They are the flowers carried in a bouquet at a sunny wedding. They can mark promises made, or the beginning of a happy future.
But these flowers, peonies, grow best in a state where the winter sun can linger for less than six hours a day and temperatures can drop to 20 degrees below.
“Out of the darkness of Alaska comes the bright brilliance of the peonies,” said Wayne Floyd, laughing and throwing his arms up.
Floyd, co-owner of Cool Cache Farms, said he is excited. In September he and his wife buried more than 2,000 peony roots on their farm in Nikiski and, when they mature, he expects they will produce a cash crop, he said.
Peonies are an internationally desired flower, but require a cold growing environment and, in most places around the world, have a short growing season, he said. North of the Mason-Dixon Line in the Lower 48, for example, he said the growing window is open from late June to early October.
But Alaska is different. In the state, peony farmers can grow longer than anywhere else in the world — and already on the Kenai Peninsula more than 30 farms have begun to capitalize on the state’s niche market, he said.
“That creates an opportunity where no where else it exists,” he said.
Farmers in Fairbanks, Delta Junction and the Matanuska Valley are also taking to the crop, Floyd said.
Floyd spoke of peonies’ potential at Saturday’s Kenai Peninsula Ag Forum, hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation & Development District, farmers from around the Peninsula met at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska. At the meeting, titled “Putting Peninsula Ag on the Map,” farmers, city officials and state agencies discussed ways to market Peninsula agriculture more effectively.
In five years, Floyd projects the Central Peninsula can grow about one million peony stems.
“And when you consider a million stems, just look at the price,” said Richard Repper, Echo Lake Farm co-owner and another peony farmer.
Online, peony prices range from $45 to more than $150 a bouquet.
But Alaska peonies sell for more, he said.
“This plant was all the rage at the turn of the century ... but then it just petered out,” he said.
Although Repper considers himself new to the industry, large cut flower buyers and companies have already taken an interest in his crop, he said.
He said the chief executive officer of a major online flower distributing company visited his farm and toured his field.
“He said nothing’s happened like this in the flower industry since the late ‘60s,” he said. “‘You are driving a Ferrari,’ (he told me).”
He also received a call from the woman who handles the garden supplies for the East Coast chain of Kmarts, and she wanted him to supply them with peonies, he said.
Large-scale buyers even flew in from Japan, he said.
“The world is excited about this,” he said. “There’s people in the Lower 48 that cannot live without their peonies.”
Soon, Floyd said, the Peninsula peonies market will flourish, and so will the area’s economy — he is confident the industry will transform the Peninsula in the next five years when crops begin to yield.
Farming requires agriculture suppliers, tractors and other equipment, mechanics, field help, marketing, builders, truckers and more, he said.
“It generates jobs,” he said.
Repper said the Peninsula’s peonies will have a global market because, in the cut flower industry, it is customary for the customer to pay shipping. A woman paid about $500 for him to ship his peonies to Italy for a wedding, he said.
Also, the internet, social media and world-wide shipping methods have made access to his product only “three clicks away,” he said.
But peony farming is a steep investment. It can take about $10,000 to clear a single acre of land and thousands more for equipment and supplies, Floyd said.
“Digging a $100 hole for a $10 root is basically how it goes,” he said.
The roots range from about $2.50 to $120, he said. He planted 2,600 roots on his farm, and Repper planted 12,500.
Once planted, the roots take three to four years to mature and an additional fifth before they are ready to market, Repper said.
“You got a five-year stretch there where you really don’t have an income,” he said.
But, the perennials will produce for more than 75 years before they die, he said.
“It’s just like an orchard,” Floyd said. “You don’t make a lot of money at first ... and you got to be willing to work hard.”
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.