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Some minor dulling of the Skagit tulipgloss

Springtime ritual: Let spirits soar, lawsuits bloom!

Tulip fields at Tulip Valley Farm had yet to fully bloom as of April 7. The cold and misty weather has delayed the bloom of the tulips this year in Skagit Valley.
Tulip fields at Tulip Valley Farm had yet to fully bloom as of April 7. The cold and misty weather has delayed the bloom of the tulips this year in Skagit Valley. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ron Judd Executive Editor

CONTENT WARNING: The following contains decidedly non-flowery and non-reverential, cantankerous, and possibly sacrilegious references to tulips and broader tulip-kind. The author pre-regrets errors in judgment. 

Tulip Festival? Bah-humbulb.

We’re probably off on the wrong foot there amid Northwest Washingtonians, who look upon April’s apprehensive poking up of the tulips from the fecund soils of the central Skagit Valley as a literal rite of spring, rite of passage, probably even “riting” of wrongs.

This has never stopped, nor even slowed us before.

Fact is, the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival — which begins around now and lasts until … I dunno, the start of Ski to Sea? — is a wonderful treat for big hordes of tourists and even small hordes of locals to the degree it puts people out in the middle of one of the Northwest’s true wonders: acres of vibrant, otherworldly, semi-natural color, which has an explosive impact on the psyches of local folks who have slogged through what feels like double-digit months of dank, dark grayness. 

The fields are truly, undeniably beautiful. Seriously, everybody ought to get there, at least once or twice. Life is short. 

Like the spectacular flocks of migratory snow geese and swans that grace the valley in winter months, the combination of the pastel-hued flowers and the unique golden lighting of the magic Skagit is a legit must-see.

Granted, granted, granted. But, but, but:

For folks who live in the valley — we do know a number — Tulip Fest is all of that, with an underlayer of Gaper Hell: It’s an endless stream of mouth-breathers in Teslas and Volvos descending upon local roads, driveways and lawns, stopping traffic, clogging driveways, and acting in all the accustomed ways of someone who has never before been north of Shoreline or south of Surrey. 

They can’t help it. But neither can the locals who understandably rue the encroachers’ lack of ability to obtain a clue.

The locals grit teeth, grin for appearances, and bear it. They’re neither unique, nor alone. Like every other natural wonder in rural modern America, Skagit’s tulip season represents the inevitable and ironic collision of a natural phenomenon drawing crowds so large and persistent that the very natural, rural characteristics that created the attraction in the first place become endangered.

This is the National Parks, charismatic animals and wild places conundrum; ask anyone who lives in West Yellowstone, Bozeman, Jackson Hole, Squamish, Couer d’Alene, Whitefish, Telluride  … the list goes on; we’ve all been there, done that, got the micro-brewery T-shirt.

So there’s that

Add on top, in Skagit’s case, the ever-present challenge of scheduling a big community festival, requiring for most, some advance planning, that relies on natural cycles such as weather. This places the arrival of the Tulip Parade’s true grand marshals — actual tulips in bloom — on a sliding scale of a couple weeks, one way or the other. Such is the case this year, when kickoff events will play out among fields clearly not yet in full splendor. 

Nothing says “Howdy!” to road-weary, patience-challenged tourists like the friendly admonition: “Glad you made it. But you really shoulda waited ’til next weekend!” 

Ouch. 

Still, it’s clear that sufficient numbers of first-time customers exist to make tulip-feting an enduring, traffic-jam success. The bulb farmers of the Skagit have been smart enough to double down on capitalist impulses to evolve from simple farmers of a popular global product — tulip bulbs, the production of which once was the entire point here — to simultaneous tourist attraction, with its own tidy, ka-ching ring.

Nothing wrong with that. Except it does present opportunities for amusing collisions of back-to-nature, farmstead wholesome values with straight-up business shark-itude. 

Witness recent events in the valley: Last year’s big opening weekend was threatened by a labor action; negotiations commenced, and (overdue) concessions were made for workers. This year’s takes place amid a certified legal spat, with the owners of a venture called Tulip Town — please understand, you can’t make this up, and even if you could, we would not — claiming in a lawsuit that one of the group’s co-founders conspired to start a “competing garden,” nearby, according to the Skagit Valley Herald

Tulip Town, a creation of (again, actual names) Spinach Bus Venture Group, went all Courthouse Funky Town on former Spinach Bus CEO Andrew Miller, four days before the big event. The group sought to put legal plasti-cuffs on Miller’s new, nearby competing venture, Tulip Valley Farms, before it sold its first bunch.

The suggestion is that Miller’s quest to make Tulip Valley so much more than a tulip farm — in fact, “the Coachella of Spring,” complete with nighttime tulip lighting and tourist “cow cuddling” — involved some degree of deception, duplicity and more important, tourist diversion. 

Miller, who also is accused of mistimed bulb planting when he ran Tulip Town for Spinach Bus, denies the litigants’ claims of breach of contract, misrepresentation and breach of fiduciary duty. The competing farm? Well, that’s standard competition.

In other words, if you’re not moving ahead in the Tulip tourist wars, you’re just sinking farther into the mud. 

So there you have it. Happy spring, everybody! Make sure your camera batteries are charged. Please don’t block the driveways. And don’t forget to tip the lawyers.

Ron Judd’s column appears on Wednesdays; ronjudd@cascadiadaily.com; @roncjudd.

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