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Interior offers bountiful benefits for burgeoning peony industry

FAIRBANKS — I suspect, this time of year, fresh-cut flowers aren’t at the forefront of most people’s minds in Fairbanks. However, don’t be surprised if in the coming years a strong association develops between the two. And not just any flower but that most royal of blossoms: the peony. 

Have you heard the buzz surrounding this burgeoning new industry within our community? Fairbanks Economic Development Corp. has and, under the auspices of the Agriculture Project, is monitoring the development and growth of this product line with great interest. It has the potential to serve as a model for development across other facets of our local agricultural industry. 

Let’s start with some basic facts that will help paint the picture:

• Peonies bloom in Alaska from July through early September. Alaska is the only place in the world with this bloom time.

• Peonies have been the most popular wedding flower for the last two years and are projected to remain so. Most U.S. weddings occur in July.

• Outside of the U.S., peonies are in high demand in the international cut flower market. Last summer local farmers sent their flowers to countries in Asia and Europe and are already receiving requests from locations beyond these.

• Peony stems being sold by Fairbanks farmers average $4 to $7 per stem, and purchasers are paying the shipping costs.

Who knew? Well, it appears that 60 Interior peony farmers had an inkling. Just to make sure we’re still painting the right picture, this isn’t your grandmother and her garden club friends starting a small, hobby business. Each of these 60 farms has at least 50 (and up to 10,000) peony roots in the ground, with most anticipating to plant more this summer. On top of that, each peony root, after five years, produces an average of 10 stems.

Did I mention that Alaska is the only place in the world that peonies bloom from July to September? It doesn’t take a math whiz or an economic expert to see the viability of a peony farm business in our community. The Fairbanks area appears to be the ideal location within Alaska for growing peonies because of soils, weather and other climatic conditions, and Alaska, because of the bloom time, is ideally positioned to tap the marketplace.

And, no, the average Alaska peony farmer isn’t looking for a fun and relaxing way to spend his retirement. These farmers are business savvy and not afraid of hard work or putting in long hours for a vision they believe in. This can be seen most recently in the amount of volunteer time and energy that went into the creation of the Interior Alaska peony cooperative.

Largely because of the volume of market demand, the short but extremely intense growing season and shared needs among all the farmers in a new industry for infrastructure, Interior peony farmers have come together to form Arctic Alaska Peonies, a cooperative of peony growers and pack houses in the heart of Alaska. This cooperative serves to collectively market, aggregate, process and distribute peonies for all farmers who are members.

This kind of boot-strap initiative and action is, at the very least, inspiring, but it’s also instructive. Peonies (and wild salmon and hydrocarbons) are not the only products for which Alaska has or may have a comparative advantage. Nor are peony farms the only nascent local enterprises which, though full of promise, face significant organizational, logistical and/or infrastructural start-up challenges.

It is noteworthy that our local peony farmers are not just counting but overcoming their hurdles, and we can, and should, all learn a thing or two from these ambitious entrepreneurs. FEDC is looking forward to continuing to support, and learn from, the efforts of the peony growers as they, like their magnificent flowers, blossom.

Are you daydreaming about starting your own peony farm? How about becoming a certified harvester on one of the co-op farms? Maybe you would like to see a local peony farm firsthand by attending the summer farm tour? Find out this and much more at www.arcticalaskapeonies.com.

Julie Emslie is a project manager for the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp.

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