Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Peony popularity grows in Alaska

A little over a decade ago you’d have been hard pressed to find peonies growing in Alaska, except for the occasional decorative backyard bush. Today, there are 25 farms that belong to the Alaska Peony Growers Association.

At the group’s winter meeting Feb. 13-15 in Fairbanks, 150 people gathered to learn about peony growing techniques and share their stories of pluck and perseverance.

“It’s been incredible,” said Franci Havemeister, director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture. “I was at their first meeting five years ago and the growth is amazing.” Peony sales present an economic potential for Alaska, she said. “We can meet the demand no one else is able to meet. It’s a wide open market.”

Apparently, eager growers concur. According to Pat Holloway, a horticulture professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, commercial production began in 2004 with small test plots in Fairbanks, Kenai and Homer. By 2012, more than 100,000 roots had been planted by 38 growers. The projected statewide harvest by 2015 is over 1 million peony stems.

Holloway, who got the ball rolling on peony trials at the Georgeson Botanical Garden, tracks growth and development of the new industry. “Growers, industry support groups, legislative leaders, educational and research organizations need to know basic statistics on crop production, markets and growth in order to support and fund activities that promote this industry,” Holloway said. “Hard numbers also provide a great wow factor. To say an industry is thriving is quite superficial unless it can be backed up with solid numbers and trends.”

By surveying 38 growers, Holloway determined sales of fresh cut peony stems doubled from 2011 to 2012. Sales to other states dominated the markets and a small quantity was shipped to Canada and Taiwan. More than 25,000 stems were sold in 2012, at a price of $2 to $10 per stem, depending on the buyer.

What possesses people to suddenly turn their land into peony farms?

For Kim and John Herning it was John’s retirement as an airline pilot that did the trick. The couple was looking for something that would provide retirement income and become something to hand down to their children and grandchildren. “We’re ready to plant 2,000 roots this spring,” Kim said. They are converting a former hay farm off of Chena Hot Springs Road into a peony patch.

“We hope it’s successful and can make money,” Kim said. “Maybe one of our children will want to take it on.”

Marilyn Berglin said it merely took the delightful smell of peonies at the Georgeson Botanical Garden to convince her to grow the flowers. “I was charmed by their beauty,” she said.
Last summer, Berglin planted 130 roots and will be putting in 2,000 at her farm in Fox this year. “It’s something I’m going to really like,” she said. “I hope to expand.”

Michael Williams’ story takes an interesting turn in that his land in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley is off the road system. The Eagle Song Family Peony Farm came about after the family lodge lost its fishing rights after regulations changed.

When Williams discovered reports about the success of Alaska peony growers, he decided this was an entirely doable project. “We did the logistics and the business plan and now we’ve got 10,000 roots in the ground.”

After 17 years of doing business with flight services, Williams will now pay them to transport peonies instead of tourists. “I can have flowers to Anchorage in 25 minutes,” he said.

Three of his four children are interested in the new venture, which seals the deal for Williams. “I hope to provide a living and create something to pass on,” he said.

He also hopes to come up with a blueprint for other operations and inspire rural entrepreneurs and farmers to follow suit. “It’s definitely hard work,” he said.

Once planted, the roots take several years to produce a product that can be sold. And there are serious considerations about soil quality and fertilizers.

UAF SNRAS Associate Professor Mingchu Zhang studies the soil quality for optimum peony growth. He told the conference attendees, “We have a long way to go but the research will be able to tell a lot.”

Peonies require 16 essential nutrients. “Each one is irreplaceable,” he said. “If one is missing the plant won’t perform.”

He is looking at 31 soil samples in 17 locations. Once completed, the results will be published.

Ron Illingworth, outgoing president of the peony association, said, “We are starting to see what research is doing for us.”

Friday, February 15, 2013

Professor Holloway honored by Peony Association

Pat Holloway poses with the trophy and plaque she received at the Alaska Peony Growers Association meeting Feb. 15.

Professor Pat Holloway was the recipient of awards of appreciation from the Alaska Peony Growers Association Feb. 15. The APGA honored Dr. Holloway for the research she has conducted on peonies, which has assisted the new industry in its efforts to grow and flourish.

Presented the awards by outgoing APGA President Ron Illingworth, Holloway said, "I did a little research but the growers took the ball and ran with it."

Holloway has been growing peonies at the Georgeson Botanical Garden since 2000. Using an earmark from Sen. Ted Stevens, she planted 30 peony varieties and has been studying the flower crop ever since and publishing the results. She is a frequent speaker at growers' gatherings. At the APGA conference this week in Fairbanks, she was met during every break by growers with long lists of questions for her to answer.

Obviously moved by the organization's appreciation of her efforts, Holloway said, "I couldn't be prouder of anything in my whole career."

Illingworth stated, "We would not have this organization or quality of product we have without you. You have made outstanding contributions to the peony industry and the cut flower industry."

The audience of about 150 attendees gave Holloway a standing ovation.

Further reading:

Alaska - a peony paradise?, The Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 23, 2009, by Elizabeth Bluemink

Alaska Peonies in the News, Alaska Peony Growers Association website

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Birch bark workshop coming to Palmer

Weaving with birch bark produces beautiful handmade products.

The SRNAS Forest Products Program is hosting a birch bark weaving workshop Saturday, Feb. 23 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Kertulla Hall, Matanuska Experiment Farm, 1509 S. Georgeson Drive in Palmer.

For $20 students will earn how to peel bark from trees, cut it into craft-worthy strips and create ornaments, mats and baskets. Refreshments will be served.

To register, contact Susan McNeil at 907-746-9454.

The event,sponsored by SNRAS and the UAF Cooperative Extension Service,will be taught by Assistant Professor Valerie Barber.

Addendum: As of Feb. 18, the workshop is full. There is a standby list. Thanks to all signed up to participate.

Delta Farm Forum to highlight food and agriculture

The annual Delta Farm Forum on Feb. 23 will highlight a variety of topics of interest to farmers and food producers.

Dan Sullivan, Alaska’s natural resources commissioner, will welcome participants at 9 a.m. and presentations will run until 3:30 p.m. in the Delta Junction High School small gymnasium. A potluck will begin around noon.

Topics will include the flour mill market, gourmet cookies, reducing farm energy costs and updates from the state's Farm to School program, Alaska Farmers Cooperative and agricultural agencies. Palmer sausage maker Francois Vecchio will make the final presentation on artisan sausage making. Vecchio, who operated a family meat business in Switzerland, specializes in Italian, Spanish, French and German traditional meat craftsmanship. A full agenda is available here.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and the Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District are co-sponsoring the 36th annual forum. Youth from the Delta FFA chapter and 4-H groups will emcee and assist with the program. For more information, call Extension’s Delta office at 895-4215 or the conservation district at 895-6279.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Produce growers to meet at Palmer

Registration is open for the Alaska Produce Growers Conference Feb. 19-20 at the Palmer Depot.

The annual conference, hosted by the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, will highlight research and recommendations for fruit and vegetable growers, with a special focus on potatoes.

Registration and the full agenda is linked from the Extension website. For more information, contact Palmer agent Steve Brown at 907-745-3639.