Arts & Culture
Business

Alaska Peonies

Written by
Michele White

Alaska’s peony farmers shipped more than 25,000 peony stems out of Alaska last year and they project this year’s season to produce 100,000 stems. By the year 2016, based on the number of roots already in the ground – when they reach maturity—there will be approximately a million cut peonies to take to the global market. But, they can’t come soon enough. The demand for Alaska peonies is dramatic, and greater-than what Alaska peony growers can supply. It’s because Alaska is the only place in the world that has peonies in July, August and September.Until Alaska entered the cut flower market, peonies were available seasonally in the springtime, whenever springtime is, in countries all over the world with cold enough climates in which to grow them.

“Nobody ever thought—and this is the Cinderella story—nobody ever thought that Alaska would be a place to grow cut flowers,” says HarryDavidson, peony grower, owner of North Star Peony Farm in Wasilla and President of the Alaska Peony Growers Association, (APGA),“Alaska suddenly emerges on the scene as a national player in selling peonies at a time of decline. There’s probably a hundred farms up herein Alaska right now and they all are less than five years old.”

Just as Alaska has entered the cut flower market late, so has it dazzled floral brokers all over the world who want peonies in July, and until recently, couldn’t find them.

“There is an importer in England who wants 100,000 peony cuts every week, all summer long, wherever they can come from in Alaska during the summer,” said Ron Illingworth, owner of North Pole Peonies, “We don’t have 100,000 peony cuts in the entire state yet.”

The History of Peony Farms

The whirlwind around Alaska peonies began with a casual conversation between a professor from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks,(UAF), and a cut flower grower from Oregon.

Dr. Pat Holloway is a professor at UAF. She works for the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, which is funded half by the federal government and half by the state for the sole purpose of being the research and development arm for agriculture. Agricultural Experiment Stations exist in every state as a result of the Hatch Act of 1887.

“The mission of these Experiment Stations has always been to look for new crops, to look for new ways of growing things and try to figure out what works well and what doesn’t” says Holloway.

In that role, she was a speaker at a greenhouse conference held at UAF in the late 1990s. During the conference, she happened to mention to another speaker – an organic flower grower from Oregon – that most of Alaska’s peonies bloom in July. She asked him if it were feasible to ship flowers—specifically delphiniums—around the world from Alaska, given its proximity to the Far East and Europe.

“He said, Maybe you could, but you have something no one else in the world has” recounts Holloway, “This guy was a world traveler... He knew the dutch flower auctions. He knew the cut flower trade from all over the place. He’s the one who told me, ‘You have peonies blooming in July. Nobody else does. Everybody else has them in May.’”

In New Zealand and Australia, peonies bloom in October and November, during springtime there.

Because her job was to conduct agricultural trials, Holloway started researching and trying to grow peonies.

“It took me a couple of years after that speech,” she says, “I finally found a little pot of money from (the late) Sen. Ted Steven's earmarks.”

In 2001, she wrote a grant proposal for $15,000 and bought thirty different varieties of peonies and planted them in the Georgeson Botanical Garden at UAF.

“It’s required that I write up everything that I do,” says Holloway.

So, she wrote an Experiment Station report on her peony trials and posted them on its internet site.

“Two years after I had planted and written about my first results, (which included) calendars and when things bloomed, I got a phone call from a broker in London and he insisted that I send him 100,000 stems,” Holloway recounts, “I hung up and laughed and said, "There is something to this.”

A New Gold Mine Born From the Gold Mining Era

That same summer, Holloway received a chance visit from the owners of the largest peony cut flower growers in New Zealand. Tony and Judy Banks, owners of Omeo Peonies, happened to visit the botanical garden while they were on vacation. They inquired about her peonies that were still in bloom at the end of July.

“Then they told me, ‘Do you know what kind of a gold mine you’re sitting on?’” says Holloway, “They told me the cut flower industry was a multi-billion dollar industry and it is worldwide and nobody gets a market to themselves.”

