Martha Lojewski looked out over nearly an acre of peonies at her farm just north of Willow, Mt. McKinley Peonies. Thousands of round, green buds stood between 3 and 4 feet tall, and that’s a problem.
“It’s cold, wet, gray, miserable,” Lojewski said. “To be three weeks later than last year is not something that anybody ever predicted for this year. We thought maybe 10 to 14 days later, but not 21.”
In a typical year, the field is filled with Elsa Sass peony flowers, not rounded bulbs that have yet to bloom.
Lojewski manages sales for the Alaska Peony Cooperative, a group of six farms that ship and sell about 50,000 stems per year. In a typical season, the first harvested blooms would be used in weddings by early July. But the first order shipped just this week, far behind schedule.
“Even until like May, I was booking orders to ship on July 5, and then it just stayed cold, it stayed wet,” Lojewski said. “Our plants were just not maturing, they weren’t coming out of the ground. We had a late snow melt. Of course, we had lots of snow this winter, so it’s just like one factor after another was compounding on the delayed start to the season.”
Lojewski is not alone. For Southcentral Alaska, cold and wet weather has put a damper on the start to summer, which is the region’s coldest since 2008. Lojewski said that Alaska Peony Cooperative farms only began harvesting last week, three weeks behind schedule. One member of the co-op had to get flowers from Fairbanks to fill an order. She said that means tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue already this summer.
Lojewski’s neighbor and co-op member Kathleen Wood said her plants are also weeks behind schedule.
“My plants are looking healthy and wonderful. They’re just not ready yet. So unfortunately, we’re just disappointing a lot of brides,” Wood said. “That’s just crazy, because I usually start towards the end of June on my early variety.”
Wood said that the extra precipitation has changed the color on some of her flowers, adding a pink blush to petals that are typically white. Alaska has about 200 commercial peony growers, many of which started producing about a dozen years ago.
Michael Williams and his wife own Eaglesong Lodge near Skwentna. They started growing peonies in 2009 after invasive northern pike knocked out the salmon population near the lodge, where they would guide fishing trips.
“Alaska has so many microclimates that are conducive to peonies, and basically that’s how the industry has started and that’s how we have progressed,” Williams said.
The long summer days and cold winter temperatures in the state make Alaskans the only farmers in the world that can produce fresh peonies during the summer months.
Peony farms in Holland typically quit producing in July.
But Williams said this year is different. He’s had to cancel the first two weeks of orders, most of which were headed to the Lower 48.
“We can only handle the weather, oh, I don’t know, maybe another couple of weeks. And we’re in uncharted territory right now, we’ve not had such a late season before,” Williams said. “We’re hoping we’re not going to get cheated out of our summer. We endured that winter to get to this point and it seems like summer hasn’t arrived yet.”
Peony farmers in Interior Alaska are faring better though. And some Southcentral growers have reached out to Interior farmers to help fill their orders. Dave Russell and his wife started Boreal Peonies in Two Rivers in 2012, and have become the largest producer in the state, producing approximately 100,000 stems each year.
“We’re now basically the only player in the game until New Zealand starts and Chile starts in October. And so this year, the window, we’ve hit the window perfectly,” Russell said. “Our flowers are recognizable anywhere just because they’re big, and they’re intensely colored, and I think that’s, you know, due to the short, intense spring and summer that they’re grown in.”
Russell said that temperatures on sunny days have stayed around 70 degrees, just cool enough not to overheat his flowers. He said the weather in the Interior has actually helped his plants grow bigger and brighter than ever before. Russell thinks that, ultimately, the weather will benefit Southcentral peony producers later in the season.
“By mid to late July, there is nothing available except what comes out of Alaska,” Russell said. “And so if it’s cooler, which it is down there — I know they’re two to three weeks behind this year — it’s absolutely in their best interest, because there is no other competition that’s out and about at that point.”
Russell said that in recent years, soot from nearby wildfires has plagued his flowers with fungus and mold. Last year, Russell said he lost over a quarter of his plants during a hail storm.
“If I’ve learned nothing else in farming up here, no year is average,” Russell said.