Once upon a time a scientist in Fairbanks wondered out loud about an idea that seemed fantastical at the time.
Why not grow flowers in Alaska, put them on jet planes -- we're one of the world's biggest air cargo hubs, after all -- and sell them around the world?
Alaska plus flowers equals lucrative business opportunity?
Not a natural association, perhaps. But as the result of her random query at a gardening conference, scientist Pat Holloway discovered a hot lead about Alaska's untapped, economic advantage in the global flower trade.
The advantage, in a word: peonies.
Chances are you've seen peonies in a bridal bouquet, hotel floral arrangement or neighborhood garden. With huge, fluffy, fragrant blossoms in shades of pink, red and white, they look like roses on steroids. Florists commonly sell them for $5 per stem.
A Lower 48 garden expert told Holloway, a University of Alaska Fairbanks horticulturist, that Alaska had a potential mother lode with its late-blooming peonies. His tip unleashed a wild chain of events that so far has involved:
• Trips by Alaskans to learn the peony trade at farms in exotic locales, including Tasmania and New Zealand. Some of those growers plan to visit Alaska this summer to assist Railbelt peony growers with their harvests.
• Pulse-racing conversations between Alaskans and anxious European flower brokers demanding thousands of peonies -- Right Now!
• The creation of a loose-knit organization of pioneering Alaska peony farmers ranging from Fairbanks to Homer.
Why all the fuss over peonies?
Here's the deal.
Apparently nowhere else but Alaska are farmers growing vibrant crops of peonies that bloom at the end of the summer. That's "late" compared to the rest of the world, where peonies -- a cool-season crop -- typically flower in the spring and early summer.
Despite the flower industry's concerted effort to cultivate peonies -- from Chile to Holland -- to ensure a year-round supply, trade screeches to a halt between July and September.
Think summer weddings.
"People are just itching to have peonies for weddings in July and August," said Cory Correll, owner of Works of Art Flowers, a high-end Anchorage florist.
Shipping peonies out of Anchorage would be a cinch because of its air cargo industry, said Correll, who specializes in the reverse: importing flowers to Alaska.
'LAUGHING ON THE FLOOR'
Holloway learned about Alaska's peony advantage in 1998.
In 2000, she received $10,000 -- a portion of a Sen. Ted Stevens earmark for crop research -- and used the money to pay for a few each of 30 peony varieties and student research. She watched the flowers grow -- it takes three to four years to produce a commercial crop -- and started writing scientific reports.
Before long, she began receiving out-of-the-blue phone calls from European flower brokers who read her reports on the Internet.
"A buyer called from London, saying he wanted 100,000 peony stems per week, minimum," Holloway said.
During the phone call, "I was laughing on the floor. I thought, 'Wow, there must be something to this,' " she said.
It got weirder. Peony growers from around the world started offering advice. Two of them even showed up in Fairbanks and visited Holloway's peony test plot after their Alaska cruise tours. One of them, from Tasmania, gave an impromptu lecture to local growers. Why so kind? These farmers sell their peonies at a different time of year. They aren't threatened if Alaskans join the trade, Holloway said.
Even Red Kennicott, the great-great grand-nephew of Alaska explorer and naturalist Robert Kennicott -- the namesake of the historic Alaska mega-copper mine near McCarthy -- called her to find out about the peonies.
Though the Kennicott name is now synonymous with copper mining, the family has been cultivating flowers since the 1800s, not digging for metal. Kennicott Brothers Floral, a family company, owns peony farms in Michigan and Arkansas. It has ties to a farm in Chile, as well.
Reached last week, Red Kennicott, the company president, said he heard about Alaska peonies in trade publications.
"I've always thought they probably should grow up there," he said. The demand for Alaska peonies, especially in late summer, should be quite good.
That was a couple years ago. Flash forward to the present.
Ten to 15 Alaska peony growers have sprouted in the Railbelt. They've formed an Alaska Peony Growers Association and are considering a co-op business model for selling their cut peonies.
Two years ago, a pair of married Soldotna geologists bought a farm in Sterling solely to enter the peony-growing business. They have about 7,000 plants in the ground and will hit commercial production next year.
They didn't even know how to drive a tractor when they bought the farm, said co-owner Sue Kent. Running the 40-acre property, which also produces hay, has created a second full-time job in the summer, she said.
"It's just a whole new research project," she said.
Homer nursery owner Rita Jo Shoultz planted about 3,000 peonies and began shipping stems last summer. This summer, she's sending peonies to a wedding in Italy and a fancy do in Singapore.
She likes the fact that she can grow the flowers -- for now, anyway -- as a side business. Several of her friends also plan to plant hundreds of peonies for supplemental income.
Is she worried about big peony growers discovering this new local industry and shouldering in to seize the market?
"I think it's going to be quite a few years before the little niche (farmer) has anything to worry about," she said.
PROFITS OR BLUNDERS?
This isn't the first time Alaskans have jumped on grandiose plans to export something other than crude oil, minerals, timber or wild salmon.
So far, most ideas to export agricultural products have failed, even when millions of state dollars were pumped into them.
In the 1980s, state leaders thought they had a brilliant idea for a major Alaska crop. They'd grow barley for Alaska dairy farmers and for export.
But the Delta barley project was a disaster. The state-funded venture sucked up millions of dollars, pitted coastal communities against each other and left a bunch of farmers bankrupt.
So far, the commercial peony concept has stayed low-key, with most Alaska gardeners hearing about it at meetings or reading about it in newsletters. Yes, there have been several grants -- including the Stevens earmark -- but most of the work has been done by Alaskans quietly investing their own money to buy land, equipment and peony roots.
The state Division of Agriculture ginned up some money last year to help Alaska growers travel to remote peony farms in New Zealand and Tasmania. But the growers -- including Kent and Shoultz -- footed most of their own expenses and worked at the farms, learning how to harvest large quantities of peonies and prepare them for shipping.
The main problem with exporting Alaska crops is costly infrastructure and shipping. Alaska has plenty of thriving farms, but their business models don't support exports, Holloway said.
With a single peony stem's wholesale price at roughly $1.25 or more, even small farms have the potential to be moneymakers Outside. A single plant can produce 10 stems. And Alaskans may be able to charge a premium, off-season price, she said.
"I think within three years, I'll have paid all my expenses and be in profit mode," said Shoultz, the Homer grower.
The peony growers might be onto something good, resource economist Steve Colt said.
"This is a very different situation than exporting a bulk commodity that has a low-dollar value per ton. When you can measure the value in dollars per ounces, it's more likely that a product can be exported (profitably) from Alaska," said Colt, of the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute for Social and Economic Research.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK