Patience could pay off for Alaska's LilyVale Farm peony growers

Posted: Saturday, June 30, 2012 10:06 pm | Updated: 10:37 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.
By Nancy Tarnai / Homegrown Alaska Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 


FAIRBANKS - For years, Marji and Ron Illingworth specialized in green beans but because of a chance encounter at the Georgeson Botanical Garden their focus is now peonies.


About 10 years ago, GBG director Pat Holloway told the Illingworths about a visitor to the University of Alaska Fairbanks garden who admired her peony plots and wanted a list of local peony growers. At that time there was no list, but the gentleman was offering a nice price for the flowers so Holloway got the word out about the potential for this new market. She also has done extensive research on the plants, along with storage and shipping methods for them. The beauty of peonies in Alaska is that they bloom later than just about anywhere else, so they can be sold at a premium price for summer events.


The Illingworths were some of the first farmers to try peonies. “We put 100 plants here to see if they would survive because it’s colder here than the university,” Marji said. “We didn’t know if they were commercially viable but they did well. We’ve added a few more every year. It’s kind of exciting.”


The Illingworths operate North Pole Peonies at LilyVale Farm on Eielson Farm Road. They both grew up in farm families in the Midwest and came to Alaska with the Air Force. They settled at LilyVale in 1997 and started growing vegetables for the farmers’ markets.


Now their productive acres are dedicated to peonies and the veggie growing is for family use. Marji grows tomatoes, peppers and all manner of produce in a greenhouse and is setting up new hoop houses for food production.


The main focus though is the old-fashioned flower that is all the rage for weddings, anniversaries and dinner parties. “The long roots of the peony strike deep into the past,” Alice Coats writes in Flowers and Their Histories. The Roman Pliny called them the oldest of plants, and they’ve been grown in Asian gardens for thousands of years.


The first peonies brought to America by the colonists were forms of Paeonia officinalis, a European peony with herbal uses that’s often called the “Memorial Day piney.” (www.oldhousegardens.com)


The Illingworths grow 10 varieties — including Sarah Bernhardt, Felix Crousse, Duchess deNemours, Festiva Maxima, Kansas, Shawnee Chief and Coral Charm — ranging in color from deep red to pink to white to coral.


“My favorite is whatever is opening that day,” Marji said.


The difference between being a vegetable farmer and peony grower is that the flowers are proving much more profitable, she said. Also with beans, she was down on her hands and knees much of the day to earn $5 a pound and peonies are selling for $4 to $8 a stem.


The caveat is there is an up-front investment of time, money and labor before turning a profit. “You have to invest in the root stock, irrigation systems, clear the land, prep the field,” Ron explained. Then there is fertilizer and herbicide placement and the constant weeding. It usually takes five years to produce a viable commercial product.


Blossoms start emerging in late June and are at their peak in July and August. North Pole Peonies sells flowers to brides, florists and brokers all over the U.S. They even sent a pilot shipment to Taiwan and have received inquiries from Italy and Japan.


“It’s fun to ship flowers to Hawaii and California,” Ron said.


An integral part of the peony business is shipping, and the Illingworths have made fast friends with FedEx. The buds are packaged with ice packs and the buyer picks up at the FedEx office so they are not stuck in a hot truck all day.


“We get there by 11 and the peonies are in the Lower 48 the next day,” Ron said.


Over the years the couple has become involved in the Alaska Peony Growers Association and Ron is currently president. The organization has 15 commercial grower members.


At North Pole Peonies, the goal is to have 20,000 plants by 2015, but the overall objective is to create a family business that can be passed down to the coming generations. The couple’s children and grandchildren are very much involved, even the youngest ones.


Asked about the mission of the business, Marji said, “to send our grandchildren to college.”


More seriously, she added, “We want to show that Alaska can have a commercially viable agriculture industry. Barley and potatoes didn’t do what everybody wanted,” she said.


“This has the potential of being like the fishing industry because peonies are not blooming anywhere else in the world this time of year,” Ron said.


Anyone interested in growing peonies may contact the Illingworths. Marji teaches a peony growers school in the spring and fall. Ron’s advice to would-be growers is simple: “Plan ahead.”
But be prepared for long hours and hard work, they agreed.


“It’s fun,” Ron said. “It’s beautiful. It’s a big showy, pretty flower.”


This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at ntarnai@alaska.edu.

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