Alaska Peony Growers – on left: Rita Jo Shoultz, peony grower/owner of “Alaska Perfect Peony” farm
By Colleen Zacharias, Master Gardener
In June I was invited to participate in a Canada nursery inbound trade mission to Alaska, Washington State, and Hawaii. This agricultural trade mission was sponsored by the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association with the goal to promote agricultural trade between the U.S. and Canada.
The Canadian group consisted of nursery owners and florists from Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, and British Columbia, myself, and representatives from grocery chains whose businesses include garden centres and floristry departments. I was the only writer on the trip and signed a contract to write a series of articles. Our visit, beginning in late July, to the three states involved a total of 12 flights and dozens of visits to tree farms, peony farms, native plant nurseries, protea and anthurium farms, tropical foliage nurseries, and orchards. In addition to on-site visits, we also attended presentations (including a wedding workshop) and met with individual growers.
What struck me most about the bird’s eye-view of the agriculture and horticulture industries in each of the three states was the extraordinary working relationship that growers and farmers have with university researchers, scientists, and breeders. University plant breeders create new and improved cultivars and rootstocks that help to give growers and the industries as a whole a competitive edge in the global marketplace. As well, growers in each of the three states have access to numerous resources from scientific research on growing methods and technologies to soil and water tests and solutions to managing pest and disease problems.
Each of these states has a unique land grant university system. The Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant universities which have a federal government-mandated extension (outreach) responsibility. My trip provided an opportunity to see this outreach in action.
The birth of the peony industry in Alaska can be directly attributed to the research by Patricia Holloway, Professor Emerita of Horticulture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It’s worth noting that prior to the emergence of a peony industry, Alaska had no horticultural exports of any kind. Holloway says that growers and researchers were unaware of the unique bloom time of peonies until early trials showed that Lactiflora and Herbaceous hybrids did not bloom until July and August. “In the Alaskan cool southern coastal regions, bloom season extended into late September,” says Holloway. The possibilities were enormous.
In 2001, the first research plots were planted at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. The promising results led Holloway to reach out to four growers to plant trial gardens on their properties. One of those growers is Rita Jo Shoultz who today owns a thriving peony business, Alaska Perfect Peony. Her peony farm is located in picturesque Homer and through her efforts, Homer has been officially named, City of Peonies. Shoultz is a pioneer and recognized leader in the Alaska peony industry which today counts 136 peony farms.
I met peony growers who formerly worked in Alaska’s oil and gas industry or in fisheries and tourism. One peony farmer told me that she only learned what a peony was when someone asked her if she would consider growing peonies on her land; another peony grower told how she registered in the Alaska Master Gardener program to learn how to grow plants.
There are individual peony farmers whose operations have their own coolers, pack-houses, and distribution systems but also peony farmers who are members of co-operatives that provide access to shared facilities. By registering in the Alaska Grown program that is offered by the Alaska State Department of Agriculture, peony farmers are visited regularly by government soil scientists and water quality specialists who test their soil and water and assist the farmers in making the necessary amendments (soil type varies across the state but also, Alaskans are very environmentally focused and have zero tolerance for water contamination).
The success of the Alaska peony industry has been nothing short of meteoric. Johanna Herron, Department of Agriculture, Alaska predicts that in five years, the peony industry will export 1.5 million cut flower peonies. Challenges do exist. A significant problem, for example, is Botrytis gray mold diseases. A changing climate, too, is having significant impact. In 2019, peony farmers grappled with record-setting heat and drought and extreme wildfires.
The visits to Washington and Hawaii were no less fascinating but I definitely left my heart in Alaska – I will never forget the incredible landscape or the amazing people. I would be very happy to live in Homer, Alaska and become a peony farmer (although my husband says it’s not happening)!
Let’s go now to Washington where farmers produce over 300 different commodities: apples, nectarines, blueberries, cherries, raspberries, grapes, pears, apricots, Christmas trees, hops, aquaculture, etc. Apples are Washington’s top crop, representing 20 percent of the total value of agriculture production in the state.
