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Alaska - a peony paradise?

In the Last Frontier. peonies mature at a time that no others in the world are blooming.

(Page 3 of 3)

She likes the fact that she can grow the flowers -- for now, anyway -- as a side business. Several of her friends also plan to plant hundreds of peonies for supplemental income.

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Is she worried about big peony growers discovering this new local industry and shouldering in to seize the market?

"I think it's going to be quite a few years before the little niche (farmer) has anything to worry about," she says.

This isn't the first time Alaskans have jumped on grandiose plans to export something other than crude oil, minerals, timber, or wild salmon.

So far, most ideas to export agricultural products have failed, even when millions of state dollars were pumped into them.

In the 1980s, state leaders thought they had a brilliant idea for a major Alaska crop. They'd grow barley for Alaska dairy farmers and for export.

But the Delta barley project was a disaster. The state-funded venture sucked up millions of dollars, pitted coastal communities against one another, and left a bunch of farmers bankrupt.

So far, the commercial peony concept has stayed low-key, with most Alaska gardeners hearing about it at meetings or reading about it in newsletters.

Yes, there have been several grants -- including the Stevens earmark -- but most of the work has been done by Alaskans quietly investing their own money to buy land, equipment and peony roots.

The state Division of Agriculture ginned up some money last year to help Alaska growers travel to remote peony farms in New Zealand and Tasmania. But the growers -- including Ms. Kent and Ms. Shoultz -- footed most of their own expenses and worked at the farms, learning how to harvest large quantities of peonies and prepare them for shipping.

The main problem with exporting Alaska crops is costly infrastructure and shipping. Alaska has plenty of thriving farms, but their business models don't support exports, Holloway says.

With a single peony stem's wholesale price at roughly $1.25 or more, even small farms have the potential to be moneymakers outside the state. A single plant can produce 10 stems. And Alaskans may be able to charge a premium, off-season price, she says.

"I think within three years, I'll have paid all my expenses and be in profit mode," says Shoultz, the Homer grower.

The peony growers might be onto something good, resource economist Steve Colt says.

"This is a very different situation than exporting a bulk commodity that has a low-dollar value per ton. When you can measure the value in dollars per ounces, it's more likely that a product can be exported (profitably) from Alaska," says Mr. Colt, of the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute for Social and Economic Research.

(Editor's note: We invite you to visit the main page of the Monitor’s gardening site, where you can find many articles, essays, and blog posts on various garden topics.)