Holloway and her team continued to do the research. She was a blueberry researcher and she had no experience with flowers. So, she tested the markets. She cut the peonies at the recommended stage, sent them to a large floral distributor in Los Angeles and asked them to critique her peonies.

“They wrote us back,” says Holloway, “and asked, ‘Do you have any more?’”

By this time, Holloway had an audience with potential peony growers. Homeowners in Alaska had been growing peonies for fifty or sixty years.

“The earliest record that I can find is in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley,” says Holloway, “People were growing peonies in about 1916... People wanted to grow what they grew in their gardens back home throughout the whole gold rush era.”
But, commercially producing peonies is a different story.

“You’re not talking about plunking a bunch of roots in the ground and watching them bloom year after year,” Holloway says, “You have to have the right stem lengths, the right color, the right variety. There’s a whole lot of research that goes into figuring out what is commercially usable as a cut flower. It’s totally different from garden peonies.”

Holloway started having meetings with potential peony growers. The Experiment Station sponsored the first one in Fairbanks in December 2004. She cautioned those who were following her research to plant only a few peony roots to see if they would survive. She unwittingly formed a mutual society that shared information and figured out their fledgling industry together. Her research helped their farms and their experiments helped her research. They had to find solutions to questions about controlling insects and diseases, shipping logistics, growing organic and non-organic and establishing quality standards—how to grow a Grade A peony that will be consistent in every Alaska farm and impress markets in the lower 48 states.

Alaska Peony Growers Association’s Role

In 2007, the Alaska Peony Growers Association, (APGA), was born out of Holloway’s early meetings with peony growers. Today, it is a statewide organization of approximately 100 peony farmers. Primarily, APGA is a trade association to promote the peony industry in Alaska and educate its members.

To that end, APGA puts on conferences in the winter. In the past, it has also put on summer conferences. But, this summer, it is sponsoring farm tours in every region of the state where there are peony farms – Fairbanks, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Kenai, Soldotna and Homer. Industry experts will be guest speakers on the farm tours.

“There will actually be flowers to see and harvesting going on,” Davidson said.

APGA’s focus to this point has been on building Alaska’s peony farms and creating a grading system for quality standards in order to assure quality and uniformity of Alaska’s peonies.

“If you’re going to use APGA’s logo and our trademark – Alaska Peonies – in your packaging or on your boxes,” says Davidson, “then you have to meet those standards.”

Now that peony farmers are producing and taking their stems to market, APGA is shifting its focus to facilitating the creation of independent regional cooperatives around the state that will exclusively handle the marketing for the farms. Davidson says APGA will also continue to be a promotional, educational, and research organization supporting Alaska’s peony farms.

“Not for the Faint of Heart.”

Developing a peony farm is a long-term investment. Many of Alaska peony farms are small, with 500 to 1,000 plants.

“They didn’t start out putting 1,000 plants in the ground,” says Davidson. “Maybe they started out [planting] 200...and over a four- year period of time, they have 1,000 plants in the ground now.”

Once the peony roots are planted, it is a three-to-five-year investment before taking the stems to market, depending on the condition of the soil, the health of the plant and the location of the farm.

“In my location, where the farm has been fertilized since 1910, I got quite a few blooms even in year three,” said Holloway. “You can’t expect soils to act the same. [In] soils that have forests on them, there’s a lot of nutrients tied up to the trees and when you take all that tree off, a lot of the top soil goes as well and then you’re starting with soil that isn’t fertile at all. You have to build up a soil with a lot of compost and...fertilizer. And so, people are in different situations. For some people, they will be cutting in year three.”

Beth Van Sandt is one such peony farmer. She is harvesting a small amount of her peonies this summer after her third year of producing buds. She and her husband Kurt Weichhand have 6,000 plants on their farm, Scenic Place Peonies in Homer.

