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Sweet smells, pastel colors and long stems have proven to be the best hope for making money out of Alaska's gardens, UAF researchers say.
Researchers at the UAF Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station have done five years of research to predict that peonies for field cut flower production will be the first major international agricultural export from Alaska.
"The goal is to provide info to farmers and growers and see if it is economically feasible," said Rose Meier, a research associate who studied the effects of shade on peony bloom.
They also predict that there is money to be made in this export, lots of it.
The peony is the only member of the flowering plant family paeoniaceae. There are about 30 herbaceous species and about 10 woody species. Most are herbaceous perennial plants, 0.5 to 1.5 meters tall but woody shrubs can grow up to 1.5 to 3 meters tall.
Peonies have complex deeply lobed leaves and large fragrant flowers ranging in red, white and pink hues. The species "Sarah Bernhardt" seems to be the best species to grow in Alaska.
"On my gosh, they are gorgeous, my favorite," said Patricia Holloway, director of the research station . "A peony is a giant puff-ball, they last for such a long time."
Most Alaskans believe that potatoes and barley are Alaska's most economic export, but the researchers say this is not the case.
Researchers say there is far too much competition for these to ever be profitable. Alaska cannot compete with Idaho and Canada and will never have a large enough market to make profits off Alaskan grown potatoes and barley, according to their research.
This is the secret with peony production: There is no competition for Alaska. Alaska has peonies blooming when no one else in the world does.
During the summer, Alaska peonies are at their prime marketing stage, researchers say. This makes them in high demand to the rest of the global commercial flower market.
Most peonies come from Israel in April, Southern Europe in May, and Great Britain in June. After that, there's none available until October, when New Zealand and Austria start to export their crop.
The agricultural research team, Holloway, Janice Hanscom and Grant Matheke, have done several studies on peonies to determine if they are in fact marketable.
"We don't want to be a business, we just want to work out the bugs and do the research and present it to the community," Holloway said.
Holloway said she has been offered, on several occasions, $1.25 a stem for fresh peonies during the seasonal dead time. She has concluded that it is possible to grow 100,000 stems per acre with the buyer paying for shipping. That's $125,000 for an acres worth of peonies.
Some farmers have filled up to 10 acres with peonies. Others have as little as 250 stems being cropped for export.
Holloway hopes to incorporate UAF business students by proposing a marketing plan and having them write it up for a final senior research paper.
In order to grow peonies commercially, the university has conducted research primarily to answer any questions about producing peonies in Alaska. Among the many questions researchers are pondering is what type of soil and irrigation system to use, whether raised beds or flat bed are preferable, and what kinds of diseases affect peonies.
Peonies produce five flowers per stem and need a significant amount of space, which was also tested.
Peonies go dormant in the winter and cannot survive without the insulation of snow. In 2005, Fairbanks received snowfall late in the year. Many perennials were lost. The station tested fake snow machines to insulate the flowers. The machines may be used to solve the lacking snow problem and will keep the perennials alive throughout the winter.
Interior Alaska is the hot spot to grow peonies later in the summer, Holloway said. Anchorage and Homer have earlier peony blooms due to more southerly latitude.
Holloway also visited San Francisco, and Hanscom visited Los Angeles to see how the major flower markets work. The researchers had samples of their crop sent to California to see how they were ranked and buyers said they would happily buy any flowers they sent.
"Our research was to show it's possible to grow commercial peonies, and we can," said Janice Hanscom, a lab technician and employee of the experiment station for over 20 years. "We did it and brought peonies to the major West Coast markets and sold them all. Everything worked."
Hanscom also visited major peony farms in Oregon and British Colombia where labor seems to be an issue with production. Oregon has immigrant workers to help solve the problem but in Canada and Alaska that is a major issue.
Peonies only require three to four weeks of hard labor, during harvest and packaging time. The rest of the year only maintenance and supervision is needed. This makes is hard to employ workers.
Local florists such as Arctic Floral and Borealis Floral both said they would love to carry local grown peonies, with their only concern being bugs on the flowers.
The biggest flower market in the world, Aalsmeer in Holland, fills seven baseball fields worth of fresh flowers every morning and by noon all that remains are the damaged flowers. Holloway said a buyer has promised to buy all the peonies she can ship because it is one of the only flowers not constantly in stock during the summer.
Hanscom plans on retiring and operating a peony farm. Last summer, she planted her first 2,500 plants and plans to harvest them in three years. She said she wants to solve the labor issue by employing 14-year-olds, who have a hard time getting a summer job, and schoolteachers, who have the summer off.