Alaskan Peonies: Lessons from the Frontier State on a Blossoming Industry
In the land of the midnight sun, crops grow big and fast. The extended days of summer daylight make Alaska one of the most impressive—and for many, unexpected—horticultural states. One-hundred pound cabbages, carriage-sized pumpkins, and huge-blossomed flowers take stage at the state fair every year.
But Alaska’s isolated location and small population limit the markets for these products. “You can only sell so many tomatoes,” says Dr. Patricia Holloway, a horticulturist recently retired from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).
Holloway spent her career at UAF researching potential Alaskan crops for small farmers, and her research led to the state’s first ever successful horticultural export: peonies. According to theAlaska Peony Growers Association, the number of peony farms in the state went from zero in 2004 to more than 200 in 2014. The flower even drew the attention of the state’s legislature last year in a vote that declared July officially “‘Alaska Peony Month.”
If you ask Dr. Holloway how the peony boom began, she’ll probably tell you that it was accidental. She’s being modest. The new industry is the result of years of experimenting, networking with other researchers and experts, and talking with farmers. It’s an illustration of the integrative research and extension work that Holloway devoted her career to.
“Fifteen years ago,” she says, “all I knew about peonies was that they were my favorite flower in the garden.” That changed after Holloway mentioned her garden peonies at a conference; when she noted that peonies in Alaska bloom in July and August she caught the ear of an Oregon flower grower, who explained to Holloway that the flower’s growing season extends from April to July in the Northern Hemisphere (Holland) and September to January in the Southern Hemisphere (New Zealand and South America). If peonies could be grown as a field crop in Alaska, Holloway learned, the flower could fill a niche—one that happens to coincide with peak wedding season in the continental United States.
Holloway knew that peony bushes grew beautifully in Alaskan gardens—but could the flowers be grown as a viable export crop? She wrote a grant to set up a demonstration plot at UAF’sGeorgeson Botanical Garden. When that came through, in 2001, she planted the first experimental field of Alaskan peonies. She spent ten years experimenting with different varieties, growing methods, and disease and rot prevention and—through her experimentation and collaboration with experts and researchers around the world—found several varieties that grew well in the field and established basic growing guidelines for Alaskan growers.
“Two years into the project a guy from London called and wanted 2,000 peony stems a week,” Holloway says. “He confirmed that the market existed.”
The strategy—demonstrate, then educate—was not new for Holloway. She spent her career looking at potential horticulture crops and markets for Alaskan producers. Much of her work focused on Alaskan wild berry cultivation and value-added products, like jams and preserves. “My job at the experiment station was to find out what we could grow and how we could grow it so that a small farmer in Alaska could do it and make a little bit of money,” she says. Her research always began with the farmer in mind. “If there’s not a need, growers aren’t going to waste their time,” she says.
Holloway’s philosophy reaches back to the beginnings of agricultural extension, to the work ofSeaman A. Knapp. In 1886, Knapp, who is known as the father of extension, moved to Louisiana where he began using methods of demonstration to help cotton farmers fight boll weevil infestations. The success of his first demonstration plot earned Knapp the support of the USDA. Soon, he was leading a team of the first extension agents throughout the south to set up similar demonstration plots in concert with local farmers. In a 1907 speech, Knapp explained his method. “Can agricultural conditions be changed by simply talking? No. By demonstration? Yes.”
Knapp recognized that even methods shown to work in the fields wouldn’t be taken up without a strong relationship with the farming community. He advised his agents not only in growing methods, but also public relations. “Never put on airs,” he said. “Be a plain man, with an abundance of good practical sense. Put your arguments in a sensible, practical way.”
More than one hundred years later, Holloway echoes this strategy. After you’ve demonstrated the work, she says, “you learn to be creative in how to get your message across without being disrespectful.”
Holloway treats local farmers as colleagues, not students. These strong relationships helped catalyzed the peony business in Alaska. Rita Jo Shoultz, owner of one of the state’s largest peony farms, Alaska Perfect Peony, explained how she got started with the flower: “Pat is a good friend of mine. We were having lunch one day and she said ‘I think you should give [peonies] a try.’ I already had a greenhouse business and I was selling 500 varieties of trees, shrubs, and roses. She knew I already knew how to grow. I said sure, why not, and put 3,500 peonies out, thinking I’d just experiment with them.” Nine years later, Shoultz has 15,000 peony bushes in her fields. Her trust in Holloway led to the complete transformation of her business from a local nursery to a peony farm that ships buds all over the world.
The enthusiasm is catching. With new peony farms popping up throughout the state, growers decided to get together and found the Alaska Peony Growers Association, the first farmer-organized association in Alaska. Each year, the group holds a conference to share information and resources with new and potential growers. Holloway continues to collaborate with farmers. “It’s great fun,” she says. “We have growers all over the place. My hat is off to everybody who has taken the challenge. The growers are the real heroes.”
