Peony farmers face unpredictability amidst record-breaking season

(Photo courtesy of the Alaska Peony Cooperative)

(Photo courtesy of the Alaska Peony Cooperative)

Alaska’s peony season is unlike any other place in the world. While many growers have their harvests completed April through June, Alaska’s season is later — typically June through August and September.

This season, many peony farmers in the state are facing similar issues: a hot summer resulting in an early bloom. Ronald Illingsworth of Arctic Alaska Peonies — a Fairbanks-based co-operative of 23 farms — says the early harvest has compressed their season, making them compete with farmers and co-ops in the Lower 48.

“Our peonies don’t come out of the ground until late May, early June,” Illingsworth said. “By the end of June, normally, that’s when we start cutting. By the second or third week of July, normally, we’re done. This year, our peonies came out of the ground just like normal — very end of May, first of June. They were maybe a couple of days early but nothing unusual there. However, by the end of June, we were done harvesting — we were completely done.”

The overlap with Outside farms has forced Alaskan co-ops to compete with a significantly lower price point. Martha Lojewski of Alaska Peony Cooperative — a co-op that consists of 10 farms between Chugiak and Trapper Creek and one in Homer — says she’s had a difficult time getting her product into the hands of wholesalers because of the price difference.

“The Dutch charge like 90 cents a stem and we can’t even come close to that price,” Lojewski said.

Typically, Alaskan peony farmers harvest at different times in the season depending on where they are located, but this year, everyone was early. Farms in the Interior bloom first, followed by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, then the Kenai Peninsula — but a record-breaking summer created another hurdle — additional competition within the state.

Lojewski says the hot summer made their three week harvest condense to 10 days. She had to resort to a flash sale to push out their inventory since they were cut three weeks before selling and was forced to call two weeks worth of orders and cancel all of them.

“It was so heartbreaking to tell people you won’t have peonies for your wedding or peonies for your events,” Lojewski said.

Giggly Roots Gardens, a Willow-based farm part of the Alaska Peony Cooperative. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Peony Cooperative).

Giggly Roots Gardens, a Willow-based farm part of the Alaska Peony Cooperative. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Peony Cooperative).

Arctic Alaska Peonies and Alaska Peony Cooperative weren’t the only co-ops that felt the aftermath of the record-breaking season. Allison Gaylord of Alaska Beauty Peony — a Homer-based co-op comprised of 10 farms — says last year, she started cutting on July 12. This year, she was done by then.

“Our farm spans from sea level to 1,500-feet elevation,” Gaylord said. “We have the longest and the latest harvest period in the State of Alaska, so that gives us a real edge in being able to supply over the course of — usually six to eight weeks. The weather has been more and more unpredictable. We don’t really know what is normal anymore.”

Gaylord recognizes Alaska’s unique window to produce summer peonies, but thinks that they can overcome those hurdles.

“Alaska is known for having a really strong product,” Gaylord said. “We’re known for the giant cabbages and the giant this and that, and now we’re known for these tremendous flower blooms which is pretty cool.”

While peony farmers in Alaska are working through issues specific to the state, Gov. Dunleavy’s vetoes to the Division of Agriculture — a reduction of more than 60 percent — will negatively impact farmers statewide. According to the Alaska Journal of Commerce, the cuts will affect a number of programs, including Farm to Institution, Agriculture inspections, pest research programs, seed production and more.

“The biggest problem that we’ve got right now — frankly — is the governor’s veto of the money that would support the Division of [Agriculture],”  Illingsworth said. “Without the Division of [Agriculture], it’s going to be catastrophic to agriculture here in the state. That’s a real, real significant problem.”

Farming in Alaska can be uncertain. Earlier this year, Illingsworth attended a conference in Michigan, where Illingsworth asked a question relating to growing on permafrost or semi-permanent frost. He said the individual had no idea how to answer his question.

“It’s a whole other issue and things that folks in the Lower 48 don’t have to deal with that we do, and nobody has thought about those questions because they haven’t run into them,” Illingsworth said.

(Photo courtesy of the Alaska Peony Cooperative)

(Photo courtesy of the Alaska Peony Cooperative)

Coupled with unpredictable climate patterns, peony farmers are struggling to find ways to market and sell their products. Lojewski says that Alaska Peony Cooperative is finding their own market and developing their process.

“We all have found our own niche and kind of created our own way,” Lojewski said. “It definitely would have been nicer — and much easier — if it was like the orange industry, and you’re like ‘I’m going to grow oranges and I’m going to sell to Sunkist [who just] distributes,’ because that’s just what you do if you’re an orange farmer. But nothing like that exists up here yet.”

While the cuts spell trouble for the industry ahead, the market for peonies and number of farmers in Alaska continues to blossom. Peony farming is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years, according to a 2018 Anchorage Daily News article, potentially creating a new Alaska export.