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Peonies a blooming business for Alaska growers

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- Rough-and-tumble resource booms built Alaska.

Gold. Oil. Salmon.

Peonies?

The delicate yet decadent blooms could be the state's next big cash crop. They thrive down to 60 below, need cold weather to flourish and, during the wedding high season of June and September, Alaska is the only place the world can buy them.

The state's fledgling peony industry started to bloom about five years ago with a few dozen farms from Homer to Fairbanks. The larger commercial peony growing sector exploded in the last few years in Alaska with nearly 50 large farms now growing the showy but elegant flowers statewide. Dozens more are just getting starting, said Ron Illingworth, the state's first commercial peony grower and president of North Pole Peonies.

Peony growers in the Mat-Su alone -- the borough mayor last week declared the Valley the "Peony Capital of Alaska" -- expect to cut more than a million flowers within a few years.

Each peony sells for roughly $5, sometimes a little less but sometimes quite a bit more. Entrepreneurs and farmers alike are rushing to meet demand for the new cash crop.

"I'm trying to think of a tactful way ... well, people smell money," Palmer-based cooperative extension agent Steve Brown said. "Peonies are going strong in Alaska when no one else can grow them. That makes for potentially a really big market."

BOOM TIME

Peonies inspire a nearly sensual awe from their fans. They use words like "luscious" and "flamboyant" and even "the Dolly Partons of the garden" when describing these oversized blooms that start as tight round buds but suddenly explode into flowers up to 10 inches across.

Peonies are big but delicate with frothy layers of thick, ruffled petals. They can be creamy, or white with brilliant red flashes, soft pink or daring fuchsia. Brides love them.

Peonies bloom in May and June in the Lower 48. New Zealand cuts flowers in November and December. Alaska is the only place in the world that supplies fresh-cut commercial peonies in the wedding season from July into early September.

Alaskans started leveraging that seasonal advantage in earnest around 2009.

Jonathan Spiegel, owner of Meadow Lakes Peony Farm in the Mat-Su, planted 200 peony roots about five years ago "when everybody was talking about the big gold rush, we're all going to be rich millionaires."

Spiegel and his wife started small, he said, figuring they didn't know much about farming.

"We had this land. We wanted to put it to work and I didn't want to put a bunch of storage units on it or do a dog kennel," he said. "We figured this would be quiet and not get us into too much trouble with the neighbors."

Today the couple has more than 900 roots in the ground. They're planting 1,000 more this spring, and another 1,000 in the fall.

Is he a rich millionaire yet?

"No," Spiegel said, laughing. "No, I'm not."

PATIENCE REQUIRED

Peonies may look like easy money but with any boom comes bust.

"A lot of people have jumped in head first without looking," said Meghan Williams, general manager at a peony distribution center in Meadow Lakes. "But a lot of people discover with some hard work, solid business models and patience this is really a viable industry to get into."

Peonies are a delayed satisfaction crop. It can take anywhere from three to five years for the plants to develop commercially viable flowers.

They can be finicky about location and soil conditions, growers say. Peonies like sun and soil with good drainage and a certain fertilizer regime -- nobody interviewed for this story shared their secrets -- which means at the very least a grower needs to get their soil tested before starting out. The flowers need the cold of winter to grow but require a snow blanket for insulation.

It can cost upward of $10 a plant to get started, one grower said. Then throw in the hard work needed to make any farm go, plus the need to create a solid business plan, marketing and distribution network.

Brown, the UAF extension agent, said most growers are doing well but some end up losing money if they don't do enough research.

One grower, for example, spent thousands on roots to start a peony farm but didn't take a soil sample until they arrived. Brown tested the soil and provided fertilizer advice. The fertilizer cost thousands more dollars, money the grower didn't have.

"The ones that are doing things right I don't hear a whole lot from," he said. "The ones who are doing things poorly are the ones calling in an absolute panic."

The lack of consistent snow this winter and last is also hurting the peony trade.

Shelley Rainwater, owner of Glacier Peonies in Homer, lost 6,000 plants last winter. She's starting over with 2,000 in the ground now.

Rainwater used to raise beef cattle and hay, she said. Like any kind of farming, it can take years of hard work and hurdles before peonies net a profit.

"You run the numbers, it's like, 'Oh my God, I can make X thousand dollars on this little piece of land.' But the cost of doing it, I think that's where people tend not to understand," she said. "You've got to either have a good reserve to start or I don't recommend anybody giving up your day job right away."

TEAMING UP

Farms are largely clustered in the Interior, Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su areas, with a few growers scattered from Anchorage and Copper Center to Bethel and even Juneau and Fort Yukon.

At least among the members of the Alaska Peony Growers Association, there are more farms in the Interior than anywhere else in the state including the Mat-Su, according to an association survey released in March.

There is little competition among the far-flung regions, some growers say, in part because of climate differences that create a staggered blooming schedule between Fairbanks and Homer.

Demand for the flowers also outstrips supply, at least for now, growers say. Alaska suppliers field requests from all over North America, they say, as well as Asian markets like Taiwan.

"I'm getting inquiries from China, the U.K., I had an inquiry from South Africa the other day," said Williams, whose parents run a fly-in peony farm at the base of Mount Susitna.

"Dubai (is) asking about our peonies and asking how they can get them from here," Williams told the Mat-Su Assembly at a meeting last week.

As the peony business expands, growers in different parts of the state are establishing cooperatives or other ventures to handle the increased marketing and shipping demands.

One, the Arctic Alaska Peony Cooperative with 41 members in the Fairbanks area, started up last fall. In the Valley, three farms formed Alaska Peony Distributors, a wholesale commercial packing house that handles marketing, sales, sorting and grading and packing and shipping.

Some smaller farms still handle the shipping themselves.

"Most everything we pick and sell is going to have to go out of here by FedEx," said Catherine Kershner, owner of Peony Express in Trapper Creek. "We pick and immediately put them in the cooler for 24 to 48 hours. It extends shelf life. As we get orders, we'll box them with an ice pack and we'll call FedEx."

'HUGE INCREASES'

The Alaska peony rush began five or six years ago after some of the state's first growers started seeing successful crops.

It was a University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist, horticulture professor Pat Holloway, who saw the peony potential here.

Illingworth -- he and wife Marji are professors emeriti at the university -- happened to be chatting with Holloway one day about 10 years ago when he mentioned a couple of peonies they'd planted in their yard just as Holloway was fielding a strange request about growing the flowers in the far north.

Illingworth planted 25 plants as part of Holloway's research, which included test plots in Fairbanks, Kenai and Homer, according to the university. Of the five varieties he tried, one flopped but the others did from "OK to quite well." The farm now has 10,000 plants with plans for many more.

Those early findings triggered Alaska's peony boom but it's been slow to flower. Five years ago, there were about 20 established peony growers in the state. More were starting out.

Today there are nearly 50, and at least another 50 coming on line, according to Illingworth and the Alaska Peony Growers Association survey.

About 60 percent of the people who responded to that survey said they weren't even selling peonies yet, said Illingworth, a founding member of the peony association.

"We're talking huge increases coming in the next couple years because these folks are sitting with two or three years of peony roots in the ground and so they're just moving into this," he said.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com