North Pole FFA

FFA members may hold the key to future agricultural leadership in Alaska, but in the meantime some of the youths spend their summers working on farms. These North Pole High School students attended the Alaska Peony Growers Association winter conference last month in Fairbanks.

Obviously, Alaska’s farms can’t run without workers and there is growing concern among farmers about who is going to do the work required to keep them in business.

At the Alaska Peony Growers Association winter conference in late January, a packed room of interested attendees listened to a panel discussion called “Alaska’s Peony Industry: World Class Flowers and Its Labor Needs.”

Joni Simpson, a high school counselor and peony farmer, said, “We don’t have the labor support.” She chose to slow the expansion of her farm for this reason. “We want highly skilled workers and high wages for Alaskans,” she said.

“We don’t have a lot of ag programs in our state, which is alarming for us,” Simpson said. She hopes to spread the word to borough assemblies, chambers of commerce, businesses, policy makers, legislators and educators. “We need to build our workforce,” she said.

Calling the growing peony industry in the state “insane,” Simpson said, “If we don’t have experienced harvesters the industry can’t grow. This is very critical. Buds come in groups of hundreds with 24 hours of daylight; harvests are intense.”

Peony farms need employees who are familiar with farm tools and have skills such as being able to pull weeds without destroying plants. “It’s happened,” Simpson said. Workers are also likely to place tubing for drip irrigation and trim plants in the fall. “You can’t have anybody afraid of getting dirty on a peony farm,” she said.

Desired employee skills include dependability, punctuality, good work ethic, good attitude, ability to follow instructions, knowledge of agriculture, interested in learning new things, enjoy working outdoors and ability to use tools and equipment safely and efficiently, Simpson explained. There is room in the peony workforce for growers, harvesters, laborers, and pack house owners and managers.

She would like to see harvester certification programs where people could learn the proper techniques before going to work on farms. She envisions mostly seasonal jobs that local people could fill. “We have no strategic plan but this industry can’t grow until we have labor,” she said. “We’re open-minded; we’re looking for answers.”

Chris Beks of North Pole Peonies said, “This could turn into a $20 million industry for this state,” and noted that Arctic Alaska Peonies, a cooperative, has 52 members.

“Labor is a big deal,” he said. “It takes skilled labor. It gets to the point when farms are big that there is too much work to be done by family members.” Beks said his farm is willing to pay a good price if workers are willing to learn.

Demand for peonies is incredibly high, Beks said. “Last year it was 50,000 stems and we can double or triple that. This can be a big deal, a big industry during the summer. This could make jobs. I’m really excited about it.”

The third panel member, Kevin Fochs, is the new state advisor for FFA, a youth leadership organization emphasizing natural resources and agriculture. “We have the opportunity to grow agriculture in this state,” he said. “Alaska is in a bind because of our dependence on oil. It would be nice to have more stability by increasing the agricultural economy.”

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at ntarnai@alaska.edu.