You can see Dan Pearson’s influence long before you get to his farm in the Chehalis River Valley near Oakville. Past the picturesque Sharon Grange Hall and near the rugged pioneer cemetery are dahlias – hundreds of them – surrounding a neighbor’s house.
The neighbor once worked at Pearson’s self-titled flower farm, Dan’s Dahlias. Pearson is Washington’s largest commercial dahlia grower.
The American Dahlia Society estimates that there is anywhere from 18,000 to 20,000 dahlia varieties in cultivation at any one time. It’s that diversity that has long attracted Pearson to the flower.
“New varieties are bred and developed all the time. There’s always something new around the corner to hold your interest,” Pearson said.
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Now is the peak time for dahlias and this weekend the American Dahlia Society will hold its annual show in Tacoma. Pearson will speak on a panel at the event Saturday.
Aside from a thriving mail order business, Pearson sells cut flowers at the Olympia Farmers Market on Thursday through Sunday during the dahlia season. His flowers are also available at the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market Cooperative and at the Elma Farm Stand and Public Market. He provides cut flowers for weddings and other events.
Dahlias come in an eye-popping variety of forms, petal shapes and colors (everything but blue, green and brown.) The flower heads range from 2 to 12 inches wide.
At Pearson’s farm, rows and rows of dahlias stretch into the distance. Each variety seems more dazzling than the previous. The petal shapes reflect their names (ball, cactus, water lily) and their color placements range from solid to paint-splattered to two-sided. Some have petite single rows of petals and others look like pompons.
Pearson, 41, is hardly a Johnny-come-lately to the flower business. He started selling dahlias at age 11 at the Olympia Farmers Market in 1984. By the time he graduated from Elma High School in 1991, he had a four-year education paid for at Washington State University.
But in 2003 he walked away from his landscape architecture degree.
“I can make more money growing dahlias doing the job I’ve done since I was 10 years old than something that requires a four-year degree,” Pearson said.
But it hasn’t always been a bed of flowers at the farm he grew up on and is now raising his own children on. The commercial logo for Dan’s Dahlias shows a Holstein eating a dahlia. The design reflects a June day in 1994 when the neighbors’ cows broke through a fence and ate three acres of dahlias to the ground – his entire crop. Insurance eventually paid for the damages.
Today he grows 600 varieties of dahlias on more than five acres. Every year he discontinues 50 varieties and adds 50 more. While he doesn’t propagate dahlias, he does help breeders to introduce new varieties.
Pearson’s cut flower markets lasts just 8-10 weeks and makes up 15 percent of his annual income. The tuber season, which is the bulk of his business, runs from Aug. 1 through June 1. Not that he has many left by then. By December or January some varieties are already sold out.
Pearson sells his tubers between $4 and $8. The bouquets go for $10. Each one has 10 to 12 dahlias along with other flowers he grows, such as zinnias and sunflowers, along with greenery he buys from others.
“Salal is the only thing that comes from off the farm.”