The Kenai Peninsula comes alive during summer. Tourists, fishermen, seasonal workers and year-round residents share highways and harbors from Homer to Seward. ADN's Tegan Hanlon and Marc Lester recently spent a week meeting some of the people who make the Peninsula unique. Here are some of their stories.
HOMER — Rita Jo Shoultz walked through her rows of budding peony plants, down the hill and across the road from the cabin that she and her family moved into about a half a century ago. The 76-year-old plucked off a tiny, sticky bud so the largest one could thrive.
"We take all the side buds off so there's just one big bud so you get the biggest possible flower," Shoultz said on a sunny afternoon. In a few weeks, the thousands of buds on Shoultz's peony farm would start to blossom into fragrant flowers that look like gigantic, fluffy roses.
"They're the most beautiful thing," she said.
Shoultz is somewhat of a peony pioneer here in Alaska. She started the state's first peony farm in 2006 after a Fairbanks professor told her peonies, a cool-season crop, would bloom in Alaska during a time of year when they wouldn't anywhere else.
So, Shoultz — who owned a retail garden center at the time — gave it a try. She started with 3,500 peony plants. The plants take three or four years to produce flowers fit to sell.
"Nobody had ever done it in Alaska. Nobody knew how to do it," she said. "We didn't have a clue."
But she learned and her peony farm grew.
Shoultz now runs the business, Alaska Perfect Peony, with her husband and her son. They have at least 12,000 plants and at least a dozen employees. They ship their peonies to grocery store chains across the country. They sell out of their peony stock each year. Shoultz also teaches other Alaskans how to grow the popular flowers. She estimates that about 200 peony farms of varying sizes have started in Alaska in the last 12 years.
"Thank goodness they don't have to make the same mistakes that we did," she said.
Starting in July, when Shoultz's peonies get to just the right size, work on the farm turns into a flower-trimming blitz. They have only a few hours to cut the stems and rush them into a large refrigerated room so the peonies get to the stores, thousands of miles away, in the right condition.
"You're just cutting constantly," Shoultz said. "You don't do anything else."
Last year, they shipped out about 58,600 peonies. This year, she expects they'll send about 96,000.
During those sleepless summer days, Shoultz will start working around 5:30 a.m. so she can have some time alone to get the packaging ready for the flowers she loves.
"I'm totally, totally obsessed with them," she said.
She expects to spend many more years with her peonies. She thinks her son will probably take over the entire business one day. Maybe, she said, when she's 90.