Deb Hurley of Flower Farm, Petersburg, Alaska

Mike Emers and Joan Hornig, Rosie Creek Farm, Ester, Alaska

Deb Hurley and Mike Emers may as well live in different parts of the country, given their vastly different growing environments, but in fact, they represent two of the five ASCFG members who call Alaska home.  Deb’s business, Flower Farm, is located on an island in southeast Alaska. Technically Zone 4, she’s comfortable growing Zone 7 plants. Mike, on the other hand, operates Rosie Creek Farm in Ester, a suburb of Fairbanks, deep in central Alaska. Mike successfully grows Zone 3 flowers and vegetables on his Zone 1 farm, where last winter he recalls, “It bottomed out at –58F.”.
Deb grows cut flowers and bedding plants. When she moved to Alaska in 1983 she was disgusted by the quality of bedding plants that were brought onto the island in April and May. She later found out that most bedding plants are shipped out of Seattle on a Wednesday, arriving the following Monday. Five days on a barge resulted in massive losses to Botrytis, and compromised the quality of those that did survive the journey.

Coming into the Country

She worked several years with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and spent time as a restaurateur before deciding get in the flower business. Actually, Deb started with vegetables and flowers, but she quickly identified superior flower quality as her competitive advantage, and moved away from vegetables. Though she had picked up some basic horticulture practices from her father, who grew orchids in south Florida, Deb had no formal training, just gardening experience.
Mike was trained as a botanist and previously worked for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. When the job began requiring too much time in the office, he quit. His idea was to practice small-scale farming. He explains, “Farming in Alaska is hard, not necessarily because of the weather, there’s just very little farmland.” He had to clear land and build the soil structure and nutrients from what had been previously undeveloped land. Just this past year, they cleared another four acres, bringing the total to eight acres, creating potential for growth.
A friend suggested that if he wanted to make small-scale farming work, he needed a niche and cut flowers was a good niche market. To get started, Mike did his homework, joining the ASCFG, reading The Flower Farmer by Lynn Byczynski and the first edition of Allan Armitage’s Specialty Cut Flowers. When he started selling at the Tanana Valley Farmer’s Market, he couldn’t get more than $5.00 for a bouquet. Always looking for areas of improvement, he took a floral design class. With some design training and experimentation with better varieties, he was soon enough getting $15 to $20 per bouquet.                       

Eventually, Mike’s wife, Joan Hornig, took over the bouquet making—with a master of fine arts degree, teaching color and design at the local college, let’s just say she was qualified— and it was an aspect of the business Mike gladly handed over so that he might spend more time growing. They added vegetables for diversity and to provide a financial buffer in the event of an early season frost that could wipe out the flower crop. This year was particularly difficult with a wet May and a June 4 snow that brought 19F temperatures. Average summertime highs are between mid-60s to mid-70s with an occasional heat wave of 80F days.

A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Weather is Deb’s biggest challenge too, but not necessarily the temperature. January temperatures are typically in the 40s, but they’ve come to expect a cold snap in March. By mid-August this year, the temperature had not surpassed 60F. She faces 110 inches of rain a year and with that much rain comes lots of cloudy days. She has 6,000 sq. ft. under plastic with three greenhouses and two hoop-houses. Perhaps the long days help make up for the rain time. They officially get 18 hours of daylight though she says it’s more like 20 hours with the long twilight.
Deb relies on variety selection to combat the weather issues. Her signature crop is dahlias grown in tubs—307 tubs this year. Other cuts include snapdragons, sweet pea, rudbeckia, dianthus, ornamental cabbage and astilbe. She grows in raised beds of composted soil and seaweed—a free and readily available amendment that is full of micronutrients. The drip irrigation system is fed from a cistern that collects rainwater. As a backup, she has a 3,000 gallon water tank that can be filled by the city as needed.                    

