Tulip Man(ia): Pick-your-own fest blossoms
When Jeroen Koeman says he's the Tulip Man, the Madison County resident is just stating a fact. He comes from a line of tulip growers in Holland, where six of his father's eight brothers grow the alluring flowers that caused an economic collapse in the 17th century.
"I know everything about tulips," says Koeman. Not that he didn't try to escape his tulip destiny. "My brother said he was going to do tulips. I was going to do something else."
Yet he left Holland to take a job as head grower for a tulip farm in Washington state and later served as a grower in Waynesboro. And when, in Charlottesville, he met Keriann, who would become his wife, plans to return to the Netherlands were dropped. The couple started EcoTulips, which in 2009 began importing organic bulbs to sell as fundraisers for schools and other groups.
"I felt confident I could sell 200,000," says Koeman. "I didn't, and that's why I planted 40,000 bulbs."
The excess inventory became a pick-your-own organic tulip festival last spring, the only such event in the country, and part of a learning curve for the now 29-year-old Jeroen Koeman (pronounced yuh-roon koo-man).
Last fall, he planted another 60,000 organic bulbs and this year's festival visitors can, for $1-$2 a stem, pick Lalibelia, Rambo, and Silver Dollar–- more exotic varieties than typically grown here.
Because organic farmers don't spray the disease-susceptible flowers, they plant the strongest, most disease-resistant varieties, which aren't always the most common ones, Koeman explains.
"This is our show garden," he says of the quarter-acre with its neat rows of thousands of tulips that's become a marketing arm of the import business. "We're still the only organic supplier in America," says Koeman, acknowledging that he wasn't always so green.
"He'd never grown organically," says Keriann, who serves a EcoTulips' fundraising director. "I brought him from the dark side."
The day of a reporter's visit, the tulips are not yet the vivid display they'll soon become, but the prospect that not-quite-open tulips could last two weeks–- about a week longer than what Americans are used to–- holds some allure. But when tulips are your business, does that jeopardize their mystique?
"You're tuliping on me," Keriann says she tells her husband when there's too much tulip talk. "I've made it into a verb."
Still, they share a passion for putting a bulb in the ground in the fall so something beautiful can arise in the spring, an experience they stress in their marketing to school kids.
"Tulips," says Keriann, "are not about instant gratification."
Organic Tulip Festival 2011 takes place on weekends through April 24, 9am to 6pm Saturdays and Sundays, and 10am to 6pm Wednesdays and Fridays, 3320 Lillards Ford Road in Brightwood. Admission is free.