers, not bulbs,” Szarek said. “It’s all about the photos – and I am amazed at the creativity that comes from every festival. We host tulips festivals because of the memories and the images people create.”
If you’re thinking of starting a festival, remember that equipment is important (and often imported from the Netherlands, where tulips are a much larger crop). At the bare minimum, you’ll need a planter. As for the bulbs, Szarek said to research varieties and where you’ll buy them from – and realize you’ll have to go through a full planting cycle to recoup the money invested the following spring.
“It’s not an inexpensive endeavor,” Szarek said. To achieve the proper density you’ll need to plant 150,000 – 200,000 bulbs/acre, at a cost of $150 – $500 per 1,000 bulbs (which equates to $15,000 – $30,000/acre for just bulbs – not labor and not shipping). You need enough operating cash to buy bulbs and then wait for the income.
“Unless you have already bought bulbs and a planter, do not expect to have a festival in 2023,” Szarek said. “Use this information for 2024.” She offers a full course on setting up a festival on her website, upickuniversity.com.
by Courtney Llewellyn