Holloway stresses that the peony movement is an example of how university research and extension services can serve local farmers. “It matters that it’s local and that there’s one-on-one trust,” she says. She worries that the underpinnings of agricultural extension—the opportunity for demonstration and researcher-farmer interaction, which were pioneered by Knapp—are being lost with the advent of virtual services. For Holloway, the beauty of agricultural extension is the opportunity to pursue research and programming that serves the local community. “Where else,” she asks, “Can you take a course on canning walrus meat?” In the place-based pursuit of agriculture, local knowledge is invaluable. Without it, the peony boom would have never begun.
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Why We Desperately Need To Bring Back Vocational Training In Schools
Nicholas Wyman ,CONTRIBUTOR
Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
It is true that earnings studies show college graduates earn more over a lifetime than high school graduates. However, these studies have some weaknesses. For example, over 53% of recent college graduates are unemployed or under-employed. And income for college graduates varies widely by major – philosophy graduates don’t nearly earn what business studies graduates do. Finally, earnings studies compare college graduates to all high school graduates. But the subset of high school students who graduate with vocational training – those who go into well-paying, skilled jobs – the picture for non-college graduates looks much rosier.
Yet despite the growing evidence that four-year college programs serve fewer and fewer of our students, states continue to cut vocational programs. In 2013, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District, with more than 600,000 students, made plans to cut almost all of its CTE programs by the end of the year. The justification, of course, is budgetary; these programs (which include auto body technology, aviation maintenance, audio production, real estate and photography) are expensive to operate. But in a situation where 70% of high school students do not go to college, nearly half of those who do go fail to graduate, and over half of the graduates are unemployed or underemployed, is vocational education really expendable? Or is it the smartest investment we could make in our children, our businesses, and our country’s economic future?
The U.S. economy has changed. The manufacturing sector is growing and modernizing, creating a wealth of challenging, well-paying, highly skilled jobs for those with the skills to do them. The demise of vocational education at the high school level has bred a skills shortage in manufacturing today, and with it a wealth of career opportunities for both under-employed college grads and high school students looking for direct pathways to interesting, lucrative careers. Many of the jobs in manufacturing are attainable through apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and vocational programs offered at community colleges. They don’t require expensive, four-year degrees for which many students are not suited.
And contrary to what many parents believe, students who get job specific skills in high school and choose vocational careers often go on to get additional education. The modern workplace favors those with solid, transferable skills who are open to continued learning. Most young people today will have many jobs over the course of their lifetime, and a good number will have multiple careers that require new and more sophisticated skills.
Just a few decades ago, our public education system provided able opportunities for young people to learn about careers in manufacturing and other vocational trades. Yet, today, high-schoolers hear barely a whisper about the many doors that the vocational education path can open. The “college-for-everyone” mentality has pushed awareness of other possible career paths to the margins. The cost to the individuals and the economy as a whole is high. If we want everyone’s kid to succeed, we need to bring vocational education back to the core of high school learning.
Monday, June 15, 2015 12:04 am in the Newsminer
Bryce Wrigley President, Alaska Farm Bureau, Inc. Soldotna
Letter to the editor
June 11, 2015
To the editor: It is with great disappointment and concern I learn that the participants of the budget conference have deemed the Division of Agriculture “unnecessary.” With a conference titled “Building a Sustainable Future,” agriculture should be of high importance. Alaska imports more than 95 percent of its food. For being such an independent state, we are dependent on reliable shipping, good weather and the rest of the country to feed ourselves. With the issues affecting agriculture in the Lower 48, we need to be thinking more local. We’ve all heard about the serious drought California is experiencing, many other states are dealing with water rights issues and millions of laying hens have been killed by avian flu. All of these have an effect on the agriculture industry in the Lower 48, which affects the food supply shipped to Alaska. Having a strong agriculture industry is necessary to building a sustainable future for Alaskans. Having the programs and services provided by the Division of Agriculture is necessary to continue to expand this growing industry.
The Division of Agriculture already operates on a small budget to provide necessary services that not only assist local farmers to expand, but also ensure the health of products in Alaska and allow for exportation. It provides the phytosanitary certification for timber and peonies to be exported worldwide. It maintains clean seed potato to keep risk of disease minimal. It registers honey bees to be able to react quickly if there are any reports of foulbrood or other outbreaks.
Some might say other states have a large agriculture industry and it’s so small in Alaska. But other states place a much higher importance on their agriculture industry. Perhaps the two go hand in hand. To build a sustainable future for Alaska, agriculture needs to be deemed incredibly “necessary.”