“The plants that we have here are so healthy, that I’ve got 20 to 25 stem cuts coming out of three-year-old plants,” says Van Sandt. She expects to market about 5,000 buds this year.

Illingworth planted his first peonies in 2005 and planted more roots over the the years. This year, he has 10,000 peony roots in the ground. He started commercially selling peonies in 2010.

“We haven’t had a profit yet,” says Illingworth, “But, we’re bringing in money. We’re making more money than the cost of our roots have been and it’s gradually working its way up.”

Davidson started fertilizing his farm’s soil in 2008. He planted 8,000 peony roots and expects to harvest flowers to sell next year. He says the main reason it takes four or five years to reach commercial viability is because the peony farmers are growing the root stock. “As the plant develops, we cut the buds off, and so, the flowers don’t develop. And that forces the growth energy on the plant down into the root stock,” Davidson says, “If you use great discipline and you force yourself to not grow the flowers, and cut them back, then, when you finally do allow them to produce a flower, they’re going to be much healthier.”

A hardier plant is able to survive Alaska’s adverse weather conditions. “Winter losses are a real thing,” says Davidson. His farm lost about 5,000 roots over the last two years. “There were some significant losses this year because of the way winter happened,” he said, “It got cold early. There was a lot of rain. The ground froze deep. Some farms lost half their stock this past winter.” Alaska’s diversity of climate proves problematic for some areas to grow peonies. For example, peonies cannot survive in permafrost or boggy soils. And Holloway says the entire Matanuska-Susitna Valley is a very challenging location to grow peonies. “They have [a lot of] freeze-thaw and lack of snow early in the season” she says, “It’s not insurmountable but every problem like that has to have a solution and we don’t know yet whether that solution is economical or not.” Davidson says farming is a risky business.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he says, “Farmers worry a lot about things, like weather, bugs, diseases, rain, frost, cold weather. Farmers worry about a lot of things and people don’t give farmers money.”

What It Means for Alaska’s Economy

“Right now, the global market is somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 million stems. There’s a big demand for them. It’s just that by the end of May, there is none available,” Davidson says.

Now that Alaska has a crop available in late July, their value and price are at a premium.

“The number one thing peonies are used for is weddings,” Davidson says, “It’s the biggest, most popular wedding flower.” And summer is a popular time for weddings. White peonies are the most popular worldwide (except in Asia, where white is a funeral flower), and therefore, they are the most expensive.

So, what does all this mean for Alaska’s economy? Holloway says, compared to the oil industry, it’s a drop in the bucket. But, it could open the door for other Alaska flowers and native plants to enter the cut flower market. Some brokers are interested in Alaska lilacs, which also have a timing difference and Alaska willows, because some of them have bright red barks.

“What it does to Alaska’s economy is it diversifies it,” Holloway says, “It improves the quality of life. Not everybody is working up on the Slope. We have people who really do want to grow something and they want to make a living and they want to have a farm in Alaska. It gives them another option for trying to make a go of it and get into something that’s big. People are starting to form co-ops and do something together as an agricultural industry, which, to me, is very exciting.”

Illingworth says the Asian and European markets are paying $4 to $10/stem, with the wholesale price at the lower end and the retail price at the higher end. The price also depends on the color.

“The thing we’re trying to do is to encourage people to get plants in the ground because we have that 100,000 stems-per-week demand,” says Illingworth.

Looking back at that serendipitous conversation she had in the late 1990s that started the ball rolling for the Alaska peony growers, Holloway says she is grateful that that conversation happened and optimistic about what lies ahead for Alaska’s peony growers.

“I know the people who are growing them now and I have a lot of confidence that [they] have done their homework and they’re teaching me as much as I am teaching them,” she says, “The industry is [being] developed by the private grower and that makes all the difference in the world.”

No items found.

