Flowers From Alaska

By Amy Nordrum

Peonies—those gorgeous, pastel flowers that can bloom as big as dinner plates—are grown all over the world, but there’s only one place where they open up in July. That’s in Alaska, and ever since a horticulturalist discovered this bit of peony trivia, growers here have been planting the flowers as quickly as they can.

While speaking at a conference in the late 1990s, Pat Holloway, a horticulturalist at University of Alaska Fairbanks and manager of the Georgeson Botanical Garden, casually mentioned that peonies, which are wildly popular with brides, were among the many flowers that grew in Alaska. After her talk, a flower grower from Oregon found her in the crowd. “He said, ‘You have something no one else in the world has,’” she recalls. “‘You have peonies blooming in July.’” 

Realizing the implications of his insight, Holloway planted a test plot at the botanical garden in 2001. “The first year, they just grew beautifully and they looked gorgeous,” says Holloway. She wrote about her blooms in a report and posted it online. To her surprise, a flower broker from England found the reports of her trials and called to order 100,000 peonies a week. Holloway laughed, informing him that she only had a few dozen plants. But she told a few growers around the state, and that was enough to convince several to plant peonies of their own. “And once they started advertising them, they found out—you can sell these,” says Holloway.

It helps that peonies not only survive, but thrive in Alaska. “Up here, the peonies go from breaking through the soil to flowering within four weeks,” says Aaron Stierle, a peony farmer at Solitude Springs Farm in Fairbanks. “That’s half the time it takes anywhere else in the world.” Blooms from Alaska are unusually big, up to eight inches across, from the long hours of sunshine. The state’s harsh climate staves off most diseases and insects. Even moose—one of the state’s most common garden pests—aren’t a threat, as they hate the taste of peonies.

But their biggest advantage, which that Oregon grower was so keen to point out, is in filling a seasonal gap in the global market that could elevate peonies to the status of roses, in an elite club of cut flowers that are available all year long. Flower markets from England to Taiwan are eager to place orders for Alaska’s midsummer beauties and so are brokers from coast to coast here in the states, where Alaska's peonies bloom just in time for late summer weddings. But first, the peony growers in Alaska must endure the early pains of starting a new industry.

Elizabeth Beks/North Pole Peonies

Ron and Marji Illingworth, who live in the Alaskan town of North Pole, were growing vegetables when they first heard of Holloway’s research. They soon planted 25 peonies alongside their carrots and beans and are now one of the biggest growers in the state, selling 7,000 peonies last year as North Pole Peonies. As many as 58 peony farms have sprouted up in Alaska, capable of producing about 200,000 peonies a year. Marji Illingworth estimates that just in her region, growers will sell a million dollars worth of peonies by 2020.

That’s still a far cry from meeting the demand of the English caller who wanted 100,000 flowers a week, as well as the many other buyers who have since taken notice of Alaska’s peonies. From her living room in late spring, looking out at fields still covered in snow, Marji Illingworth rattles off a list of requests Alaska growers have received: 200,000 stems a week to the East Coast, 10,000 to Taiwan and a few hundred thousand to Dubai. “The market’s huge,” says Richard Currie, owner of Pennsylvania-based Styer’s Peonies and a 30-year veteran of the cut flower business. “I don’t think they need to worry about the market.”

Because of the great demand, growers in the state have enjoyed premium prices. “We’re selling peonies now for two to three times more than we figured we could to pay off [our initial investment],” Ron Illingworth says, settled into a rocking chair across from his wife. Holloway says Alaska’s growers can fetch $4 a flower, while Dutch growers who sell “during the glut of the season” in April and May can only charge 28 cents. It’s no wonder, Marji Illingworth says, that the Dutch have started to freeze peonies in order to try to resell them later in the summer. She’s not worried, since she says the size and shelf life of her peonies still far outperform those of the frozen Dutch flowers.

Even with the promise of high prices and endless demand, some growers remain cautious. “There’s a lot more apprehension in those of us who are just getting started in it,” Stierle says, who has been in business for about half as long as the Illingworths. He worries about variable weather patterns—like those that caused roughly half of the peony roots in the state to die last summer, presumably from too much rain. And the payoff still seems far in the distance to farmers like Stierle, since peonies don’t fully mature for five to seven years. “Right now, it seems like there’s a whole lot of people jumping on the bandwagon,” says Holloway. “But when you put peonies in the ground, you’re stuck. That’s a long term commitment.”

A young peony field (Elizabeth Beks/North Pole Peonies)

Another challenge is that new growers must use trial and error to find the right peony varieties and the best growing techniques. There’s one variety that everyone plants: Sarah Bernhardt, a light pink flower that is especially tolerant of the cold. Holloway has also planted 110 varieties in research plots at the botanical garden, but that doesn’t even come close to the 7,000 that exist. For all the rest, growers must order and plant them to see how they'll fare—and that gets expensive, since peony roots cost about $10 apiece.

The state’s growers work closely together. Statewide, they’ve formed the Alaska Peony Growers Association to host conferences, growers’ schools, and a certification program for harvesters. Currie, who spoke at this year’s conference, looks on with admiration. “They share a lot of their experience with one another which is unusual for growers to do,” he says. Locally, the Illingworths, along with Carolyn Chapin and her business partner at Polar Peonies, have formed a cooperative of 38 farms called Arctic Alaska Peonies. They plan to market Alaska’s peonies as a single brand.

The peony boom is a source of envy for those who have been trying—and mostly failing—to find ways for Alaskan farmers to make money from edible crops in a state that still imports more than 95 percent of its food. “I wish that local food production could generate as much excitement—even though there is no allure of big money,” says Susan Willsrud of Calypso Farm and Ecology Center in an email, though she emphasizes that the peony industry has done wonders for raising the profile of agriculture in Alaska. Farming of either sort has plenty of room to expand in the state, which has 35,000 square miles of land suitable for agriculture. That’s roughly equal to the size of Indiana, and only 0.1 percent of it is currently in production.

For many growers, though, the prospect of planting this acreage in peonies is the most exciting plan proposed in recent memory. Even some horticulturalists who have researched peonies have become so enamored with their potential that they’ve planted their own plots. “I’m debating that right now and kicking myself for not clearing that half acre last year,” says Steven Seefeldt, an agricultural agent at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service.

But even the most experienced Alaskan farmers like Chapin of Polar Peonies are keenly aware that there are no guarantees in any business, and especially with farming in Alaska. “We keep making it sound so good, but like all farming, it’s risky and a gamble,” she says.

Nearing retirement, the Illingworths plan to keep their farm in their family. Their daughter and son-in-law are active partners in the business already, and their five grandchildren help with planting and the harvest. The Illingworths feel confident that they’ll be making a comfortable profit by the time their 13-year-old granddaughter, who wants to become a biologist and grow peonies, goes to college. This spring, they lost their home to a fire, but their peony business remains strong.

Meanwhile, large flower companies like Currie’s in the lower 48 states are watching Alaska’s small growers to see what they can make of the opportunity before them. One company—Kennicott Brothers from Chicago—has already invested in the state’s peony industry, buying into several farms on the Kenai peninsula. “[Kennicott] wanted to be the first cut flower market in the nation to advertise year-round peonies,” Holloway says.

For her part, Holloway is pleasantly surprised by the way the movement that she started has taken hold across the state. “Every time I think about the peonies, the first thing I do is start laughing myself silly because I just cannot believe it,” she says. “I just cannot believe it.”

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/flowers-from-alaska/372994/