PALMER -- Rob Wells talks about his dahlias the way some people talk about ships or impressive storms, using the female pronoun and a tone of reverence.
"Dahlias express themselves in so many different ways," he said Wednesday as I followed him through his greenhouse near Hatcher Pass. "Size, form, shape."
There were 200 plants in our immediate view, each 4- or 5-feet tall, with a psychedelic array of blooms. The blossoms ranged in color from creamsicle orange to merlot to luminous white. Some flowers were huge, as wide as 10 inches, others took a round form the size of a tennis ball. I wrote plant names in my notebook: "Totally tangerine," "Vanquisha," "Candlelight," "Edge of joy."
Wells has been farming on his property for 30-some years. (He's also had a turn in local politics, state government, and more recently, as a business partner in the embattled Matanuska Creamery.) Dahlias have been his biggest crop since 2010. He has more than 500 plants.
Wells sells the tubers--kind of like bulbs for dahlia plants-- to customers all over the country via the internet. He sells flowers at his farm, the farmers market at 15th Avenueand Cordova Street, and through a local/organic floral shop in Anchorage. Wells is part of a commercial flower-growing trend that's taken hold across the state.
Peonies make up the largest share of flower farming in Alaska. Twenty-five thousand peony stems were exported last year from Alaska to destinations across the Lower 48 and the world, according to a University of Alaska Fairbanks analysis. Alaska peonies have a later blooming window than other places, making them available mid- to late-summer, during a time when Outside supply is low and demand is high. The number of peonies being produced is growing exponentially, Danny Consenstein, state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Alaska Farm Service Agency said. By 2015, the state is projected to produce a million stems.
Wells is part of a quieter movement in Alaska agriculture: flowers grown for a local market, Consenstein said. Dahlias, zinnias, sunflowers, and sweet peas have moved in alongside the kale and potatoes at farmers markets. Local irises, snap-dragons have been appearing at grocery stores. Consenstein has seen local-grown flowers and local-focussed floral businesses pop up in Homer, Fairbanks and Anchorage.
The market for local flowers has opened up thanks to a sea-change among Alaska's consumers over the last decade or so, Consenstein said. That is: more and more Alaskans want to buy local and they are willing to pay for it.
"Consumers like local," he said "There is definitely more awareness."
Food is at the center of the buy-local movement, but local flowers appeal to the same customers, he said. It also appears that a decent segment of the Alaska farmers market-shopping population has disposable income, Consenstein said. That doesn't hurt.
Dallas Wildeve, who uses Wells' dahlias in her arrangements at Bloomsbury Blooms, said a good portion of her customers choose her business because she uses organic, local and foraged flowers. But some of them don't care where the flowers come from, they just want a different-looking arrangement. Alaska consumers are starved for choices.
"I think that they like it's not your traditional FTD with the picture that looks exactly like something," she said.
Wells started selling local food in the late '70s, with a blueberry jam stand on Third Avenue. After that, he and a handful of other vendors sold local vegetables at the corner of Sixth Avenue and D Street. There was a market for what he was selling, but it wasn't huge. All of that has changed. Wells has worried more recently that there are too many farmers markets, but it appears the Anchorage can sustain them. In his observation, twenty- and thirty-something shoppers seem to be driving the interest, but culture around food is also changing as a whole.
"People understand why (local is) beneficial because it's more nutritious, it's fresher, and if you have a bad product, you go back and you go, "I want my money back." It's not like going into a big store. I go, 'Okay, here's your money.'"
Alaska's unique growing climate also produces some superior products. Because of temperature differentials and long days, crops like carrots and broccoli tend to concentrate more sugars, making them sweeter. Long summer days make dahlias more vibrant, Wells' said. The other side of that, though, is that Alaska's weather causes challenges not seen elsewhere. Wells must heat his greenhouse with propane to keep selling blooms into October, and that cuts into his profits. Extreme wind and snow are very hard on his greenhouses.
"Like all farming, it's a nice business, but the money: eh," he said. "I like the commute, I love my flowers."
Wells used to sell tomatoes and cucumbers but, he said, but "now everybody's doing that." Flowers capture buy-local dollars without competing with other vendors selling the same things.
"Flowers are not as essential, if you will. But people appreciate natural beauty," he said. "When people walk out of the market, they stop at me last because they want their bouquet and (to) get it right home."
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.
This column was written as part of a collaboration with Alaska Public Media. Hear the radio version here.
By JULIA O'MALLEY