Thursday, February 2, 2017

Marketing expert promotes Alaska peony industry

Ko Klaver talks about the Alaska Grown labeling of Alaska peonies
 during the conference. Photo courtesy of Arctic Alaska Peonies

During his keynote presentation at the Alaska Peony Growers Association winter conference last Friday, Ko Klaver encouraged peony growers to keep planting.

Klaver, a floriculture marketing expert and the industry liaison for the association, told attendees, “The opportunities for peony growers in Alaska are phenomenal.”

He pointed to a map that shows the locations of peonies grown around the world. Many are grown in temperate areas, but Alaska stands alone as a peony producer at 60 degrees latitude.

“You’re still in a unique position,” he told those gathered. But that might not last. “There’s a lot of ambitious people out there,” he said, “Most of them have a Dutch last name.”

Alaska can supply peonies from July to August, at a time other locations do not.

“That is your niche,” he said. “That is your opportunity.”

He noted that it’s possible that other northern locations, such as Iceland or Scandinavian countries, could get in on the market so it’s wise for Alaska to take the lead and develop its market now.

Klaver said there were around 200,000 peony roots in the ground in Alaska in 2016 and that number is expected to grow to 250,000 this year. He urged growers to continue planting, with the idea that Alaska can easily provide more to the world market, which is currently dominated by Klaver’s place of birth, the Netherlands.

The Alaska harvest numbers aren’t complete for the 2016 season, but the 2015 season brought sales of around 70,000 stems, which sold for $3 to $7. Each plant takes several years to develop stems and produces an average of eight buds when mature. By comparison, the Netherlands sold about 120 million peony stems in 2016. Klaver believes that Alaska can produce and sell at least 3 million stems annually in the future. “The market is there,” he assured growers.

Klaver said only about 20 percent of the cut flowers sold in the U.S. are produced domestically.

Klaver urged growers to work together to improve their storage and shipping methods and to seek economy. Buyers want a reliable supply of peonies in good condition. By getting things in place now, such as larger coolers, growers will be ready for a much greater supply of Alaska-grown peonies.

Growers attended the annual peony conference for information on the latest research on soils, pests and on growing peonies, and advice on varieties, marketing and shipping. They also networked with other growers. Around 30 growers attended a school for beginning growners on the first day of the conference.

A couple sitting at my table had attended the beginners school, and they have planted about 60 roots so far. “If they come up, we’re in,” said the grower, who is from Soldotna. If they do well, they may plant two acres.

SNRE Emeritus Professor Pat Holloway said that, as of 2015, 69 growers could be considered commercial peony growers, with 500 or more roots planted. There were 147 individuals who had fewer than 500 roots or were starting the planting process.

The School of Natural Resources and Extension has had a significant role in Alaska peony research. Holloway planted the first experimental field of peonies at the Georgeson Botanical Garden in 2001 and she spent more than 15 years experimenting with varieties and growing methods. Although she retired in 2015, she still conducts annual surveys for the association.

Other researchers from SNRE continue with peony research. During the conference, Mingchu Zhang presented information about his research involving micronutrients and plant nutrition, and retired agronomics researcher Bob Van Veldhuizen led a post-conference workshop on soils. Information by State Horticulture Specialist Steven Seefeldt was also presented.

Conference organizer Ron Illingworth said that more than 125 people attended, including beginning and experienced growers and others who are considering planting peonies. An additional 25 presenters also attended.

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