Alaska Peonies

Arts & Culture
Business

Author

Michele White

Michele White is a freelance journalist from Anchorage. She also freelances as voice-over talent. She holds a Bachelor ofJournalism degree from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Wasilla was her first home in Alaska, where she worked as the Valley BureauChief for KTUU in 2006. She enjoys cooking, camping, hiking and many other outdoor activities with her family.

Alaska’s peony farmers shipped more than 25,000 peony stems out of Alaska last year and they project this year’s season to produce 100,000 stems. By the year 2016, based on the number of roots already in the ground – when they reach maturity—there will be approximately a million cut peonies to take to the global market. But, they can’t come soon enough. The demand for Alaska peonies is dramatic, and greater-than what Alaska peony growers can supply. It’s because Alaska is the only place in the world that has peonies in July, August and September.Until Alaska entered the cut flower market, peonies were available seasonally in the springtime, whenever springtime is, in countries all over the world with cold enough climates in which to grow them.

“Nobody ever thought—and this is the Cinderella story—nobody ever thought that Alaska would be a place to grow cut flowers,” says HarryDavidson, peony grower, owner of North Star Peony Farm in Wasilla and President of the Alaska Peony Growers Association, (APGA),“Alaska suddenly emerges on the scene as a national player in selling peonies at a time of decline. There’s probably a hundred farms up herein Alaska right now and they all are less than five years old.”

Just as Alaska has entered the cut flower market late, so has it dazzled floral brokers all over the world who want peonies in July, and until recently, couldn’t find them.

“There is an importer in England who wants 100,000 peony cuts every week, all summer long, wherever they can come from in Alaska during the summer,” said Ron Illingworth, owner of North Pole Peonies, “We don’t have 100,000 peony cuts in the entire state yet.”

The History of Peony Farms

The whirlwind around Alaska peonies began with a casual conversation between a professor from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks,(UAF), and a cut flower grower from Oregon.

Dr. Pat Holloway is a professor at UAF. She works for the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, which is funded half by the federal government and half by the state for the sole purpose of being the research and development arm for agriculture. Agricultural Experiment Stations exist in every state as a result of the Hatch Act of 1887.

“The mission of these Experiment Stations has always been to look for new crops, to look for new ways of growing things and try to figure out what works well and what doesn’t” says Holloway.

In that role, she was a speaker at a greenhouse conference held at UAF in the late 1990s. During the conference, she happened to mention to another speaker – an organic flower grower from Oregon – that most of Alaska’s peonies bloom in July. She asked him if it were feasible to ship flowers—specifically delphiniums—around the world from Alaska, given its proximity to the Far East and Europe.

“He said, Maybe you could, but you have something no one else in the world has” recounts Holloway, “This guy was a world traveler... He knew the dutch flower auctions. He knew the cut flower trade from all over the place. He’s the one who told me, ‘You have peonies blooming in July. Nobody else does. Everybody else has them in May.’”

In New Zealand and Australia, peonies bloom in October and November, during springtime there.

Because her job was to conduct agricultural trials, Holloway started researching and trying to grow peonies.

“It took me a couple of years after that speech,” she says, “I finally found a little pot of money from (the late) Sen. Ted Steven's earmarks.”

In 2001, she wrote a grant proposal for $15,000 and bought thirty different varieties of peonies and planted them in the Georgeson Botanical Garden at UAF.

“It’s required that I write up everything that I do,” says Holloway.

So, she wrote an Experiment Station report on her peony trials and posted them on its internet site.

“Two years after I had planted and written about my first results, (which included) calendars and when things bloomed, I got a phone call from a broker in London and he insisted that I send him 100,000 stems,” Holloway recounts, “I hung up and laughed and said, "There is something to this.”

A New Gold Mine Born From the Gold Mining Era

That same summer, Holloway received a chance visit from the owners of the largest peony cut flower growers in New Zealand. Tony and Judy Banks, owners of Omeo Peonies, happened to visit the botanical garden while they were on vacation. They inquired about her peonies that were still in bloom at the end of July.

