Steve and Dawn Brefczynski got an unexpected dividend from their son’s college education: the family’s own peony farm.
Brandon was attending the University of Alaska when he learned about the state’s burgeoning peony growing business through a roommate’s thesis on the topic. He suggested to his parents that they start growing peonies on the five acres where they live outside Fairbanks, Alaska.
“He said, ‘Hey, we should grow those,’” Steve said. “I said, ‘OK, we can put in a hundred or so.’ He said, ‘Oh no Dad, go big or go home.’”
They took their son’s advice in 2012 and went big. Or at least as big as two people can handle. They now have 3,000 peony plants around their home and on an adjacent five acres they recently bought. They started with about 1,000 plants and then added another 2,000 after clearing the property next door.
They call their Certified American Grown farm Denali Peonies. Their first harvest in 2016 yielded 1,250 stems, followed by 2,500 the next and 4,500 last year. This year, they’re expecting to harvest 8,000 stems.
It’s their first venture in commercial agriculture. Their only growing experience was the vegetable gardens they’ve tended in Alaska and in their home state of Wisconsin, from where they moved 25 years ago. They’ve also done it while working other jobs: Steve does carpentry and tile work and has a saw-sharpening business; Dawn is an ICU nurse at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.
They’re now firmly a part of the burgeoning Alaskan peony business that their son’s roommate was writing about.
Here’s a thumbnail version: In the early 2000s, a pilot project by University of Alaska horticulturist Patricia Holloway found that the flowers thrived in the state’s long summer days. What made Alaska peonies a viable cash crop was that they are ready for harvest in July and August, a time when the rest of the world’s annual supply of peonies had been picked and sold.
It also coincided with the summer wedding season, which the big, showy blooms seem tailor-made for. And the flowers are relatively lightweight and perfect for export via air. Alaskan peonies have been an amazing success story: The state went from a handful of growers in 2004 to more than a hundred today.
The Brefczynskis learned how to grow peonies through classes offered by the Alaska Peony Growers Association. They attended the group’s conferences and took part in farm tours. They’ve also gotten help from Carolyn Chapin, the owner of Polar Peonies and one the state’s first peony growers, who has offered valuable advice.
The other part of the Brefczynskis’ successful equation is hard work.
“You don’t realize how labor intensive it is to get started,” Steve said. “Every plant has to have hole drilled for it into the ground. And everything has to be mounded, so you have to figure out how you’re going to make these mounds that are a hundred feet long. And after the plants are in, you have to put in the irrigation.”
And then there’s selling the flowers.
“To be honest, the growing and the picking are the easy part,” Dawn said. “Marketing and the business end are the hardest part.”
They plan to step up their internet marketing this season and do more of their own shipping. They just launched a new website in April (denalipeoniesak.com).
But Denali Peonies isn’t all business. There’s a family component, too.
“We enjoy our peony farm as it has brought our family closer together to do activities,” the Brefczynskis say on their website. “Our three children, eight grandchildren and sisters have all helped with the peony farm, whether it’s weeding, picking or preparing the flowers for shipping. It’s been a joy to have them all help to get our farm up and going.”