Seasonal advantage gives state peony market room to grow
Alaska’s oil industry may be in a slump but there’s one new industry rising: the growing and export of fresh flowers, in particular peonies.
For certain raising peonies, the large blossoms beloved for weddings and other special events around the world, won’t replace oil as a source of high-paid jobs or state revenues, at least anytime soon.
Still, the creation of this mini-industry, which didn’t exist just a few years ago, is a testament to Alaskans’ ingenuity combined with the advent of efficient air cargo service through Alaska’s airports that makes just-in-time delivery of perishable products possible.
Alaskan peony farmers also have a seasonal market advantage in that Alaska flowers become available in mid-summer, which is past the growing season for Lower 48 farms, according to Mike Williams, who co-manages Alaska Peony Distributors, a Wasilla-based wholesaler and distributors
Just as the Lower 48 peony supply is depleted the shipments from Alaska begin, he said.
Production in the state is growing fast, also. Alaska Peony Distributors expects to ship 35,000 to 40,000 cuts stems this year through a new processing and packing facility at Lake Hood, said Meghan Williams, who helps manage the company. That’s up from 20,000 stems last year.
Williams said production next year is conservatively estimated at 60,000 stems.
“A number of new farms will be beginning production this year, and many farms currently producing will be doubling their production,” she said.
Eaglesong Family Peony Farm, owned by Mike and Paula Williams, is one of the state’s biggest, with 12,000 roots now producing flowers.
It takes time to develop peony production, however.
“Eventually, a mature peony bush will produce between five and 10 harvestable peony stems each year, although it varies by variety,” Meghan Williams said. “It takes seven to eight years before a peony bush is mature enough to produce at full capacity,” she said.
Once a farm has 50,000 roots, a capacity some will achieve in the near future, annual production of 250,000 to 500,000 stems could be sustained, she said.
“This is not an unusual level of production for peony farms in the Lower 48 or in Holland but we haven’t accomplished this yet with our young farms in Alaska,” Williams said.
Mike Williams of Alaska Peony Distributors said the company serves farms from the Kenai Peninsula to northern parts of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough with small planes chartered to fly flowers in to the pack house at Lake Hood.
Single-engine planes typically carry a few hundred stems but larger, twin-engine aircraft can transport up to 6,000, Williams said.
It takes about an hour to get the cut stems from the farm to the Lake Hood facility, where they are sorted for quality, chilled and packaged for shipment to the Lower 48 via Federal Express or cargo services of scheduled air carriers like Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines, Mike Williams said.
Alaska Peony Distributors buys the cut stems from the farmers and ships out to Lower 48 and some international buyers, selling to wholesalers as well as hotels and direct to retail outlets like grocery chains and florists.
Although the logistics network is complex and expensive, covering about 7,800 square miles, Meghan Williams said the area covers about a dozen micro-climates, which creates a variation in harvesting schedules (higher altitudes makes for a later harvest) and stretches out the shipping season from Alaska.
An example of this is at Homer, Mike Williams said.
“Some farms there are in a maritime climate but at an 800-foot to 1,500-foot elevation, which means they harvest later than the rest of us,” he said.
Williams’ own EagleSong farm is nearing the last stage of its 2016 harvest, typical for most farms, but Homer peony farmers will be able to add supply for several weeks longer, he said. There are also peony farms in Interior Alaska that handle their own distribution.
Meghan Williams said there are no firm estimates of how many commercial peony farms are now operating in the state but she believes there are about 65. Many are small “boutique” farms with just a few hundred roots and specializing in rare and unusual peony varieties, she said. However, a handful are larger, like EagleSong, with 12,000 roots now producing.
Mike Williams said the market growth has great potential because of Alaska’s seasonal advantage in selling. The European market is huge, with flower distributors in Amsterdam moving 20 million peony stems in a matter of weeks in June. The market potential in Asia is unknown, but it is equally large, he said.
Agriculture will always be a small, niche industry. Historically, Alaskans had to produce much of their own food and dairy products before the advent of fast container ships, an improved Alaska Highway and efficient air cargo service.
Farming in Alaska continues, and sometimes even thrives, in small niche markets, said Arthur Keyes, the state agriculture director. The thriving weekend farmer’s markets in Anchorage and Fairbanks, where local growers sell fresh produce, testify to that.
Keyes said resilient barley farmers near Delta, east of Fairbanks, who inherited problems of the state’s failed 1980s-era experiment in large state-sponsored barley farming, are developing new products, like a barley flour, and finding markets in the growing health food sector, though it is mainly within the state.
Peony farming, a new industry, represents another niche, and perhaps ultimately a big one, he said.