Long long ago, Wanda Haken filled out a career interest survey. The results indicated that she should go into the floral industry.
“Oh, that’s just ridiculous,” she thought. “What a crazy idea.”
Her focus was on becoming a teacher. Well, that survey may have been right all along.
Haken did become a teacher for many years. She just recently retired from Nenana City School. Now in her retirement, she finds herself busy with a second career as a peony farmer.
Wanda and her husband Milt own and operate Fox Hollow Peonies, located just south of Nenana. He is a retired law enforcement officer and she is a retired school counselor.
The farm was kind of a fluke, the result of a near tragedy. In 2006, wildfires consumed the forest around their home, the result of someone nearby throwing hot coals into the woods during a very dry summer. Thousands of acres were destroyed, but they were able to save their home. Once that area in front of their home was cleared of dead trees and salvaged firewood, they ended up with a large, open field.
At about that same time, Wanda attended an agricultural class for teachers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and found the perfect solution for that empty field — growing peonies.
She and her husband both come from generations of farming families in the Midwest. They decided to name their farm Fox Hollow because of the family of foxes that have made the field their home for years. The kits emerge from the den every night and cavort around the peonies.
“It’s more entertaining than TV,” she said.
The foxes also wait patiently every morning for the Hakens to turn on the irrigation system, so they can get a drink of water.
The Hakens planted 500 roots in fall 2010 and today, grow about 5,000 plants.
“We have truly been blessed to be able to bring beauty from the ashes of the forest fire,” Wanda Haken said.
The whole family pitches in when their grown sons come home in the summer. Grandchildren also help. The Hakens regularly hire local teens and teach them the intricacies of farming.
“We grow 21 peony varieties, including shades of white, red, pink and yellow,” she said.
She regularly ships peonies to the Lower 48 to wholesalers, event planners and florists. But this year, that wedding market dried up due to the coronavirus pandemic.
So some plans for the future kicked off right away. They have started offering farm tours and photo sessions in the peony fields. Sometimes people just come to see the fields and shoot selfies, she said. She has already hosted family photo sessions, with a professional photographer and a high school graduation photo session.
She recently welcomed two visitors from Minnesota and was delighted at their enthusiastic reaction when they saw her colorful acres of peonies.
As word gets out about Fox Hollow peonies, business is picking up.
“A number of guys have stopped off to pick up flowers for their wives,” she said. “Today I had a gal stop in and buy a bunch of open peonies. She is pregnant and doing a photo shoot in the bathtub with her baby bump.”
In recent years, Fox Hollow began growing additional cut flower varieties for bouquets and to sell at farmers markets. She has a table at the Healy Farmers Market every Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and this year, offered a subscription for peony bouquets. Happy customers pick up a bouquet of purely peonies, or peonies with mixed flowers, every week for six weeks.
“We also sell dried peony petals and dried whole peonies for use in weddings,” she said. “We plan on expanding into peony petal soaps and candles in the next few years.”
Whenever she and her husband travel, they squeeze in some marketing and visit local florists, in hopes of expanding their market. But right now, she’s trying harder to get the word out to Alaska customers.
Although harvest season is over, peonies plucked with closed buds can last till September when they are stored in a cooler.
She tries not to get discouraged at this year’s corona virus-induced slowdown. She has a little poster on her desk that says, “Progress Is Progress.” Every little bit helps.
And a visit like the one she shared with the Minnesota visitors makes it all worthwhile.
“It’s very rewarding to know all our hard work brings joy to people,” Haken said. “One gal told me, ‘If I lived here, I would never leave this place.’”
“That brings me a lot of satisfaction,” she said.
Fox Hollow Peonies is at Mile 302 Parks Highway. 907 590-9148.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.