Way back in 2009 as the new Northwest Regional Director, I was quite taken by the fact that we had a few ASCFG members in Alaska. Even though I’ve lived in Washington State all my life, I’d never been up yonder, to the last rugged frontier. I’m comfortable with and even a little proud of the open spaces and the self-sufficient individualism which is part of the lower forty-eight’s northwest culture, but Alaska is a whole other game entirely. That place makes our majestic mountains seem like foothills, our winters like perpetual spring, and our brand of flower farming a little tame.

Five years ago, the seeds of a new floral industry were just sprouting up there in the vast hinterlands. A few pioneering flower growers had the bright idea that since their peonies bloomed in summer when no one else in the world could supply this iconic flower, why…that just might be the makings of an industry. Never mind that Alaska has almost no cleared and cultivated farmland, that most folks deal with mega feet of snow every year, soil temps that don’t rise above 50 degrees and winters that last eight months. Never mind that though nearly every Alaskan over five years of age knows how to dress a moose and can tell you several spine-tingling brown bear stories, even so, basic agricultural knowledge is scarce. Never mind all that, when there are stumps to clear and roots to get in the ground!

This past January, I journeyed to Alaska for the first time, on an invitation to speak at the Alaska Peony Growers Association (APGA) winter conference. “You can bring Dennis and make a vacation out of it,” my generous hosts suggested. Dennis wasn’t buying it, stubbornly insisting that his idea of a winter vacation lay in an entirely other part of the planet. When I got there, temperatures at Alyeska Lodge outside Anchorage were ranging between -10F and five above. And what an amazing, enchanted winter wonderland! 120 growers came from all over the state to this two-day gathering, clustered in a warm room to talk about peonies with views of ski slopes and snow covered trees just outside the picture windows. To help set the mood in the room, meeting organizers had ordered in a bouquet of fresh peonies from Chile. They arrived a little worse for the wear but still quite dramatic in that setting.

Ron Illingworth, APGA President and co-owner of North Pole Peonies, reported on the current state of the industry. There are now at least 50,000 peonies planted in Alaska ground, with that number doubling every couple of years. I learned that there are three basic regions of peony production, each with its own unique growing conditions and harvest season. Ron and Marji’s farm sits up near Fairbanks in a region they identify as the northern interior (think Minnesota winter on steroids.). Strangely, the northernmost peony farms have the earliest production in the state, beginning in July. Snow cover protects the roots during the harsh winter months and all plantings are in raised berms so soil temperatures can warm in spring.

The two other regions of peony production are the Kenai Peninsula in coastal southwestern Alaska and the Mat-Su Valley, a little farther north and more inland. Each of these regions has an active community of growers who have been sharing knowledge and offering support to new growers. Denise Bowlan of Pioneer Peonies in Wasilla reported on the newer, yet actively expanding Mat-Su region. Rita Jo Shoultz updated attendees on developments with the Kenai Peninsula Peony Growers. Her farm, Alaska Hardy Peony, located near Homer, was one of the first to plant peonies. The Kenai region is far enough south that they still have slugs and earthworms. Their peonies come on latest, with harvest extending into September.

Ko Klaver of Zabo Plant gave a dynamic presentation on business planning, laying out a worldview of the floral industry and offering growers strong advice on organizing together for quality control and joint marketing. Ko was born and raised in Holland where cooperatives are the name of the game in the floral industry. His talk sparked energetic debate about possibilities for forming one or more peony producer cooperatives and the need for an “Alaska Peony” brand. Should growers form together to jointly own packing and shipping facilities? If so, should this be done on a regional or statewide level? Should they organize only for marketing purposes and if so how would consistent quality standards be maintained?
Alaska growers are unique in the world. This is a state that has a roadkill dispersal program run by the state patrol so meat doesn’t get wasted. These folks regularly deal with blizzards, power outages, frozen pipes, crazy spring thaws, bears, moose traffic, and insects from hell. Their everyday lives depend on a level of personal responsibility that has them prescreened to make fine, successful farmers. When asked how many of the attendees planned to have their own coolers and packing facilities, well over half the hands in the room shot up. Clearly, this is a group of committed do-it-yourselfers, and cooperative formation will not come without challenges. The conference ended with many healthy questions still in the air for this brand new industry.

The next day, Beth VanSandt and Kurt Weichhand drove me 5½ hours west to their aptly-named farm, Scenic Place Peonies, on the Kenai Peninsula, where I stayed for three more nights as their lucky guest. We toured several farms on cross-country skis and visited with many of the local Kenai growers. “You’ve got to come back in the summer,” they kept saying and heaped such generous hospitality on me that I am still reeling. I fell in love with the spirit of Alaska’s wild frontier flower farmers. I keep remembering the words of a Mat-Su woman, a brand new grower I sat next to during one of the conference sessions, “I’ve got a quarter acre planted,” she said. “I’m doing it for my grandkids. My mother left me a little money and I can feel how proud she is of how I am using it.”

In the past three years, the ASCFG’s Alaskan membership has grown from four to nineteen. It’s been a privilege to watch history being made on my watch—the birth of a whole new industry in floriculture. Peonies in summer, who would have thought?

Diane Szukovathy

Jello Mold Farm

Diane Szukovathy Jello Mold Farm Contact at [email protected]