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Mixed Emotions: The Environmental & Social Elements that Tulip Festivals Ignore

Commercial = Pesticides; Homegrown = Organic

It’s the final week of the annual tulip festival here in my neck of the woods, and while it was once something I was passionate about, I’ve found myself feeling more and more disconnected to it all. It was actually to a point where I ultimately withdrew from volunteering in this year’s events because of that something in my head that told me things were ’not quite right', and needed to figure some things out with the pen and paper and researcher's mindset.

How did I get here?

Well, I was all revved up to go out there and partner with the local association in this huge monthlong event, and then by coincidence I struck up a conversation with a board member of the festival, who was excited to hear that I was coming on board. However, when I shared my concern about the lack of sustainability focus in the festival, from the lack of promoting bike-friendly ways to get around to the concept of shuttling folks from the downtown core out to the fields to improve the traffic while thinking of the air we breathe, it really felt like I hit a brick wall in her response that pretty much shut the idea down.

Furthermore, when I came home and did some detailed research, I noticed that nothing on the festival website encouraged any type of ‘green’ behaviors like most community events I’ve been to in Portland and Seattle and even on the Oregon Coast...even though during my research I found two businesses offering both guided and self-guided bike tours (and rentals) during the festival, not to mention the city has a very good public transportation system that one would think they would be partnering with for shuttles, in order to lessen the infamous gridlock and air pollution created by the event (in a county that I just learned is in the 98th percentile for Air Pollution Related Deaths as it is - see below).

In fact, in the FAQ section, they encourage driving rather than suggesting various ways of carpooling, cycling and other forms of transport. While their goal is to push people to go all over the area, there seemed to be a distinct disconnect where they could do this while looking for ways to reduce congestion - something that drives both visitors and locals crazy.

There is also no indication about the sustainability of these flowers they are growing.

Along with this, there is an eerie silence around the fact that the pesticide use in tulip fields is highly toxic, and the workers who are the entire reason for the festival's immense beauty have been fighting like crazy for improved safety protections from the pesticides, contact dermatitis from the bulbs (last year they successfully fought to get the tulip companies to provide basic safety equipment/gloves/etc. that before they'd been forced to pay for themselves), fair treatment in the fields, and living wages in an area where the cost of living has skyrocketed and where it, as Progressive magazine stated, "draws hundreds of thousands of tourists annually and is expected to bring in at least $65 million in revenue for the county.” The revenue is even higher now as we distance from the pandemic.

Washington Bulb Company (aka RoozenGarde) workers are forced to use old wooden outhouses instead of more sanitary porta-potties - with not enough for the many women in the field - while being required to cut 8,500 flower stems to receive the minimum wage of $16.28. In addition, Community to Community Development , led by a team of ecofeminists who are fighting for food justice, confirm on their site that WBC is working with an anti-union consultant...essentially, spending a ton of money to avoid treating workers fairly. And there is zero evidence that decreasing or eliminating bee-killing and carcinogenic neonicitinoid pesticide use is of any importance to these companies - in fact, not a whisper about sustainability on the RoozenGarde website.


The tulip industry as a whole has a pretty dark past and present, going back to The Netherlands, where many mistakenly assume everything is ecologically sound because of the photos of bicycles everywhere and other sustainability measures in the country. And here in the US, it's easy to turn a blind eye when you see gorgeous acres and acres of tulips, to forget that most growers aren't there for the planet, or the people doing the actual labor, but rather for the profits.

The apparent disinterest of BigAg (of which most in the tulip industry are a part of) in the lifelong health problems of their farm workers and the neighbors who have to deal with overspray, including Parkinson's, is stunning. As The Guardian reported this year, "“Parkinson’s is the world’s fastest growing neurological condition and there is widespread consensus that it is to a large extent an environmentally driven disease...This includes pesticides...Farmers have an increased risk, and so do people living in the vicinity of farmland.”

So it's been a wakeup call for me to continue to learn more and align the time I spend with the groups who are doing the hard work to support workers AND the planet...because those in the know know that you can make a ton of money while being socially and environmentally responsible.

Heads up as well - there are two farms I've found, one on each coast, who are doing it right when it comes to sustainable tulip farming:

  • Wicked Tulips Farm in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, leading the way in organic tulip production, including U-Pick.

  • Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply in California, also known (to me at least) as the good folks behind GrowOrganic, where I ordered most if not all of my fruit trees back on the farm!

As far as how the workers are doing there, I'm not sure, but nationally, farm worker protections and unions overall are on the rise, albeit slowly. That being said, big corporations - and the wannabe smaller ones - are spending millions to take away rights, union-bust, and more embarrassingly selfish behaviors…so with that, it couldn't be a more vital time to vote Democrat, and show you actually give a damn about worker rights and the planet.

"If people don't vote, everything stays the same. You can protest until the sky turns yellow or the moon turns blue, and it's not going to change anything if you don't vote." ~ Dolores Huerta


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