When it comes to growing peonies in Alaska, North Pole Peonies was there at the very beginning.
Ron and Marji Illingworth started with about 100 plants in 2003 and with some uncertainty about whether peonies were a viable crop in interior Alaska’s brief growing season. Seventeen years later, they have 12,000 plants, sell their blooms worldwide and are central figures in the state’s peony industry. They have been leaders in the Alaska Peony Growers Association, mentored new growers and helped with research on growing and shipping issues.
Since the Illingworths planted their first peonies, the number of growers in Alaska has grown from a handful to more than 100.
Chris Beks, the Illingworths’ son-in-law and operations manager of North Pole Peonies, says peonies were no sure thing when the farm started. Peonies take three to five years to produce marketable blooms, so it required a leap of faith to make the investment of time and money.
“People might not say it now but I think they were pretty skeptical that this was going to work,” Beks said.
The Illingworths had experience with growing vegetables at their small farm near North Pole, Alaska, just outside Fairbanks and near Eielson Air Force Base. They sold their produce at the local farmers’ market.
They were also professors at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; Ron in English and Marji in early childhood education. It was there they learned about the possibility of growing peonies.
A fellow professor, horticulturist Patricia Holloway, was doing research on growing peonies. Interactions with growers and buyers from outside Alaska made Holloway think that the state might be perfectly situated to grow peonies. The blooms were 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.
Holloway suggested that the Illingworths give peonies a try. They were among about a dozen growers involved.
Beks, a native of the Netherlands, said his in-laws thought his heritage made him a natural to grow flowers.
“They said, ‘Hey Chris, you’re Dutch, you know about growing flowers,’” he said. “Almost everybody in the Netherlands has a brother, cousin, uncle or somebody that works in the flower industry. But I had never done it myself.”
Beks and his wife, Elizabeth, soon got onboard and became partners in the business. It’s their second job – Chris is an instructional design specialist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; Elizabeth is a science teacher in the local schools.
It took until 2009 for it to be clear that peonies were a go.
“That’s was when the (floral) designers said, ‘Wow, these peonies, they’re great. Have you got more?’” he said. “That was when we realized we had something really unique here.”
The Illingworths dropped the vegetables that they had continued to grow and focused completely on peonies. The farm grew as it added more peonies every season. With 12,000 plants now, Beks said the focus is now on quality rather than quantity.
“We’re focused on growing at the top end and have our plants grow the biggest and best possible,” he said.
Beks said the farm has been a longtime supporter of the American Grown label. North Pole Peonies had the Certified American Grown label as part of a growers’ co-op and it recently received individual certification.
“We’re proud to be growing flowers in the United States,” he said. “The U.S. flower industry is making a comeback, slowly but surely. Even though we only grow flowers a few months out of the year, we want to show that this is how we should do it and not rely on imports.”