“Then they told me, ‘Do you know what kind of a gold mine you’re sitting on?’” says Holloway, “They told me the cut flower industry was a multi-billion dollar industry and it is worldwide and nobody gets a market to themselves.”

Holloway and her team continued to do the research. She was a blueberry researcher and she had no experience with flowers. So, she tested the markets. She cut the peonies at the recommended stage, sent them to a large floral distributor in Los Angeles and asked them to critique her peonies.

“They wrote us back,” says Holloway, “and asked, ‘Do you have any more?’”

By this time, Holloway had an audience with potential peony growers. Homeowners in Alaska had been growing peonies for fifty or sixty years.

“The earliest record that I can find is in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley,” says Holloway, “People were growing peonies in about 1916... People wanted to grow what they grew in their gardens back home throughout the whole gold rush era.”
But, commercially producing peonies is a different story.

“You’re not talking about plunking a bunch of roots in the ground and watching them bloom year after year,” Holloway says, “You have to have the right stem lengths, the right color, the right variety. There’s a whole lot of research that goes into figuring out what is commercially usable as a cut flower. It’s totally different from garden peonies.”

Holloway started having meetings with potential peony growers. The Experiment Station sponsored the first one in Fairbanks in December 2004. She cautioned those who were following her research to plant only a few peony roots to see if they would survive. She unwittingly formed a mutual society that shared information and figured out their fledgling industry together. Her research helped their farms and their experiments helped her research. They had to find solutions to questions about controlling insects and diseases, shipping logistics, growing organic and non-organic and establishing quality standards—how to grow a Grade A peony that will be consistent in every Alaska farm and impress markets in the lower 48 states.

Alaska Peony Growers Association’s Role

In 2007, the Alaska Peony Growers Association, (APGA), was born out of Holloway’s early meetings with peony growers. Today, it is a statewide organization of approximately 100 peony farmers. Primarily, APGA is a trade association to promote the peony industry in Alaska and educate its members.

To that end, APGA puts on conferences in the winter. In the past, it has also put on summer conferences. But, this summer, it is sponsoring farm tours in every region of the state where there are peony farms – Fairbanks, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Kenai, Soldotna and Homer. Industry experts will be guest speakers on the farm tours.

“There will actually be flowers to see and harvesting going on,” Davidson said.

APGA’s focus to this point has been on building Alaska’s peony farms and creating a grading system for quality standards in order to assure quality and uniformity of Alaska’s peonies.

“If you’re going to use APGA’s logo and our trademark – Alaska Peonies – in your packaging or on your boxes,” says Davidson, “then you have to meet those standards.”

Now that peony farmers are producing and taking their stems to market, APGA is shifting its focus to facilitating the creation of independent regional cooperatives around the state that will exclusively handle the marketing for the farms. Davidson says APGA will also continue to be a promotional, educational, and research organization supporting Alaska’s peony farms.

“Not for the Faint of Heart.”

Developing a peony farm is a long-term investment. Many of Alaska peony farms are small, with 500 to 1,000 plants.

“They didn’t start out putting 1,000 plants in the ground,” says Davidson. “Maybe they started out [planting] 200...and over a four- year period of time, they have 1,000 plants in the ground now.”

Once the peony roots are planted, it is a three-to-five-year investment before taking the stems to market, depending on the condition of the soil, the health of the plant and the location of the farm.

“In my location, where the farm has been fertilized since 1910, I got quite a few blooms even in year three,” said Holloway. “You can’t expect soils to act the same. [In] soils that have forests on them, there’s a lot of nutrients tied up to the trees and when you take all that tree off, a lot of the top soil goes as well and then you’re starting with soil that isn’t fertile at all. You have to build up a soil with a lot of compost and...fertilizer. And so, people are in different situations. For some people, they will be cutting in year three.”

Beth Van Sandt is one such peony farmer. She is harvesting a small amount of her peonies this summer after her third year of producing buds. She and her husband Kurt Weichhand have 6,000 plants on their farm, Scenic Place Peonies in Homer.

