On the cusp of the 20th century, some 100,000 prospectors flooded into the Yukon to strike it rich. There was gold up in the hills and people’s eyes glittered with thoughts of prosperous lives. A few thousand did find gold. Most didn’t. Some died trying to find it. Some lived and headed back south, empty-handed. Some stayed, made themselves a home and acquired land. On one such property, a decade or so later—1916 to be precise—someone planted a peony root. It grew, then bloomed. A pretty little flower, but no one paid it much mind.
Fast forward to the 21st century. There are roots growing now for another Alaska gold rush. Indeed, it’s Alaska’s burgeoning peony industry, still in its infancy, but ready to explode. “It isn’t often you can be part of a revolutionary new industry,” says Michael Williams, a farmer and owner of Eagle- Song Family Peony Farm in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. “It’s a challenge and an opportunity. We’re only scratching the surface.” True, Alaska isn’t known as an agricultural state and has no strong infrastructure for the business of exporting cut flowers. The government wheels are beginning to turn, however, and farmers—legions of new peony farmers—are beginning to learn how to grow them, all the while grappling with the business side of this new industry.
In the meantime, Alaskan farmers are growing thousands of peonies across the state, eager to make Alaska an agricultural state in the eyes of the United States for the first time and, further, to be a force to reckon with in the world’s flower market. It’s early. There’s still much to be done but, soon, Alaska could be in fields of gold (and purple, red, white and pink) as farms grow, co-ops form and flowers bloom into this booming new enterprise.
Booming isn’t some word lightly tossed.
In 2013 there were 37,172 peony roots in the ground. In 2014—168,961. Growers harvested 75,264 fresh cut peony stems in 2014. That number is double 2013’s totals. Alaskan-grown flowers are now being shipped to dozens of states in the Lower 48, as well as Canada, Asia and Europe. Richard Repper of Echo Lake Farm recently had an order for a shipment to Italy. “They wanted this big, beautiful elaborate wedding in an 8th century Italian church.”
But why peonies? And why now?
Peonies bloom and are harvested in Alaska in July, August and September —the only place on earth where that happens. Peonies bloom in May and June in the Lower 48. New Zealand, one of the world’s leading producers, cuts their flowers in winter—November and December. Holland, another country rich in the cut flower industry, has blooms in the spring months. France, as well. This worldwide gap in production of one of the most popular bouquet flowers falls during the most popular wedding months of the year, making Alaska the vanguard for summer peonies. In other words—it could be a gold rush.
There is now an Alaska Peony Growers Association. Echo Lake Farm’s Richard Repper is its current president. Member farms include Fox Hollow in Nenana, Diamond Ridge in Homer, Pioneer Peonies in Wasilla, and Mt. Lulu Arctic Alaskan Peony Farms in Fairbanks. Communities across the state—from Chugiak to Two Rivers; Fritz Creek to Cordova—have farmers planting roots. Grower co-ops are sprouting up everywhere. Distributors and pack- houses, like Alaska Peony Distributors and Alaska Peony Marketing Group, are assisting farmers in getting their product out to market. There are annual conferences for peony farmers. Hundreds show to gain knowledge and impart it. There are inroads being made in the state government in hopes to provide assistance to them all. The state legislature is considering proclaiming July “Alaska Peony Month.”
It’s a great export crop—with stems going for $2 to $7 a piece. “It took me a couple of years to get some grant money for roots,” Pat Holloway, a horticulturist at University of Alaska-Fairbanks and one of the pioneering growers in the state, says. “I decided to put a couple plants in the ground to see what happened. I had great success and published my findings.” She was approached soon after by Ron Illingsworth, a farmer living in North Pole. They chatted. Taking a leap of faith, he planted a couple dozen peonies on his own property—a vegetable farm. Soon, he was getting calls for his peonies. Lots of calls.
Repper, of Echo Lake Farm, planted 1,200 roots in 2008. He has 12,000 in the ground currently. Wade Howatt, owner of Country Peonies in Palmer, has 900 roots in the ground, with 300 more to be planted soon. “We’re going to stay small,” Howatt says, “so we can enjoy what we do.” Williams, of EagleSong, has 11,000 roots in the ground with expansion plans for 50,000. Illingsworth, of North Pole Peonies, has over 10,000 and expands every year. Rita Jo Shoultz, of Alaska Perfect Peony, plans on 20,000 in the ground. She recently visited the White House as part of the Future of American Agriculture Champions of Change in relation to Alaska’s peony industry. “Since I was one of the first farms,” she says, “I’ve been able to watch the industry grow. It’s been phenomenal.”
That said, there are growing pains, literally. There is a four-year lead time before any farmer will see a return on his investment; it takes that long for the plant to mature enough for commercial harvest. Howatt, of Country Peonies says, “We are also learning the process of knowing when to harvest. Pick them late; they open before the customer receives them. Too early and they might not open at all.” Beyond timing, fierce winds can remove the much-needed snow cover in the winter months; farm equipment and availability is limited; shipping costs are steep. There are shortages of skilled labor, and numerous weeds, diseases and insects. These difficulties aren’t insur- mountable, but they certainly exist.
On a larger scale, Holloway, and other farmers, worry about governmental backing. “Alaska isn’t known as an ag state,” Holloway laments. “We have no infrastructure for agriculture and there is no history of large scale exports of any horticultural crops from Alaska.” She laughs. “Ag? In Seward’s Icebox?! On a national scale, we are totally ignored when it comes to big ag.”
The growers are up for the challenge. “The future holds a lot of hard work, opportunity and, at the end of the day,” Michael Williams summarizes, “prosper- ity.” That passion is starting to sprout across the state by all sorts of farmers with all types of backgrounds, eager to make their colorful mark for the state and for themselves. In the end, the peony bloom could be bigger than any gold nugget ever found in the Last Frontier.