Washington State University is a land grant university with an agricultural focus. Researchers and breeders at WSU work closely with growers to develop new cultivars and rootstocks that are selected for desired characteristics, cold hardiness, and disease resistance. Not only does Washington State University have breeding programs that support the ag and hort industries to assist them to become more competitive in the global marketplace, it also has a profit-sharing agreement when new cultivars are released. The revenues from the sale of new cultivars help to support more plant breeding and scientific research on disease-resistant crops, etc.
A prime example is the new ‘Cosmic Crisp’ apple which was developed by Washington State University and released on December 1st, 2019. This new apple has been 20 years in the making. Taste trials were conducted in locations around the world. ‘Cosmic Crisp’ combines both tart and sweet flavours and has been bred to have incredible storage characteristics: up to 12 months in a refrigerator without any discernible differences in taste.
I’m looking forward to trying ‘Cosmic Crisp’, but no doubt, there will be many Canadian growers who will be interested in growing ‘Cosmic Crisp’. This new variety, though, can only be exclusively grown in Washington State until such time as Washington State University decides it can be grown elsewhere.
I was intrigued to learn about the Washington State University Clean Plant Center whose primary goal is to prevent harmful pests and diseases from entering the state via infected plant material. Blueberry scorch virus, for example, is a serious disease in the Pacific Northwest. Washington State is the first state to develop a program that certifies virus-free blueberry plant stock. This extends to all fruit stock. The program runs in connection with Washington State University and Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA).
WSDA runs a fruit certification program where it does bioindexing (plants are grafted onto indicator root stocks and if they have any viruses, the symptoms will show up in the foliage). There are 16 growers in the state who produce vast numbers of fruit trees from this program that are virus-certified; the growers also produce mother trees that provide propagation material. This unique relationship means that millions of virus certified fruit trees are produced annually and made available to orchardists across the US and Canada. WSDA certified planting stock meets the import requirements of Canada.
What’s becoming normal, one nursery grower told me, is the movement of plant material from around the world. New pathogens are found every year which can pose a serious threat. Washington State, therefore, has very strict controls on the import of plant material from other states — all plant material that comes into the state is subject to rigorous testing so as to prevent new pests and diseases from establishing.
Strict quarantine enforcement and inspections prevent the introduction of exotic insects such as Spotted Lantern Fly, Japanese Beetle, and Citrus Longhorn Beetle. There is also quarantine enforcement for plant diseases: inspections monitor for diseases like Phytophthora ramorum (Sudden Oak Death).
I also learned that Emerald Ash Borer is not yet in Washington State, however, monitoring and a program to educate the public to identify EAB is in place.
Again, what stood out for me is the collaboration by the Washington State Department of Agriculture and Washington State University to eradicate exotic insects and diseases in nurseries. But in addition, it was fascinating to learn that Washington State growers have genuine envy and admiration for Canada’s clean plant network and the decision by the federal government in April 2018 to invest almost $80 million dollars in redeveloping Canada’s clean plant centres. In contrast, admitted one grower, the USDA gives only a fraction of that amount to the national clean plant network.
In Washington, I was struck – impressed and even moved, actually — by the importance placed on the use of native plants. Native plants are widely used by municipalities, tribes, the Washington Department of Transportation, non-profit organizations; etc, to restore and sustain ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest. Many of the tribes are very proactive about restoration projects to reduce stream bank erosion — the Nooksack Native American tribe, for example, uses native plants along creeks to improve the water quality of the Nooksack River with a goal to restore salmon habitat. In addition, native plants are in high demand by cities, counties, conservation districts, and homeowners throughout WA State. Native plants are held in such high regard that one nursery owner told me that homeowners’ recognize that their use increases property values.
Evergreen huckleberry and salal are very popular for use in the florist trade; during the holiday season when Manitobans go to garden centres, we often snap up fresh stems of Evergreen Huckleberry or order floral arrangements with fresh salal greenery. Our group visited nurseries in Washington with rows upon rows of both of these plants which are native to the region. Salal, which is used year-round by florists, forms a thick groundcover in the wild where native Douglas fir grow and acts as a soil binder.
In the next issue, I’ll talk about Hawaii — truly an experience all its own.