Summer heat hastens Alaska peony harvest

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This year, the peony harvest at Alaska Blooms Peony Farm in Wasilla began on June 24. It was completed in two weeks. By the end of July, the fields were green, and the only peonies left on the farm were stored in the walk-in cooler. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)
Alaska peonies have a special place in the world flower market. Typically, growers in the 49th state have a window of time when the flowers aren’t being harvested anywhere else in the world. But, this summer’s record-breaking heat led to an early and fast harvest, leaving farmers here wondering what the future will bring.

Rachel Christy owns Alaska Blooms Peony Farm, tucked away on a back road in Wasilla. This is her ninth summer in the peony business. The only flowers left from this season are stored in a walk-in cooler.

The cooler keeps the flowers fresh and prevents them from opening before they reach their destination.

When peonies bloom, they bloom big, in lots of varieties. The fluffy-looking flowers are particularly popular for weddings.

Outside the cooler, 3,000 plants sit on about a half-acre of land. Right now, Christy’s fields of peony plants are green. Only leaves and stems remain on the bushes after an unusually early, and fast, harvest. Typically, Christy says she starts harvesting around July 4.

“And we harvest all the way into the first week of August,” Christy said. “Everything is just very calm and scheduled. I have early varieties, mid-season varieties, and late varieties.”

But this year was different. Alaska got really hot.

“With the heat this year, we started on June 24,” Christy said. “Almost two weeks ahead of time. And the whole harvest took place in two weeks, rather than the usual four. Everything came on at once, so it was very busy around here, to get it all harvested.”

The state as a whole experienced the warmest July and second warmest June on record.

Climatologist Brian Brettschneider says there are a few different things contributing to the warm conditions this summer: long-term warming, record warm ocean temperatures… and some bad luck.

A threat to business?

Alaska’s harvest overlapped with those in other parts of the world this year. And that’s a potential issue for Alaska peony growers, because normally, they have a window of time without competition. But Christy says she didn’t lose business. It was a slower start, but sales picked up as the summer went on and she eventually sold out.

Still, other farmers in the state are concerned about the impact of the early harvest on sales.

Dave Russell is president of the Alaska Peony Grower’s Association’s board of directors. His family owns Boreal Peonies, a 40-acre farm in Two Rivers.

“There are some challenges in growing in Alaska that are not confronted by growers any place else on the planet,” Russell said.

A peony flower at Brad Fluetsch’s North Douglas property in Juneau, Alaska, June 27, 2016. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire via AP)

Alaska peonies are expensive. Facing more competition in the market could make sales more challenging.

“In years like this when you have expensive Alaskan peonies, or cheap, local peonies, they will certainly buy the cheap local peonies first,” Russell said. “Which makes it very difficult for Alaskan growers.”

A fledgling industry

The peony industry is still young. It got its start in the early 2000s. Russell says, in the next five years, he anticipates around 1.5 million stems in the state. That’s compared to 5,000 ten years ago.

Russell says the industry is strong. He’s optimistic that, even if farmers see more hot summers like this one, harvest seasons around the world could change too, creating an overall shift and preserving Alaska’s unique window in the market.

“We’re also super vulnerable at this point, because it’s the very beginning,” Russell said.

Back in Wasilla, Christy will soon empty her cooler of her last peonies of the season. She says, as the industry grows, farmers are still learning together.

“The number of farms has really exploded,” Christy said. “There’s so many farms. I don’t even know what the total number is. I work with 11 different farms here in the valley but I know there’s even more than that. And there’s several in Homer.”

Now, heat like the state experienced this year presents a new unknown.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canadian gov grants $15M for agriculture projects in North, CBC News

Finland: Good grain harvest expected across Finland, Yle News

Sweden: Swedish farmers cautiously optimistic about harvest after last year’s drought, Radio Sweden

United States: Temperatures nearing all-time records in Southcentral Alaska, Alaska Public Media

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Abbey Collins, Alaska Public Media

Abbey Collins, Alaska Public Media

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