Magazine article Sunset

Alaska in Bloom

Magazine article Sunset

Alaska in Bloom

Article excerpt

There's a certain type of person who thrives in Alaska. Longing for a life more rugged than the Lower 48 could provide, Rita Jo Shoultz moved from Indiana to Homer, Alaska, in the 1960s, where she happily raised her family of four in a log cabin that had no running water or electricity for years. Decades later, she opened her own plant nursery-never mind that she had no horticultural experience at the time. And now Shoultz is the pioneer at the forefront of Alaska's newest industry: peonies.

"When I started, I had absolutely no comprehension of the difficulties of farming in Alaska," says Shoultz, who was one of the first commercial peony growers in the state. "But Alaskans are a cantankerous bunch- we just aren't quitters."

The state has never successfully exported an agricultural crop-not for lack of trying. Desperate to diversify beyond oil and fish and improve the state's economy, the government has spent millions of dollars on export experiments- including barley and dairy-that have all failed spectacularly. Even the crops that grow successfully in the state-carrots, onions, and grass-fed beef-are too pricey to find their way beyond local farmers' markets.

But peony farming came about almost accidentally. Speaking at a conference in the summer of1992, horticultural researcher Pat Holloway casually mentioned a blooming peony she had in her garden. An Oregon cut-flower grower in the audience made a beeline for her afterward. "You have something that no one else in the world has," he said-peonies in July.

The demand for peonies is almost insatiable, their frilly, feminine flowers being the bridal bloom of choice. The world takes turns filling the market: Chile, New Zealand, and Israel harvest in succession from October through April. Oregon, Kansas, and Vermont compete with Europe for their share of the market in spring. That leaves one gap: July, August, and September- the height of wedding season.

Seeing a tremendous opportunity, Holloway told several people, including Shoultz, about the encounter. Shoultz wasted no time, planting 3,500 roots on a half-acre her first spring (she now has more than 15,000). "I wasn't nervous," she says. "I started small-on land that I owned, with a tractor that was already mine."

After her first successful growing season, Shoultz became Alaska's peony speculator, using her well-established horticulture lectures around the state to evangelize the ease of farming and promising financial rewards. Herbaceous peonies thrive in Alaska's cool summers; farming them requires little infrastructure. "You cut them, stick them in a box, and take them to FedEx," says Holloway. "You need boxes, coolers, and rubber bands."

Michelle LaFriniere was one of the first farmers to get on board. LaFriniere has been in Alaska since 1979, when she bought a one-way ticket from Minnesota, where she grew up on an impoverished Chippewa reservation. She credits the move to Alaska with saving her life, and fishing-which she's done for 37 years-for giving it meaning. In 2009, she embarked on peony farming to supplement her income. "Only here are people crazy enough to turn to farming for a side job," she says. "Plus, I've got this fetish for flowers."

Farming, of course, is never an easy endeavor. But in Alaska, it's like an extreme sport. Winters cloaked in darkness give way to a deluge of melting snow and then a fast and furious 90-day growing season. Peony farmers are up with the sun-3 a.m.-racing to snip flowers before they bloom, which is triggered by the long hours of daylight. "I'm a nervous wreck in summer," says Beth Van Sandt, who owned a travel agency before starting her farm, Scenic Place Peonies. …

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