When you think of exports from Alaska, fish, lumber and zinc come to mind.
Fresh cut flowers wouldn’t be on the list.
They soon will be, though.
A niche industry is developing fast in growing and selling fresh-cut peonies, those blossoms much in demand and beloved, world-wide it turns out, for weddings. It’s a small business so far but it’s growing, and there seems to be an insatiable market demand at a certain, critical time of the year.
That’s according to Ron Illingsworth, a grower in North Pole, who is also president of the Alaska Peony Association, a trade group that recently formed.
Alaska peony growers had 39,000 plants in the ground at the end of 2010 and the number is now estimated to grow another 21,000 in 2011, Illingsworth said.
The growers are all small operators, many, like Illingsworth, who also own greenhouses and sell plants and vegetables at retail or at local farmers’ markets.
“Buds are what we ship, not open flowers,” Illingsworth said. “The buds, stems with buds on them actually, are cut at a time just before they would open and then chilled to 34 degrees for a minimum of 24 hours before we ship them. The stems are cut about 30 inches long so that they can be re-cut at the destination and rehydrated to open the bloom,” Illingsworth said.
It takes five years for a peony plant to produce flowers that can be sold, he said. There are now about 25,000 Alaska peonies planted that are three years or older, according to data the growers’ association has collected, and more plants of an age where flowers can be sold are becoming available each year.
It’s just a guess at this point, but Illingsworth thinks about 6,000 cut peony stems were shipped to buyers in about 15 states this summer, about half of the production from growers are on the Kenai Peninsula and half from Interior Alaska.
“Last year our sales were much smaller. Most of us are just now at the point where we have enough plants that are mature enough to do commercial sales,” Illingsworth said.
The market niche is this: peonies blossom later in Alaska than elsewhere, so when big Outside growers are past the season, Alaska’s is just beginning.
Several peony growers said most Lower 48 growers end their season on Memorial Day, which leaves June to September open to Alaska.
So far the Alaska growers mainly serve brokers and individual buyers in the Lower 48, but there more interest from overseas and some small export sales have been made. Illingsworth said Alaska growers want to concentrate on building a solid domestic market and establish a reputation for reliability before attempting to ship overseas in significant numbers.
The worldwide market is tempting, though. There are inquiries coming from places as far afield as Italy, the Philippines and China that Alaska growers have not been able to serve. Illingsworth said he recently took a call from a broker in England who wanted to buy 10,000 stems a week.
“We’re not there yet,” in terms of the production capacity, he said.
Illingsworth and his wife, Marji, have about 4,000 peony plants in the ground at their Lilyvale Farm near North Pole and have been growing for four years. Like most growers, Illingsworth started the peony business as a sideline to growing vegetables and plants for the local market. He and his wife retired from teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks a few years ago.
Illingsworth started very small in peonies with 20 plants, then planted a few hundred the next year, gradually increasing the numbers. About 1,800 new plants went into the ground this year, he said.
Other growers have more. Rainwater has about 6,000 plants at Glacier Peonies near Homer, and has been growing her plants for six years now. She is a retired nurse, who also raises greenhouse vegetables, although most of these are donated to the local food bank, except for what she keeps for personal use.
Sue Kent, who operates Midnight Sun Peonies Inc. near Soldotna, has 10,000 plants. Midnight Sun Peonies may be the largest grower in the state.
Kent has been at it four years as a sideline – her main occupation is as an environmental consultant – and 2011 was her first year selling commercially.
“It has been exciting. One Monday, Oregon stopped growing, and my phone starting ringing,” Kent said.
Near Palmer, Craige and Kathy Baker just started with peonies at their Grey Owl Farm on the Glenn Highway. The Bakers have been producing flowers and other nursery crops in their greenhouse, as well as selling sod, since 1998. They now have 2-year-old peony plants, and have another two to three years to go until they can sell the flowers commercially.
Illingsworth said there are about 18 growers on the state doing commercial sales and about 75 members of the peony growers’ association.
“Many of our members are people in the process of planting enough peonies to be considered growers. We have a 500-plant threshold before you become a ‘grower’ for purposes of the association,” Illingsworth said.
Kent said the fact that the infant industry has formed an active trade association has impressed buyers.
“The fact that we have organized ourselves and are working together seems to have impressed people,” she said.
Growers can get several buds off a mature plant in a season.
“A mature plant after five years should have 10 cutable buds. You want to leave the rest on the plant to let it grow. It might have as many as 15 to 20 total buds,” Illingsworth said.
Logistics must be managed carefully, however.
“We ship out of state using FedEx priority next day air. So far, they’ve given us the best deal,” Illingsworth said. “Temperatures are a problem as flowers on a truck at the destination waiting to be delivered for 5 hours in 95 degree temperatures will probably end up being ruined. Often we have the buyers pick up their flowers at the destination FedEx office rather than having them delivered.”
Because Alaskans can sell when no one else can, they can command up to $5 a stem. That is about seven times the price in early summer when the big Lower 48 growers supply the market.
Despite bright prospects for the infant industry, recent budget cuts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture will result in USDA’s Agriculture Research Service closing in September, leaving peony growers without vital assistance in research, plant variety and nutrition just when it is vitally needed.
“There’s no one left to help us,” said Sue Kent. “We’re building an industry here, but we’re left now to figure things out for ourselves,” in terms of scientific and technical matters.
Illingsworth said there had been plans for the USDA center to become a peony gene bank, which would have been an important advantage for Alaskan growers.
Researchers at UAF played a crucial role in the creation of the infant industry. Pat Holloway, director of the Georgeson Botanical Garden at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a botanical research center, developed the idea of growing peonies commercially after meeting an Oregon grower at a greenhouse conference in the late 1990s.
“He told me we had something no one else in the world has – peonies blooming in July,” she said.
Not long after, two New Zealand tourists stopped by the UAF botanical gardens. They happened to be peony growers.
“They were dumbfounded to see peonies growing in Alaska. They said we were sitting on a gold mine,” Holloway said. “In the cut flower trade, money is made by a new shade of pink on a rose, or a ruffled petal. It is unheard of that someone would get three months of a market practically to themselves.”
There are peonies shipped from Columbia in the same time period, but they are container-growth plants and of poorer quality than those from Alaska. “They are not competition,” Holloway said.
Holloway obtained a $500,000 grant from the USDA’s new crops program and began experimenting with peonies at the university’s botanical gardens. Word about peonies and the commercial possibilities ultimately got around in the state’s gardening community, and a mini-industry took off.
Holloway said there are a range of issues growers face, including appropriate soils and fertilizers, weed control, disease identification, proper stages for cutting, and post-harvest chilling and handling.
“Growers can experiment on their own but it is hugely expensive. The cut flower trade is very competitive and we need to build the best foundation we can for these growers to succeed,” Holloway said. “Every industry I know of is supported by public research and development dollars. This industry is just beginning, and dollars for research are practically non-existent.”
Holloway has been in Washington, D.C., looking for funding, but the outlook isn’t good.
“I was told bluntly that Alaska is a rich state and we should fund this project (with state dollars). There are far greater national (agriculture) programs that take priority,” she said. “Unfortunately, agriculture in Alaska is not considered a priority, and it is hard to get Juneau interested in peonies.”