The Alaska Peony Growers Association Conference will be back in Fairbanks Jan. 31- Feb. 1 with a special pre-conference growers school and a session on pesticide management on Jan. 30. If your interest is floral design, conference organizers have scheduled a separate three-hour workshop on Jan. 31.

The first gathering of those interested in growing and marketing peonies as cut flowers was organized by Pat Holloway, now University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emerita of horticulture. The audio conference meeting, held late in 2006, was hosted by the Georgeson Botanical Garden and drew more than 20 growers from Interior Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula and the Mat-Su Valley. Fourteen months later, 50 people attended a two-day conference to learn more about commercial peony growing and marketing and to discuss organizing a statewide association that would work cooperatively.

I expect to see about 100 participants at this year’s conference. Registrations have already been received from growers in the above-mentioned locales. In recent years, the conference has even drawn attendees from outside of the state who have come to see what the buzz is about Alaska-grown peonies.

The conference rotates around the state to make it easier for everyone who wants to participate. Conference chair Marji Illingworth, of North Pole Peonies, started planning for this year’s event in 2017 when she booked the Westmark Hotel.

“It’s been three years since the conference was last in Fairbanks and will be another three years before it returns,” she said.

Marji will be teaching the pre-conference growers school on Thursday morning, Jan. 30. I’ve seen her pack a huge amount of information into this three-hour course and love the part where she does show and tell on what to wear and how to run a line of tape around your arm so you can easily judge stem length when harvesting. This year’s Growers School promises to be of benefit to all growers, both new and experienced.

“I’ve been teaching grower schools for years,” Marji told me, “but this year’s school will be different. We’ll be looking at the impacts of a changing climate.”

The 2020 Alaska Peony Growers Association Conference has three main areas of focus, peony research, transporting peonies to market and making your farm a successful business. Ron Illingworth, of North Pole Peonies and conference co-chair, told me the conference agenda includes a transportation panel with particular emphasis on cold chain management, or ensuring temperatures are optimum for transporting flowers.

Michael Reid will be participating from New Zealand via distance delivery. Ron said, “He’s the country’s expert, if not the world’s cold chain expert. He travels the world helping businesses with cold chain management.”

The transportation panel will also include representatives from FedEx, hopefully Alaska Air Cargo, Fairbanks International Airport and the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Ron said, “There are changes occurring at the airport in Anchorage and also some in Fairbanks. This panel gives us an opportunity to hear what these changes will be.”

Mingchu Zhang, UAF professor of soil science, has been working with peony growers on soil fertility for 10 years. In visits to peony fields around the state, he noticed what he thought to be a micronutrient deficiency and determined it to be a problem with low zinc. This past season he’s noticed possible boron deficiency. Zhang is scheduled to give an update on his fertility work and research using cover crops between peony rows to suppress weed growth.

In addition to Pat Holloway, speakers on the agenda that are perennial favorites include the RightRisk folks who will be talking about succession planning, taking your farm from one generation to the next. Gary Chastagner and Bev Gerdeman, from Washington State University, will discuss their research on Alaska peony diseases and insects.

Oregon Perennial Company, DeVroomen Garden Products and the Peony Shop Holland will be among trade show representatives that help support the conference through their participation, advertising and contributions to the silent auction. Peony roots, other perennials such as lilies, items from Alaska Peony Grower Association members and local businesses will be up for bid at the silent auction.

Although commercial peony farms practically span the state, the industry has its roots in Interior Alaska. It’s been 20 years since Pat Holloway first potted up peony roots in the fall to plant in trials the following spring. I’m glad to see the conference back in Fairbanks. More information is available at the Alaska Peony Growers Association website with specifics on registration at www.alaskapeonyconference.com.

Julie Riley is horticulture agent for UAF Cooperative Extension Service in the Tanana District office in Fairbanks. She is planning to have a display on peony insects and other pests at the conference. She can be reached at jariley@alaska.edu or 474-2423.