Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Irene Repper shows a group her peonies during a tour of Echo Lake Peonies, the farm she runs with her husband Richard Repper, Saturday, June 27, 2015, in Soldotna, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Irene Repper shows a group her peonies during a tour of Echo Lake Peonies, the farm she runs with her husband Richard Repper, Saturday, June 27, 2015, in Soldotna, Alaska.

‘Weird winters’ a challenge for peony growers

  • By Kelly Sullivan
  • Sunday, June 28, 2015 9:56pm
  • News

Budding and established Kenai Peninsula peony farmers compared notes at the Alaska Peony Growers Association tour Saturday. Reports were concerning.

Two “weird winters” are causing crop loss on an unprecedented scale for some local growers.

“You can do everything right and when Alaska decides to do its thing to you it is beyond your control,” said peony farmer Colleen Riley.

Riley made the trip from Fritz Creek where she operates 3 Glaciers Farm to meet with other peony producers, only to hear that bundles of buds expected to bloom this season never showed up.

Michael Druce’s 3-year-old operation, Alaska Summer Peonies on Robinson Loop Road in Sterling, was hit hard.

“It was maybe too ambitious in the first place,” Druce said. “You have no control over the winter.”

Druce said equally as frustrating are the questions the unexpected loss left behind. Entire rows of 50 were wiped out save one lone plant, he said.

“What caused that one to survive?” Druce said.

This was the first year Riley’s peonies didn’t suffer any major casualties. She has been in the business for five years and hasn’t “sold a bud yet.”

For peony production that is not uncommon.

The perennials take at least three years to develop well established root systems that allow for annual picking without compromising production the following year.

To overwinter in Alaska’s extreme climate, peonies require the insulation of snow cover as protection from constant thawing and refreezing. There has been little snow for the past two years, Riley said.

But even that doesn’t explain what is damaging crops on a mass scale, Druce said. From his own research he found the freezing and thawing should not compromise the health of the plant so dramatically.

Riley is concerned Alaska may develop a reputation as an unreliable market because of the inconsistent climate. But she isn’t giving it up just yet.

Speculation may be premature for the infantile industry, Druce said. The most established operations on the Kenai Peninsula are little more than a decade old, which is incredibly young for peony production, he said.

Styer’s Peonies, based in New York, is a 100-year-old operation, Druce said. The business sells out of product long before Valentine’s Day, he said. Alaska’s supply is so viable because growers have the opportunity to fill the niche demand for purchasing peonies following the major holiday.

Riley and Druce say they need to spend more time on marketing, another essential component in the peony industry.

Organizations such as the Alaska Peony Growers Association and the Alaska Peony Market Cooperative offer support and resources to the swelling number of operations popping up around the state.

Wayne Floyd, who runs Cool Cache Farms in Kenai with his wife Patti Floyd, is a member of the association, and one of 11 operations on the Kenai Peninsula that are a part of the cooperative.

Floyd has been in the business for three years and touts the economic stability the developing market provides local economies. More should be done to promote agriculture in Alaska, he said.

Some are taking note of the potential vitality of peonies. Legislation was passed during this year’s session that declared July Alaska Peony Month in 2015.

Agriculture in Alaska has a unique characteristic that sets it apart from the industry in the Lower 48 and could potentially make it more viable in the long run, Floyd said. Farmers are more willing to network and help their neighboring operations, he said.

Last year local growers flocked to Irene and Richard Repper’s Echo Lake Peonies, the first stop on Saturday’s tour, when the buds on their peonies bloomed en masse and could not be picked quick enough.

“You rarely see farmers support each other like this,” Floyd said.

Roughly 150,000 stems were sold out of Alaska last year, the majority to markets in the Lower 48, but millions could be bought out of the state within the next five years, Floyd predicts.

However, Druce and Riley caution new growers that it takes years to cultivate a sustainable operation and is labor intensive.

 

Reach Kelly Sullivan at kelly.sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com.

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