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.
Christy said she typically 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.”
Climatologist Brian Brettschneider said there are a few different things contributing to the warm conditions this summer: long-term warming, record warm ocean temperatures — and some bad luck.
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 said 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 Growers 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.
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.”
The peony industry is still young in Alaska. Russell said in the next five years, he anticipates around 1.5 million stems in the state. That’s compared to 5,000 stems 10 years ago.
Russell said 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 said, 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.
- The Alaska Department of Revenue forecasts $187.3 million less in state revenue this year than it did in the spring. The department released the forecast on Friday.
- In an unprecedented response to historically low numbers of Pacific cod, the federal cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska is closing for the 2020 season.
- Anchorage natural gas company ENSTAR is asking state regulators to allow it to bill its customers to recover $1 million in costs from last year's major earthquake.
- “We know many, many people are going to lose benefits because of this,” says Cara Durr with the Food Bank of Alaska.