MAKING IT: Cultivating a second career

SPONSORED: How a Kenai couple turned their shared love of farming into a blooming plan for their retirement

Wayne and Patti Floyd don't have a large farm, but they are making use of every square inch of their two acres in Kenai, Alaska. The couple purchased their land and log cabin in 1990, but didn't turn it over to peonies until 2011. Upon arriving home after attending an Alaska Peony Growers Association conference, Patti announced they were starting a new venture.

"Somebody told me that being an entrepreneur is like throwing yourself off a cliff and then building the airplane on the way down," Wayne said. "It's like, 'yeah, it's kinda like that!' You know, sometimes the pieces aren't fitting and the ground is looking like it's getting really close." But the Floyds have each other to make sure they get the plane built in time.

"We both always wanted to farm," Patti said. "What a great opportunity on such a small acreage." Wayne and Patti each have undergraduate degrees in agriculture, but turned to teaching and business, respectively, for their careers. It wasn't until their retirement that they decided to "return to their roots." When most people think of retiring, they imagine doing less work. But not the Floyds—they cleared the woods around their cabin and were ready for planting in 2012, creating Cool Cache Farms with the intention of supplying the world with peonies during the summer wedding season.

The Flower Market

Holland offers the only competition for Alaska peony growers during the summer in the northern hemisphere. But Wayne is confident that the blooms produced here are far superior, in size, variety and shelf-life. In the summer, 17 hours of sunlight provide ample opportunity for blooms to grow large and strong. When it comes to the difference between Alaska peonies versus Dutch peonies, Wayne said some people like to say that a peony is a peony. To him it's like comparing a crab apple to a golden delicious—it's still an apple, but it doesn't have quite the same effect.

In the first year, Cool Cache Farms produced 5,000 stems. The second year, 10,000. This year they are on track to harvest 20,000-30,000 stems.

We hired nine people this year," Wayne said. "Last year we did it with three and it just killed us. And so we ramped up. We have nine people for harvest, which may be overkill, but you know what? Nobody needs to go home at crazy hours."

They grow and harvest nine varieties, including whites, pinks and reds. The bride market wants pastels and whites," Wayne said. "They don't like the reds. It's kind of fun this year, they're going for hot pink."

The plants are beautiful, even in bud form. Once the stems are cut, they are cleaned and refrigerated for shipping. As long as they are kept cold, they won't open. Cool Cache Farms does everything on site. They have constructed industrial refrigerated buildings to process their stems for transport. They clean and inspect each bud to ensure the highest quality product arrives to the customer. They also add three gel packs to their shipping boxes as extra insurance. Upon arrival at their destination, florists can keep buds refrigerated for up to 45 days. But once the buds are exposed to room temperature, they bloom. The flowers can then last about 14 days in the vase. With names like "Bowl of Cream," "Green Halo" and "Festiva Maxima," there is a lot to capture hearts and imaginations.

Scaling Up

For Wayne, the big thing is not growing the flowers, but marketing them. The Floyds are working with their son, Jason, to develop a more streamlined marketing plan in order to reach their customers around the world. In the past, they learned, flower buyers did not always have a positive experience with Alaska farms.

"What my son and I determined, number one, it was hard to get good quality and consistency," Wayne said. "Two, it was hard to get good quantities for the larger buyers." Three, they wanted the ability to give their customers the service they need. Their solution was to join forces and create a peony brokerage that helps farmers get their product to market.

"We do all the things they can't afford to do," Jason said, including representing the farms at major trade shows, providing an online inventory management system and even providing a point of sale system that allows farmers to offer daily specials and volume discounts. The brokerage now includes 23 farms, and the stem projection potential from their combined efforts is over 200,000 a year. "We meet the needs of wholesalers but also meet the needs of individual floral buyers," he added.

Wayne provides mentorship to other farmers in the brokerage. "I'm kind of like the consultant dad," he said. He and Jason have gone on the road, traveling from farm to farm, sharing their knowledge and expertise. "We did presentations all over the state," Wayne said. They also provide their support online, to farmers who are interested and agree to follow the expectations of the network.

Whether the Floyds intended to scale their hobby farm into the legitimate business it is today is unclear, but one thing is certain—they understand the value of farming and sharing their knowledge. In addition to Wayne's mentorship contributions, Patti coordinates another avenue of education; she's the statewide director for a cultural exchange program called IFYE.

"We do something that's kind of unique," Wayne said. "We bring young adults over from different countries every year to come work with us." It's an exchange program that benefits both Cool Cache Farms and the volunteers.

A Growing Retirement Plan

During the winters, Wayne has returned to teaching. "Right now I'm substitute teaching to support my farming habit." And while they have run out of space to plant more peonies, they are testing out new ways to use the land that they have.

"We're actually going to be doing some experiments with delphiniums, and lilies of the valley, to see how they do here," Wayne said. Turning their land over to these experimental blooms could result in a higher per stem price in the future.

They supplement their peony business with other products from the farm. The couple built two high tunnels where they are growing leeks, onions, tomatoes, radishes, beans, peas and beets. They have over 100 rhubarb plants that they use as a base in all of their jams. Patti sold over 900 jars of jam last year at the farmers' markets. She can be found during the summer at the Soldotna Wednesday Market and the Kenai Saturday Outdoor Market, selling fresh vegetables, jams and flowers.

"We work together as a team," Wayne said. "We've been together for almost 43 years." Patti added, "We will continue to farm, enjoying our retirement … We both started out in our lives as farm kids. Now, we are back on the farm!"

This article was produced by the creative services department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.