Alaska - a peony paradise?
In the Last Frontier. peonies mature at a time that no others in the world are blooming.
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Holloway learned about Alaska's peony advantage in 1998. In 2000, she received $10,000 -- a portion of a Sen. Ted Stevens earmark for crop research -- and used the money to pay for a few each of 30 peony varieties and student research.Skip to next paragraph
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She watched the flowers grow -- it takes three to four years to produce a commercial crop -- and started writing scientific reports.
Before long, she began receiving out-of-the-blue phone calls from European flower brokers who read her reports on the Internet.
"A buyer called from London, saying he wanted 100,000 peony stems per week, minimum," Holloway says. During the phone call, "I was laughing on the floor. I thought, 'Wow, there must be something to this.' "
It got weirder. Peony growers from around the world started offering advice. Two of them even showed up in Fairbanks and visited Holloway's peony test plot after their Alaska cruise tours. One of them, from Tasmania, gave an impromptu lecture to local growers.
Why so kind? These farmers sell their peonies at a different time of year. They aren't threatened if Alaskans join the trade, Holloway says.
Even Red Kennicott, the great-great grand-nephew of Alaska explorer and naturalist Robert Kennicott -- the namesake of the historic Alaska mega-copper mine near McCarthy -- called her to find out about the peonies.
Although the Kennicott name is now synonymous with copper mining, the family has been cultivating flowers since the 1800s. Kennicott Brothers Floral, a family company, owns peony farms in Michigan and Arkansas. It has ties to a farm in Chile, as well.
Reached last week, Red Kennicott, the company president, said he heard about Alaska peonies in trade publications.
"I've always thought they probably should grow up there," he says. The demand for Alaska peonies, especially in late summer, should be quite good.
That was a couple years ago. Flash forward to the present.
Ten to 15 Alaska peony growers have sprouted in the Railbelt. They've formed an Alaska Peony Growers Association and are considering a co-op business model for selling their cut peonies.
Two years ago, a pair of married Soldotna geologists bought a farm in Sterling solely to enter the peony-growing business. They have about 7,000 plants in the ground and will hit commercial production next year.
They didn't even know how to drive a tractor when they bought the farm, says co-owner Sue Kent. Running the 40-acre property, which also produces hay, has created a second full-time job in the summer, she says."It's just a whole new research project."