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Tuesday, April 7, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Family Tulip Business Blooms

Seattle Times Business Reporter

THE LARGEST TULIP-BULB GROWER in the country is a family-owned farm in the Skagit Valley, part of an industry that's a fulcrum for Skagit County's economy.

MOUNT VERNON, Skagit County - In the Skagit River delta, where a carpet of color rolls out across the landscape, William Roozen casts an admiring glance across his family's farm. He points to fields filled with colorful flowers, greenhouses and a faithful 1950s-era tractor he used to ride through tight rows of tulips.

Roozen emigrated from Holland 50 years ago with years of experience in the bulb industry. He had a good back, strong hands and a heart pulsing with dreams. Roozen started a tulip farm on five acres of land, holding staff meetings in a garage and toiling long hours beside a few hired hands. He saved money by buying used tractors and farm equipment.

Today, Roozen's small company has grown to be the largest tulip-bulb grower in the country and one of the largest employers in the Skagit Valley with more than 150 workers year-round, following closely on the heels of two major oil refineries. But Skagit County is less known for its oil than its flowers - an industry that's become a fulcrum for the county's economy.

"The flowers have become a signature for us," said Don Wick, executive director of the Economic Development Association of Skagit County.

For the past 15 years, Washington Bulb, now owned and operated by Roozen's five sons, has produced half the country's tulips and tulip bulbs. The company has cornered most of the state's estimated $12 million flower market, said Richard Roozen, company vice president.

Spread out in the shadow of Mount Baker, the Roozens' flower empire includes a recently built 6,000-square-foot office, the Roozengaarde gift shop and garden, a fleet of about 150 farm vehicles and 12 acres of warehouses and greenhouses.

"It just grew," said William Roozen, 77, sitting in a plush leather chair at the company headquarters on the western fringe of Mount Vernon. He shrugs as if he doesn't know how it happened, like it was all a dream and he is just now snapping awake.

To community leaders, the reason for the family's fortune is clear.

"There's no secret to their success," said Wick. "They just work hard."

That work ethic spans at least six generations. The Roozen family began the bulb business in Holland, the world's top tulip-bulb producer. The business goes back to at least 1749.

In 1946, William Roozen, the youngest son of 10 children, convinced his young bride, Helen, to move with him to America. He had visited the United States to sell bulbs from his family's farm.

Harvesting flowers and bulbs remains a lucrative business in the Skagit Valley, where the marine climate and the dark, fertile soil are ideal growing conditions.

In the Skagit Valley, Roozen (which means "roses" in Dutch) worked for other farmers before setting off on his own in 1950. Six years later, he purchased Washington Bulb, founded by two of the area's first bulb farmers, Joe Berger and Cornelius Roozekrans. Washington Bulb now owns about 500 acres of land and leases the rest from about 50 landowners.

William Roozen emerged as a leader among the four flower-farming families in the valley. He worked odd jobs while he tilled the soil of his farm to save enough money to buy a small three-bedroom home. Helen Roozen gave birth to 10 children there before the family moved into a custom-built five-bedroom home in 1964.

More than a decade ago, William Roozen's back got sore; his hands calloused. In 1985, he handed the business over to his five sons and a daughter, Bernadette Roozen Miller, who died last year. William Roozen struck a deal with his children - those who stayed in the family business could be partners, but those who chose other careers had to sell their shares to the others.

The Roozen boys - John, 47; Leo 45; William Jr., 42; Richard, 41; and Michael, 35 - and Bernadette, stuck with the company. With 35 grandchildren, William Roozen is confident the company will keep growing.

The brothers have assumed a similar work schedule as their father, laboring six days a week, often 12 hours a day.

"We don't ever stop," Richard Roozen said. "Nobody backs off here because you can't."

Each spring, the family is rewarded for its work when droves of visitors cram narrow backcountry roads to see their flowers during the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.

Audrey Smith, executive director of the festival, which kicked off last weekend and ends April 19, says the event provides a major economic shot in the arm for the county. More than 1 million festival visitors are expected to come to Mount Vernon this year, spending $85 million in the town, Smith said.

"To the retailers, it's like a second Christmas season," Richard Roozen said.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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