“The plants that we have here are so healthy, that I’ve got 20 to 25 stem cuts coming out of three-year-old plants,” says Van Sandt. She expects to market about 5,000 buds this year.

Illingworth planted his first peonies in 2005 and planted more roots over the the years. This year, he has 10,000 peony roots in the ground. He started commercially selling peonies in 2010.

“We haven’t had a profit yet,” says Illingworth, “But, we’re bringing in money. We’re making more money than the cost of our roots have been and it’s gradually working its way up.”

Davidson started fertilizing his farm’s soil in 2008. He planted 8,000 peony roots and expects to harvest flowers to sell next year. He says the main reason it takes four or five years to reach commercial viability is because the peony farmers are growing the root stock. “As the plant develops, we cut the buds off, and so, the flowers don’t develop. And that forces the growth energy on the plant down into the root stock,” Davidson says, “If you use great discipline and you force yourself to not grow the flowers, and cut them back, then, when you finally do allow them to produce a flower, they’re going to be much healthier.”

A hardier plant is able to survive Alaska’s adverse weather conditions. “Winter losses are a real thing,” says Davidson. His farm lost about 5,000 roots over the last two years. “There were some significant losses this year because of the way winter happened,” he said, “It got cold early. There was a lot of rain. The ground froze deep. Some farms lost half their stock this past winter.” Alaska’s diversity of climate proves problematic for some areas to grow peonies. For example, peonies cannot survive in permafrost or boggy soils. And Holloway says the entire Matanuska-Susitna Valley is a very challenging location to grow peonies. “They have [a lot of] freeze-thaw and lack of snow early in the season” she says, “It’s not insurmountable but every problem like that has to have a solution and we don’t know yet whether that solution is economical or not.” Davidson says farming is a risky business.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he says, “Farmers worry a lot about things, like weather, bugs, diseases, rain, frost, cold weather. Farmers worry about a lot of things and people don’t give farmers money.”

What It Means for Alaska’s Economy

“Right now, the global market is somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 million stems. There’s a big demand for them. It’s just that by the end of May, there is none available,” Davidson says.

Now that Alaska has a crop available in late July, their value and price are at a premium.

“The number one thing peonies are used for is weddings,” Davidson says, “It’s the biggest, most popular wedding flower.” And summer is a popular time for weddings. White peonies are the most popular worldwide (except in Asia, where white is a funeral flower), and therefore, they are the most expensive.

So, what does all this mean for Alaska’s economy? Holloway says, compared to the oil industry, it’s a drop in the bucket. But, it could open the door for other Alaska flowers and native plants to enter the cut flower market. Some brokers are interested in Alaska lilacs, which also have a timing difference and Alaska willows, because some of them have bright red barks.

“What it does to Alaska’s economy is it diversifies it,” Holloway says, “It improves the quality of life. Not everybody is working up on the Slope. We have people who really do want to grow something and they want to make a living and they want to have a farm in Alaska. It gives them another option for trying to make a go of it and get into something that’s big. People are starting to form co-ops and do something together as an agricultural industry, which, to me, is very exciting.”

Illingworth says the Asian and European markets are paying $4 to $10/stem, with the wholesale price at the lower end and the retail price at the higher end. The price also depends on the color.

“The thing we’re trying to do is to encourage people to get plants in the ground because we have that 100,000 stems-per-week demand,” says Illingworth.

Looking back at that serendipitous conversation she had in the late 1990s that started the ball rolling for the Alaska peony growers, Holloway says she is grateful that that conversation happened and optimistic about what lies ahead for Alaska’s peony growers.

“I know the people who are growing them now and I have a lot of confidence that [they] have done their homework and they’re teaching me as much as I am teaching them,” she says, “The industry is [being] developed by the private grower and that makes all the difference in the world.”

No items found.

Author

Michele White

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