Tulip farm offers signs of spring in winter

On the Farm: Jac and Trudie Theelen import bulbs from the Netherlands and grow them into budding flowers

RED DEER — It’s a frigid white world out there. Leafless trees border snow-covered hills and fields. Nature seems at a standstill.

So the warmth, colour and earthy aroma of new growth that permeates the air at Jac and Trudie Theelen’s Tulip Farm offers a welcome surprise.

The couple is in the business of flowers. They import tulip, hyacinth and amaryllis bulbs from the Netherlands, their homeland. Weeks later the bulbs grow into budding flowers for winter weary customers.

Flower season runs from mid-November to Mother’s Day.

“We have the hyacinths and amaryllises until Christmas,” says Jac. “Then add the tulips in January.”

To start, bulbs are planted individually in hydroponic trays, stacked in a temperature-controlled room in the Theelen’s 4,500 sq. foot shop-greenhouse, where they start to put down roots. After about three weeks, the bulbs are relocated to the warmer growing room. Sunshine floods through high windows stimulating further growth.

When the tulips, after about seven weeks, have lengthened and show emerging buds, they’re passed through the debulber, gathered in 10 stem bundles and wrapped in plastic sleeves. Then they are stood in water to get a good drink. After this conditioning they’re ready for market.

Debulbing forces the plants to direct their energy to the stem and flowers.

The hyacinth and amaryllis bulbs and some tulips are left intact with budding flowers sold in vases or baskets.

As well as supplying retail flower shops in central Alberta, the Theelens attend Edmonton’s Strathcona Market on Saturdays. Tulip Farm also sells through Innisfail Growers at the Calgary Farmer’s Market.

To ensure a continuous supply of fresh flowers during winter, new bulbs are planted weekly.

Trudie processes tulips through the debulbing machine. Debulbing forces the plant to direct its energy to further growth of the stem and flowers. | Maria Johnson photo

Although the couple had owned a flower shop and garden centre in Heijin in southeastern Netherlands, they had lots to learn.

“Everything we knew there didn’t work here,” says Jac, referring to differences in temperature, humidity, water and plant hardiness zones.

“Trudie keeps very detailed records,” he says, which allows them to manage their plants, and ultimately their business, as successfully as possible.

Another difference is colour preferences. Europeans practice more what Jac calls “ton sur ton,” or tone on tone, whereas in Canada a profusion of bright unmatched colours is popular.

But one factor that remains constant no matter which continent the plants are growing on is timing.

“We need to have flowers ready for Mother’s Day on Mother’s Day,” says Jac.

“Valentine’s Day and Easter too. Every holiday needs to be on time.”

The Theelens worked hard to establish their niche market.

“Building up clientele is not easy,” says Jac, who loaded his van with flowers four days every week for sales calls to Edmonton and Calgary.

There was lots of door knocking and relationship building; proving themselves to be a reliable supplier.

“Every day, I would have a goal to be empty when the day was done”.

It was Year Five when Tulip Farm first turned a profit.

When the family immigrated in 1999, they bought an acreage near Sundre, Alta. Two years later, they relocated to their current property, located along the busy highway corridor between Edmonton and Calgary.

Tulip Farm is nestled into a half section of treed, steeply rolling hills at the end of a winding no exit gravel road. Jac said he viewed more than 200 farms before he found this place. It was bare land then with just dirt trail access.

In fact, Jac learned so much during that search that he decided to become a licensed real estate agent. He says he operates strictly on a win-win-win basis. “The seller, the buyer, and me,” he says. “We all have to be satisfied with the deal.”

Trudie recalls those first days here before they put in water, power, sewer and road.

“It was a struggle.”

The family initially lived in an old mobile home and replaced it with a spacious ranch style home about 10 years ago.

Energy efficiency was a priority in development of the property. The shop-greenhouse is insulated concrete form with an R40 rating. It and the Theelens’ home are heated by outdoor wood boilers fed with old and dying trees off the land. They are considering upgrading to an automatic pellet or chip system.

Across the rise of the hill behind the shop/greenhouse sit seven large tiltable racks holding a total of 92 solar panels that feed into the power grid. The full panel capacity of 20,000 watts is an electrical energy give-and-take situation. Sometimes they buy from the grid, sometimes they sell to the grid.

Below the shop sits a 10,000 sq. foot sheep barn.

“We had sheep for about seven years,” says Jac. “But they weren’t for us.”

The barn and pasture are generally rented to other producers now.

The Theelens plan to mark 20 years in Canada this November. Their three children are grown and gone. Two live in central Alberta and the youngest, 23, is attending college in the Netherlands.

Jac and Trudie are experimenting with adding fresh-cut summer flowers to their operation. Down by the sheep barn, under the snow, are plots of lilies and peonies.

The couple are also exploring the idea of opening up a Christmas tree farm. Over the years they’ve planted about 50,000 trees.

“Whatever we do, it has to stay a two-person operation,” says Jac.

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