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Red Deer-area tulip farmers continue an old world tradition in central Alberta

Jac and Trudie Theelen run Tulip Farm, southeast of Red Deer
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Jac and Trudie Theelen, of Tulip Farm, southeast of Red Deer, with their friend and horticultural advisor Willy de Vries, who is visiting from the Netherlands on left. (Photo by Lana Michelin/Advocate staff)

Spring greenery has been in leaf since January in snow-covered Alberta — at Jac and Trudie Theelen’s Tulip Farm.

The Theelens are Alberta’s only tulip farmers — or rather “tulip forcers,” said Jac.

The couple take bulbs imported from their native Netherlands and hydroponically grow them in crates until they spring roots at the farm southeast of Red Deer.

Through ongoing care and constant vigilance, these bulbs will eventually bring forth blooms in a variety of bright colours — from lavender to yellow, pink, and deep shades of orange.

But the Theelens do not live in this Technicolor world. The tulips at their farm remain green because, by the time the buds open, they had better be in a customer’s vase — it would be too late to sell them, said Jac, with a chuckle.

He advises buying tulips with unopened buds that have not grown much higher than their leaves for the longest blooming period.

Just as winter-weary shoppers seek out tulips to get a flash of greenery and colour at a dreary time of year, Trudie said she enjoys operating the business, because “it’s nice to have so much greenery in the winter.”

The Theelens grow and sell tulips from January through Mother’s Day. After a brief break, they start growing outdoor flowers for farmers markets from summer to fall, including lilies, sunflowers, peonies and alstroemeria.

Jac and Trudie have 40 years of experience, starting from a shop and garden centre they owned in the Netherlands — a country steeped in tulip history.

Tulips arrived in Holland in the late 1500s from central Asia. By the 17th century, the popularity of these dramatically coloured flowers exploded into ‘Tulip Mania’ — a craze that resulted in bulbs being traded like stocks on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange.

Some were worth more than the cost of a house, so to own tulips — or even paintings of tulips — became a symbol of wealth and status.

Despite an illustrious history, the tulip business is not stress-free. The Theelens thought they were done with tulips by about 1999. “I was burned out,” recalled Jac. He and Trudie moved to Alberta with their three children to try something different.

They bought sheep. Jac also got his Alberta real estate licence to help Dutch farmers coming to Canada find land that suits their needs.

Just to hedge their bets, the Theelens decided they might try growing tulips in Alberta, as a side line.

A lot of what they learned in the Netherlands had to be adapted since everything is different here, from the weather, to the humidity and water.

Tulips are high-maintenance plants. They get stressed if conditions aren’t exactly right, so the couple relies on advice from their retired horticulturalist friend Willy de Vries, from the Netherlands, who’s visiting them again this month.

While tulips are farmed in more temperate B.C., de Vries knows this not an easy feat in Alberta, where temperatures can plunge to -40 Celsius. But after suggesting a few tweaks, he declared the Theelens’ operation to be “perfect.”

Jac noted the Tulip Farm didn’t start making money until the fifth year in business. But in the long run, the tulips have outlasted the sheep.

The Theelens’ flowers, which are particularly sought after for Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day, sell at the Old Strathcona Farmers Market in Edmonton and at the Calgary Farmers Market, through Innisfail Growers.

While Tulip Farm is not open to the public for sales, the Theelens occasionally hold pop-up tulip sales by advanced order in Red Deer, with notifications on the Tulip Farm Red Deer Facebook or Instagram sites.



Lana Michelin

About the Author: Lana Michelin

Lana Michelin has been a reporter for the Red Deer Advocate since moving to the city in 1991.
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