By Joseph Robertia
Alaska is not typically considered a hub for agricultural exports, but it may be on the verge of a blossoming cut flower industry.
Peonies — a large, fragrant, perennial flower — are favored for their use in floral arrangements for weddings, but they are not available throughout the seasons, despite numerous growers in the Lower 48 and international locations. Whereas Outside they typically bloom from late spring to summer, in Alaska the peony season starts in July and runs through September.
“With Alaska becoming a producer, peonies are now available year-round. We’ve filled a hole, and it’s a market niche we have all to ourselves at this time of year,” said Richard Repper, of Soldotna-based Echo Lake Peonies, one of 10 professional peony growers on the Kenai Peninsula.
Last week, Rita Jo Shoultz, a Homer peony grower and member of the Alaska Peony Growers Association, spoke at an Air Cargo Summit in Anchorage about the potential for peonies to be a cash crop that could put Alaska agriculture on the map due to an air freight transportation system that puts Alaska within flying distance of most of the major population centers of the world.
“Right now, there are more domestic buyers than growers Alaska can service. But regular access to international cargo flights would be a huge boon to Alaska’s peony growers,” Shoultz noted.
Repper confirmed that the demand far exceeds the supply of peonies from Alaska growers. Not only are Alaska peonies sought after for August and September weddings, but like many crops that benefit from Alaska’s long, sunny summer days and unique soil composition, so, too, are our peonies larger and more magnificent.
“The market demand is very strong,” he said. “I don’t think any one farm could meet that demand, and this year, all the growers in Alaska — 25 to 50 statewide — couldn’t meet the demand.”
Repper has a converted hayfield with 5,000 plants in the ground and he’s planning to have another 10,000 in by the time freeze-up comes. Not a bad number with which to start a business, considering peonies average around $5 apiece, and can fetch as much as $8.50 each in New York. The average wedding order is around 200 flowers.
Growing peonies isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme though, he said, due to the labor involved and the time it takes to establish a crop
“It’s much more like agricultural farming than gardening. We buy fertilizer by the ton and put in 18-hour days during the bloom,” he said. “It takes five years for them to mature. We’re only in year three, and I’d say you have to expect to run in the red for at least those first five years.”
Still, he said sales were great this year. Repper sold 50 percent of his peonies through wholesale markets and 50 percent of his blooms by direct marketing, which puts him directly in touch with the end user — such as the brides themselves.
“We did air cargo to Tokyo this year and had requests from Italy,” he said. “I think there’s still a lot of a possibility. There’s more room for growers to fill the need of the market.”
Debbie Brown, of Kasilof, is another peony grower, now in her second season and with around 800 plants in the ground. She’s operating on a much smaller scale than Repper, but said there is room for her crop to grow.
“I have 5 to 7 acres that are level and without stumps that would be excellent to expand my stock, and I’d like to move ahead with growing my business as business grows,” she said.
Brown said that others with similar acreage, or even in more urban areas, should consider peonies.
“When doing any clearing, such as of beetle-killed spruce as is encouraged by the FireWise program, this is an excellent way to bring that land into productivity. Why look out at a grass field, when you could have these beautiful, fragrant flowers?” she said. “Also, from the small-business point of view, people can get involved at whatever their level of interest is. They can tailor what they’d like to do, or what they’d like to earn from peonies for an income stream, whether it’s just supplemental or trying to make a living from growing them.”
Like Repper, Brown said that those who aren’t willing to work hard shouldn’t take on the endeavor of growing peonies.
“From fertilizing, to watering them in dry summers, to weed control — it’s hard work,” she said. “This isn’t for goof-offs, but for those willing to work for it, peonies are a good business opportunity.”