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Building Alaska agriculture, one peony at a time

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News-Miner Community Perspective:

Four years ago, I flew from Bogota, Colombia, to Fairbanks: 23 hours, 6,000 miles. The cattle-drive atmosphere and short-tempered employees at immigration in Miami International Airport were demoralizing enough, and that was just the first leg of the journey. By the time the plane touched down in Alaska, I felt about as human as a lawn chair.

We’ve all had those trips to, from, and within the state that are so protracted we begin regretting every decision we ever made in life because those decisions ultimately led to this moment and this unfortunate flight itinerary. However, when you purchase flowers from the grocery store and even local florists, you can bet those blooms traveled a similar route to end up in your vase. Eighty percent of cut flowers come to the United States from South America — it’s a billion-dollar industry in Colombia alone.

The ubiquity of foreign-grown flowers in the US stems largely from the Andean Trade Preference Act. The pact sought to establish above-board export enterprises to expand economic opportunities and deter drug-trafficking between four South American countries and the United States. Consequently, U.S. retailers had little incentive to prioritize products from U.S. suppliers since ATPA offered duty-free treatment of certain imports, like cut flowers.

As a conscientious consumer, though, there are plenty of incentives to purchasing American grown flowers. For one, producers can more easily be held accountable for responsible practices. Moreover, U.S. flowers tend to be healthier and longer-lasting, because they are sold soon after harvesting and require fewer preservatives. A stellar example of responsibly grown American flowers is the burgeoning Alaska peony industry.

January is a great time to celebrate our state’s loveliest cash crop. In the dregs of winter, nothing lifts the spirits like thoughts of colorful blossoms. For instance, on Jan. 26, Alaska Peony Growers Association’s Winter Conference kicks off in Fairbanks. The conference offers members a variety of talks and workshops to help them establish or continue to cultivate successful peony farms.

Over the years, the peony market has grown and expanded in Alaska. Though the forget-me-not remains the state emblem, the peony is quickly becoming Alaska’s flower. The typical growing season for peonies around the world spans April to early June. But in the Last Frontier alone, peonies bloom June into September, at the heart of wedding season. For more than a decade, horticulturists around the state have been studying and cultivating peonies in order capitalize on this edge, making peonies Alaska’s newest export. Plus, they’re pretty and smell nice, something you can’t say about many other Alaska commodities.

At last count, there were more than 100 peony farms in Alaska, with half of those farms located in the Interior. With the help of cooperatives, like the standard-setting Arctic Alaska Peonies in North Pole, Alaska peonies are bought by consumers locally and from Outside.

But you might think, if our peonies are being exported, how are they any better than the roses coming up from Colombia? They still travel thousands of miles to places that are not our local community. What gives, lady?

Correct. To some extent flowers will always have to be shipped. Let’s face it, nobody will grow warehouse amounts of birds-of-paradise in Alaska, just like other places can’t harvest peonies in July. However, the peonies distributed from AAP are all certified Grown in America — a movement working to draw industry focus back to US grown flowers. Furthermore, when consumers buy AAP peonies they know the flowers were grown with social and environmental integrity.

“Some of our growing practices are actually organic,” Marji Illingworth, co-owner of North Pole Peonies, explained. “Most of us use techniques that maximize fertilizer effectiveness and pest control additives by using soil testing, integrated pest management and careful observation of our fields.  The less we have to use the better.” 

“Farmers strive to be good stewards of the land,”  Ron Illingworth said. “That means making sure that the soils stay fertile, water resources remain clean and available, and the Alaska peony reputation is not tarnished by poor practices.”

We at Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation hope as many growers as possible attend APGA’s conference. We want to see the peony industry reach its full potential in Alaska, and  to see those farms, built on solid information and sustainable growing techniques, thrive right here in the U.S. If you are considering becoming a peony farmer, or are an established grower who wants to stay current with the best information, please register for the conference at bit.ly/2jIbI3R.

Samantha Reynolds is a project manager for the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp.

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