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Alaska peony business booming with celebrations happening again

A Mary Jo Lagare peony from Mt. McKinley Peonies in Willow, Alaska.
A Mary Jo Lagare peony from Mt. McKinley Peonies in Willow, Alaska.(Taylor Clark)
Updated: Jul. 21, 2021 at 7:00 AM AKDT
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WILLOW, Alaska (KTUU) - A lot of industries scaled back production during the height of the pandemic in 2020, and are now trying to meet current demands. For Alaska peony farmers, scaling back wasn’t really an option.

Now, business is flourishing with many orders from the Lower 48 to fill.

“I suppose demand doesn’t play a big part in how we grow the flowers,” said Martha Lojewski, sales manager for the Alaska Peony Co-Operative and owner of Mt. McKinley Peonies in Willow. “Mother Nature tells us what to do with our flowers.”

Lojewski said there are nine members in the co-op from Homer to Trapper Creek. Right now, she said they are all slammed with orders and their fields are emptying out fast.

At her farm, she said she’s filling orders as big as 6,000 stems. In fact, she said that demand is so high, she’s had to purchase flowers from outside of the co-op to fill some orders. Last year, she said all the boxes of buds she sent out were much smaller.

She said a huge reason for the outcome is that many events, like weddings, were pushed off last year. With things opening back up, there’s a lot more celebrations and floral arrangements needed for them.

“So demand this year is a lot higher than I expected,” Lojewski said. “So trying to keep orders going out as fast as they’re being placed and keeping the cooler full and harvesting at the same time has been our main challenge.”

Lojewski added that the below average temperatures in the spring and much of summer had an effect on the harvest, pushing back some orders.

“Demand being really high, it pushed our season back and our buds were just a little bit smaller,” she said. “But generally our most of our customers that work with flowers know that Mother Nature is not always easy to understand or work with so they know that we have to shift back a week or sub a variety or change this or that around.”

She said Mt. McKinley Peonies is about 6 acres with about 1 acre of plants. It’s a family farm out in Willow. While many businesses face new problems with being understaffed, Lojewski said she usually has a hard time finding a few extra people to work the fields.

“We live off the grid, so convincing people to stay in a dry cabin with an outhouse with no running water is a little bit challenging,” she said.

Lojewski said she tries to pay a good wage and even feeds the people she hires every night to try and keep them coming back. This year isn’t very unique as far as staffing issues go, she said.

Further north in Two Rivers, Alaska Peony Growers Association President and owner of Boreal Peonies David Russell is having a much more difficult time in the staffing department on one of the biggest peony farms in the state with more than 16 miles of rows of flowers.

“It’s been a nightmare, quite frankly,” Russell said. “We wanted to hire 14 additional people this summer during harvest and I think we got eight.”

His is a family farm, too. Between his children, their spouses, and a few others he can usually count on up to nine people to help. In the fall, Russell said the family had been considering building a bunkhouse for people they hire because they don’t have a place for them to stay. He said Two Rivers doesn’t have many hotels for them to stay in either.

While it is a lot of work to be done, he’s having a good year. Even during the pandemic, Russell said he sold more than 85,000 stems. This year he said he’s sold about 25,000 more than they did in 2020.

However, he said it’s complicated to compare last year’s harvest with this one, because his flowers are still maturing, so they produce more flowers.

Russell said the real problem is in logistics, a problem many Alaskans who sell products to the Lower 48 can relate to.

He said the pandemic is still complicating that part of the business. On Tuesday, he had a really hard time getting flowers to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“There’s only one flight from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale a day instead of maybe three or four as historically occurs,” Russell said.

Overall, he said the season has been good and he’ll be done with his harvest in about two weeks. For people like him and Lojewski, there’s always problems in their work.

“There’s always something. This is farming,” Russell said.

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