Fluke turned farm: How one family accidentally stumbled on a budding industry
Ron Illingworth and his wife Marjorie have been interested Peonies since the early 2000’s.
The couple says it started as a fluke.
“It seems that our peonies bloom at a totally different time than anybody else’s around the world.” Marjorie said.
Almost 20 years ago the two had met several tourists at the University of Alaska Georgeson Botanical Garden who noticed local peonies blooming at a unique time.
“Peonies are done blooming in the lower 48 by mid june at the latest,” Marjorie said. “We don’t start until the end of June and various areas in the state go as late as September.”
The couple started their family farm, North Pole Peonies, with only 25 plants in 2004. By 2010 the peony farm had started selling their flowers worldwide.
“In other parts of the world, in New Zealand, Peonies are a Christmas flower, they are available then,” Ron said. “But nobody has them during the summer. So we have gone into a niche, which makes the fact that peonies are available year round a big deal in the flower industry.”
On their 15 acres of farm North Pole Peonies grows about 25,000 flowers a season.
“Most of them are going to go to the United States, we ship to the lower 48,” Chris Beks, the sales manager for the farm told us. “We do ship to Canada as well, and then the two countries we are currently exporting to [are] the United Kingdom and Vietnam.”
North Pole Peonies has also received multiple research grants to help progress the industry. The farm has experimented with plant varieties and tested new cooling and storage methods. Beyond that Ron Illingworth says their farm has been trying to get the message out about peonies from Alaska.
“We have been doing this since 2004,” Ron said. “We are part of a group of Peony farmers in the interior, about 30 or so. [There are] over 100 in the state we have been working [with] to make the fact that peonies are available in the summer known.”
With Alaska’s cool growing season and position as a hub for air cargo transport, peony farming in the interior is not only growing but flourishing.
Tune in next week when we take you through the process of cutting and de-bugging your garden peonies.