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Q&A with an Alaskan Peony Farmer

Alaskan grown peonies growing on a farm.

Tell us a little bit about you and your farm.

My name is Dave Russell, and I own and operate Boreal family farm, located in Two Rivers, Alaska. During the school year, my wife, Jill, and I are both professors at the University of Miami Ohio. As soon as spring semester ends, we’re on a plane out to Alaska, just in time for the snow to melt. We’re here through mid-August, right around when fall semester starts up.

What first got you interested in opening a peony farm?

About ten years ago, the University of Alaska Fairbanks put out a notice that they were looking for both physiology and biology professors, which are the subjects my wife and I teach. We honeymooned in Alaska and had always wanted to go back. Initially, I wasn’t on board but my wife applied for both of us and convinced me to spend at least one year there. 

I was introduced to the idea of growing peonies in Alaska at this time. When we came back for a second year of teaching, my wife convinced me to see the farm. We found it very interesting. The challenge of growing peonies in Alaska is completely unique and the industry is only about 15 years old. 

We started by looking for 10 acres of farm, but found a woman who had 80 acres of cleared land. We ended up purchasing the southern 40 acres and became peony farms. The farm slowly got bigger over the years. We’re now the largest peony farm in Alaska and I’m the President of the Alaskan Peony Growers Organization.

How is the farm set up?

Our farm features a main production area that is home to thousands of buds. About half of the farm features pink peonies. We have an experimental area where we have 25 different varieties that are set up in eight rows of three. We test different compost, different fertilizers, and other variables. 

I also have a research plot with 250 plants that I try to kill in various ways, that way I can mess around with those plants without jeopardizing the others. We work with a variety of researchers on herbicide and insect trials as well as with Washington University for fungal trials. 

How does your team approach your research?

Growing peonies is both completely similar and completely different from the other research I’ve done. As with everything, you have to be methodical in your approach. However, there’s very little existing research since the industry is so new, so there’s a lot of trial and error.  

We’re less than 300 miles from the Arctic circle so we get around 21 1/2 hours of light, which makes for very different growing conditions, but it produces spectacular flowers. Our buds are considerably larger than other peonies and our plants are much taller.

We also have a very compressed growing season in Alaska. The ice melts around May and right at the beginning of June the flowers are starting to poke up through the ground. By the end of June they’re 40 inches tall, growing 3-4 inches a day. However, climate change is beginning to make things even more challenging.

Another challenge with growing peonies in Alaska is that it takes 4-5 years for plants to grow to maturity, where in the lower 48 you can do it in 2-3 years. We are finally getting plenty of mature plants that are producing buds now. It’s very gratifying to see it come to fruition so many years into the process. We just planted 5,000 new roots this year, and I’m hoping to do a few more trial red varieties next year.

What is your favorite part of your work?

I love the challenge of growing things. As a biologist, I did not have any previous farming experience. I also have come to love working with people in the industry, from other growers to surrounding farms. I really enjoy the teaching portion. I love talking to people about flowers. It’s not work at all. I would happily drive around and visit clients and work on better, more efficient systems to get flowers out to everybody. Both the people side of the industry and the science side have been extremely rewarding.

What is your personal favorite peony variety?

My personal favorite is Old Faithful. It’s a trial variety that we don’t sell, but it’s the most beautiful red variety on the farm. 

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