Where Have 140 Million Dutch Tulips Gone? Crushed by the Coronavirus

Where Have 140 Million Dutch Tulips Gone? Crushed by the Coronavirus

AMSTERDAM — For tulip growers in the Netherlands, Friday the 13th of March this year was a true horror show. When tulip stems came up at the country’s largest flower market in Aalsmeer, the prices stalled over and over again at zero.

Frank Uittenbogaard, a director of JUB Holland, a 110-year-old family farm in Noordwijkerhout, made the tough decision to destroy his tulip stems — 200,000 of them.

“That hurt a lot,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “It’s very painful because you start in July with digging the bulbs and you have to give them the right treatment to plant them in October, and later move them to the greenhouse. We had very good quality tulips this year. I took my bike and went cycling when they did it because I couldn’t handle it.”

He wasn’t the only grower who had to dump tulips: About 400 million flowers, including 140 million tulip stems, were destroyed over the past month, estimates Fred van Tol, manager of international sales for Royal FloraHolland, the largest cooperation of flower and plant producers in the Netherlands.

Demand for tulips dropped precipitously as flower shops around the globe have shut down because of the outbreak, consumers have gone into lockdown and celebrations have been canceled.

“This virus hit us right in the middle of the tulip sales,” Mr. van Tol said. “In total, four weeks out, the turnover is still 50 percent lower than last year.”

Usually, the period from March through May — including the weeks in which International Women’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day fall — is the Dutch flower industry’s strongest season. It pulls in 7 billion euros ($7.6 billion), with an average of $30 million in flowers sold daily. Tulip growers put their wares up for sale starting in March, when the flowers begin to bloom. Tulip season usually lasts about eight weeks.

Some parts of the industry have been hit harder than others because of the coronavirus outbreak, said Mr. van Tol, depending on the market that producers or distributors serve, with losses from about 10 percent up to about 85 percent.

The Netherlands, which has recorded more than 24,400 coronavirus cases and 2,643 deaths, has put in place a moderate social policy to combat the spread of the virus without going into a full lockdown. Schools, restaurants, bars, museums, sports facilities and gyms are closed until April 28. Most events of more than 30 people have been banned until June 1.

Small shops, however, such as florists and garden shops, can remain open as long as customers maintain a social distance of 1.5 meters (just under 5 feet) from each other and shop employees.

While growers and distributors that primarily serve the local market are still able to sell flowers and plants domestically, those flower businesses that rely on international trade are worse off.

Jan de Boer, the general director and owner of Barendsen, a global flower export company based in the Dutch village of Aalsmeer, said that he had lost 90 percent of his seasonal revenues so far. He typically has 60 full-time employees this time of year, and now, he says, he has work for only six. The Dutch government is paying those salaries, he said, so that hasn’t hurt his business for the moment.

“What is my biggest problem?” he said. “My client Viking River Cruises is not going to have one American customer on a boat this year. I will lose all of the business with them, so for me that’s half a million or a million euros.”

He has also lost all business to countries where florists are closed, including Italy, Spain and France.

At the same time, millions of visitors who trek annually to the blooming tulip fields in the flower-growing region of Lisse have canceled trips, and the effects have rippled out to related businesses. The Keukenhof, the largest flower park in the Netherlands, typically welcomes 1.5 million visitors a year during its eight-week opening that coincides with the blooming of the tulips.

But this year, because of the government’s anti-coronavirus measures, the park has been shut down from its scheduled opening day, March 21, until its scheduled closing date, May 10. That will cost it an estimated $25 million in revenues.

“Nature doesn’t listen to all the regulations,” said Bart Siemerink, managing director of the Keukenhof. “We have a splendid spring in the Netherlands, and now the park is really looking beautiful. We’re doing our best to bring that to people stuck at home.”

People can still view the untrammeled gardens online, via Keukenhof Virtually Open, until the flowers bloom again next year.

The 25 staff gardeners, meanwhile, continue to maintain the park. Mr. de Boer said he expected Dutch flowers to bounce back.

“I’m optimistic because people will always need flowers, to connect, to be together, to tell a story,” he said. “I’m optimistic about the flowers, but I’m not optimistic about how to finance the gap. If you can’t make up for the losses, you’re out of the game. So I will do my utmost to survive.

“It’s more than money,” he added. “It’s a passion.”


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