Power outages are a frequent occurrence considering the hydropower is produced three islands to the south. Often something as seemingly insignificant as an eagle landing on the line will disrupt power service, and not living next to the greenhouses can be awfully worrisome. From their home on Kupreanof Island, they can see the town of Petersburg on Mitkof Island. If the lights are out on Mitkof, the power is probably off at the greenhouse. Last year they made a substantial investment in a backup generator—already her husband believes it was money well spent. A neighbor of the farm makes sure the generator kicks on when the power goes out and the Hurleys can sleep peacefully.
On an island with 4,000 residents, reachable only by boat or small plane, the Flower Farm’s market potential is somewhat limited. When Deb started growing cut flowers, she sold to the local florist, but having more flowers that the florist needed, she considered other options.
She struck upon the idea of a subscription service when a friend suggested she would enjoy a bouquet of the leftover flowers. Word of mouth being her biggest marketing tool, she now has 45 subscriptions. Each subscription is four bouquets delivered at the time specified by the subscriber—one a week for four weeks or all at one time, if they like. The cost is $15 per bouquet or $60 per subscription. Of course a customer may purchase more than one subscription over the course of the season, from late May or early June to mid-October.
Petersburg is a fishing community where the residents’ discretionary income fluctuates with the catch. This year, the fishing has not been good, far behind last year’s catch. Deb realizes that bouquet subscriptions may be down next year, but she has sought out a new market to spread her interests. This year she contracted with a small charter boat to provide three large arrangements per week. She had looked into smaller cruise ships, but their floral needs (expressed as “pounds of flowers”) exceed what she can produce. The charter boats that serve six to twelve clients seem to be a good fit and a steady market.
Since there are no bridges off the island, it is not worth the effort to try to sell any excess stems in the next town. Everything must be sold locally and delivery is preferred. Though the island has only 26 miles of paved roads, and the Flower Farm is only 11 miles outside of town, Deb says it’s difficult to get folks to drive out to the farm. Considering her commute, it’s hard to understand their resistance. From her home on the neighboring island, she has a seven-minute walk, a seven-minute boat ride and then an eleven-mile drive.

Tough Enough for Alaska

In contrast, Fairbanks is the second largest city in Alaska with a thriving farmers’ market. Mike and Joan attend the Tanana Valley Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Interestingly, Wednesday has more sales of small, $10-$15 bouquets for the office, while Saturday sees greater sales of larger $20 bouquets for home use. This was the first year that Joan used sleeves for her bouquets. One of their employees who had worked at a flower farm in Hawaii last year showed Joan how to use a sleeve. She’s been especially pleased with the protection it offers the more delicate flowers.
Cut flower sales make up 25-30% of the business, while vegetables have gained more ground. In addition to the farmers’ market sales, Rosie Creek Farm has 80 CSA members, of whom 20 have bouquet shares. The bouquet share is $18 per week for eight weeks. Joan takes special pride is finding combinations of flowers that will all last at least a week and provide interesting color, form and texture. Mike, clearly proud of his wife’s artistic talent, boasts that “Her work has really set the standard for bouquet design in the Fairbanks market.”
To help with efficiency, Joan has developed several bouquet formulas. For example, sunflowers, amaranth and gladiolus make up one bouquet. Lilies, delphinium, veronica, and bells of Ireland make up another bouquet. The formulas help speed the bouquet-making process and insure that the flowers are planted in suites so that they will be ready at the same time. Joan tests new combinations at the farmers’ market and enjoys naming the designs to gauge customer preferences. The late summer bouquet of ornamental kale, strawflower, ornamental grasses, solidasters, and ‘Amazon Neon Duo’ dianthus is know as the “Xtratuf” (pronounced extra tough) bouquet, named after a regional favorite rubber boot. The Xtratuf bouquet earned its name based on its 10-day vase life. The formulae allow Joan to construct a $15 bouquet in only four to five minutes.
Joan has also been adding wedding floral arrangements to the business repertoire. “This is a casual town with uncomplicated weddings,” she remarks. This year, she did four weddings, which seemed like a good number. Basically, the bride comes out a week before the wedding and together they decide on the arrangements. Joan is able to make the arrangements, put them in a cooler, and someone from the wedding party picks them up, though she’s careful to securely box the vases and bouquets.
Mike and Joan are both excited about how well the new high tunnel is protecting the amaranth, gladiolus, dahlias and ornamental grasses. They only wish they would have put a few more things in there. In the future they’ll use it more to extend the season. They’ve typically had three employees, but with one employee leaving soon and the expansion to five acres of production, they plan to keep two full-time employees and hire two interns. They rely mostly on word of mouth to find employees, but admit that in a state with little farming, there simply is not a large workforce of trained farmhands.

August Frost, Moose and Bears

Of the five production acres, only one is devoted to cut flowers and they may scale back next year, not because demand is lagging, but with a 6-year-old and a 3-month-old, the demands of family life take priority and vegetables are less at the mercy of the weather. The farm is situated in a low spot and experienced its first frost in 2006 on August 23.
Both businesses practice organic agriculture. Rosie Creek Farm became certified last year and believes the presence of the “Certified Organic” sticker at their farmers’ market stand has made a difference. Mike and Deb admit there are fewer insect pests in Alaska, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Mike uses cover cropping to add nutrients to the soil compared to Deb’s use of seaweed. Deb once used fish remnants from the local processing plants but quickly discovered they were a bear attractant and the bears didn’t mind digging through the dahlias to get to their seafood supper. Bears, deer and moose are worse pests than insects. Joan has found that moose like gladiolus and ornamental kale in particular.
While many may assume Alaska is a difficult place to farm, these growers would argue that while it has its challenges—just like anywhere else—it can be a successful venture. According to Joan, there’s one more advantage to those long days, “The best time to cut flowers is from 12:00 to 2:00…a.m..”