Take a Look at Food Security In The United States
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Jane Eiseman dedicated teacher and FFA advisor at Kodiak High School is recognized for her great contributions to the teaching profession and her passion for educating students about FFA and Alaska’s natural resources. Thanks Jane for your many years of service to Alaska’s youth. Enjoy your retirement!
Take a look at the advantages of having Agriculture & Natural Resource Education in your school. Click the link above.
A GROWING COMMUNITY
New state FFA adviser to increase agricultural education
Kevin Fochs is the new state advisor for FFA, a program housed within the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Cooperative Extension Service. Fochs accepted the position and his post at the Palmer Experiment Farm in December after 32 years of teaching agricultural and technical education at the high school level in Montana. He has received numerous awards from the National Association of Agricultural Educators and the Teacher of Teachers Bronze Award, among others, from the National Vocational Agricultural Teachers’ Association.
Posted on Feb 5, 2015
by Caitlin Skvorc
PALMER — After 32 years of teaching high school students all they need to know and more about agriculture in Montana, Kevin Fochs has seen too many successes to ignore. Fochs, the new Alaska FFA Adviser, grew up on a ranch in Shawmut, Montana, involved in 4-H and FFA, formerly known as the Future Farmers of America.
“I think a lot of people have the opinion that…when you say ‘agriculture,’ you’re just talking about farmers and ranchers,” Fochs said, “(but) that’s not a true picture of what agriculture is.”
In fact, “it really falls under career and technical education,” he said.
As a high school teacher in Montana, Fochs taught animal science, plant science, veterinary science, horticulture, mechanics — including courses involving welding, carpentry and electricity — and leadership — including courses on sales, public speaking, marketing and parliamentary procedure.
At that school, Fochs’ classes followed a national “three-circle model” of agricultural education. The first circle represents classroom and laboratory instruction, the second supervised agricultural experience programs, or SAE, and the third student leadership organizations, such as FFA.
When Fochs moved to Alaska in December — his first time in Southcentral — he was surprised to see so little emphasis on agriculture in schools around the state.
“I see young kids begging for education in that area,” he said. “There’s a large homeschool population that’s doing specific training in agriculture right now and are involved in FFA.”
Fochs mentioned the idea for Arkose Ridge Leadership Academy, a potential charter school which was championed by some 60 parents, students and teachers present at a recent Mat-Su Borough School Board meeting. According to the partnership presenting the academy, hands-on agricultural and environmental education would be central to the school. Though Fochs said he had not heard anything about the potential school aside from what was said at the meeting, he noted the significant community support there as indication of the both the interest and apparent lack of agricultural education opportunities in the Valley.
Fochs said he hopes to create some of those opportunities, for several reasons.
In the Montana high school classes he taught, Fochs had a variety of students, from valedictorians to once near-dropouts. At each end of the spectrum, agricultural education brought students an appreciation of, essentially, their backyard, and taught them how to use what grew around them naturally to live more sustainably, he said.
However, for a particular demographic, “ag ed” had added benefits.
“It was also an avenue for kids who struggled maybe in the (core) academic areas to keep them in school,” Fochs said.
That’s why he believes incorporating the three-circle model into Alaska schools will bring so much to Alaska.
And that means all three circles, not just one.
“Some schools are just doing the FFA component, and they’re treating it like an after school club, which it really isn’t. It should be part of the curriculum,” he said.
Part of the reason for this is to show students what really goes into a successful agriculture operation.
Fochs used the booming Alaska peony industry as an example.
“People are wanting to learn about it and wanting to learn how to do it because there’s some money in the industry, but they’re struggling,” he said.
Fochs said it’s probably because people think growing peonies is simply a matter of buying seeds, planting and harvesting. In reality, a peony farmer needs to know what soil they can plant in, what varieties they can plant, how to check for disease or what to do if a crop becomes diseased, where they can buy or rent farming equipment and fertilizer and who can package and market their product.
There are jobs in the industry, Fochs said — research scientists, equipment providers, marketing agencies — but Alaska needs people to take those jobs, and to be prepared to do so.
“I’m not saying that a student could’ve graduated out of my high school program and been a research scientist, but they would have enough background…(for) a career path that…would help that industry meet the needs in their shortages,” Fochs said.
But peony farming is not the only, nor the most sustainable, aspect of Alaska’s current and potential agricultural industry. Increasing fruit, vegetable and livestock production would bring enormous benefits to Alaska’s economy, he said.
“It’s like a three-legged stool” between government, oil and other resources, he said — if one leg goes down, the whole thing collapses, along with whoever’s sitting on top.
(To read more about this concept, visit alaskaseconomy.org.)
“(Alaska’s) dependency on (the) oil and gas industry is huge,” Fochs said. “Whatever we can do to broaden our economy so it’s not so dependent on one industry I think is good for the state of Alaska.”
Contact Caitlin Skvorc at 352-2266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farming the Tundra