Sitting at a kitchen table at his Puyallup bulb farm, Neil Van Lierop has endless stories about flowers and the good old days.
Likewise, people in East Pierce County and beyond have no shortage of memories after decades of buying bulbs and flowers from Van Lierop’s property.
An easel that sits in the now-nearly-empty gift shop holds a memory board with hundreds of farewell notes from customers expressing gratitude for the farmer’s years in business.
On Friday, the 75-year-old Van Lierop will say goodbye to his faithful customers and close his bulb farm and gift shop for good.
But he isn’t just saying goodbye to people; he’s parting with the only way of life he’s ever known.
“I’ve been married to this business my whole life,” he said. “It has been important to a lot of people. It was important to my mom and dad, and it has been very important to me.”
Van Lierop is the last in a five-generation line of bulb farmers who started in Holland; his father was the first to farm in Puyallup.
Van Lierop has lived on the farm off 80th Street East near Pioneer Way all his life. He dragged his first hoe when he was 2 years old and plowed his first field when he was 7.
“I was a tough little guy,” Van Lierop said last week.
Business has been winding down for the last decade, he said, and after Friday’s farewell, only one bulb farmer will remain in a valley long known for its daffodil stock.
As competition increased and his three adult daughters from a previous marriage pursued lives away from the farm, Van Lierop started to scale back. He got a boost a year ago when the Puyallup City Council finalized the long-awaited annexation of nearly 114 acres northeast of the city, which included his property.
Washington state still has daffodil bulb farms, including the Skagit Valley farms in Mount Vernon. But the identity of a region that once was a worldwide leader in daffodil growing now rests solely on the back of Knutson Farms in Sumner.
Gary Chastagner of Sumner has watched the industry’s gradual decline over the past few decades. A professor at the Washington State University Research & Extension Center in Puyallup, he has worked on ornamental bulb crops for 35 years.
Bulbs are difficult and expensive to farm, Chastagner said, and the economic climate and lack of family succession have contributed to the decline. The future, he said, lies with people willing to support niche markets and buy locally.
“Time will tell, but certainly the indications are (the land) will end up being utilized for commercial or residential development,” Chastagner said.
Several parcels make up the Van Lierop property. He has sold a few small pieces of land and leases the rest to a vegetable farmer, but the bulk of the property remains for sale with no official deals lined up.
The property has generated some interest, he said, but none from farmers.
Van Lierop says he doesn’t know what will happen to his farm, but he hopes a respectable operation takes over.
“As long as it’s a good business, that’s all that matters to us,” said his wife, Lore Van Lierop.
The farm has been more than work for the Van Lierops — it’s home. The couple were married 13 years ago under a gazebo on the property, a day captured in a wedding album adorned with daffodils. They live on the property and will remain there as they await interested buyers.
Lore Van Lierop was known for running a tight ship, coordinating pickers and gift shop employees on the 100-acre farm that over time has diminished to a six-acre patch of daffodil, tulip and iris bulbs.
“She was our German field commander,” Van Lierop said of his wife.
Despite that, Lore Van Lierop said she’s always had warm conversations with customers and workers. She’s going to miss the camaraderie and watching the flowers bloom each year.
“That’s how you know spring is coming,” she said. “I can live without it, though. Something else comes and fills that place.”
Many Puyallup residents worked on the farm over the decades. Puyallup city attorney Kevin Yamamoto spent several seasons in his early high school years picking flowers in the spring, as well as harvesting and sorting bulbs in the summer.
Yamamoto said everyone in the valley had some connection to the farm, including buying the flowers or bulbs in the gift shop and working a summer job.
“Van Lierop has been a part of the fabric of the community forever,” he said.
Towering at 6-foot-6 and always carrying a cigar, Van Lierop was easy to spot, Yamamoto said.
“Neil is a big giant man, but he is gentle and kind,” he said.
The Van Lierop era has been easing to a close. The farmer was the grand marshal in last month’s Daffodil Parade. The farm will close quietly, with no huge blowout sales or celebrations planned.
The Van Lierops said goodbye to Puyallup at a customer appreciation day in April. Few items that remain in the gift shop are for sale.
Kim Goetz has worked in the shop since 2004. For now, she said, it feels like the end of any other growing season. But Goetz said she knows it will hit her when the season starts up next year.
“Anything that’s been around for 79 years, it’s not just the end of a business,” she said from behind the counter. “It is the end of an era.”