Polar Peonies, LLC is the oldest commercial peony farm in Alaska - started as a bud of an idea in 2001 while Jan Hanscom was working at the
Georgeson Botanical Garden on peony research. Since she and her husband, Dick,
live on a steep hillside, she called her long time friends, Carolyn and Greg Chapin
and pitched one of the most unlikely crops for Alaska . . . peonies.
Jan, Carolyn and
Greg come from agricultural backgrounds, while Dick helps out any way he can - he is learning lots about Alaska peony farming . . .
Jan's family farmed in Maine where she spent her youth learning to
drive tractors and grow potatoes. She and Dick got married right out of college
and headed to Alaska “for just a couple years”. 30 years later, Jan retired
from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Agricultural and Experiment
Station after working as a research technician in Marine science (the tendency
to sea sickness quickly put an end to that career path), Agronomy and
Horticulture. Jan also completed her Alaska teaching certification and has
worked as a volunteer teaching youth about gardening both as a 4-H leader and as
part of her job at the Georgeson Botanical Garden. Dick does not have a farming
background but he dives in and helps at the farm in any way he can.
Carolyn's grandparents were dairy, beef and crop
farmers in Montana. She came to Alaska with her
parents as a young child, and spent her formative years chasing calves and
playing in the mud. In high school and college, Carolyn was active in FFA -
mainly dairy and horticulture. She continued her agricultural studies in Alaska with UAF's Natural Resources
Management undergraduate degree program. Then, it was off to Michigan
State U for graduate studies in Agriculture and Extension Education before
returning to farm in Alaska. She is currently working on a Ph.D. at UAF focusing on cut flower marketing. Greg
worked in dairy and commercial turkey farms in Minnesota before he headed to
Alaska after high school. He has the mechanical background to keep the old farming
equipment up and running.
So, back to peonies
. . . Cold, wet, northwest facing permafrost soils are
not (and should not be) the first choice for prime agriculture land,
but it's what Greg and Carolyn already owned. The land Jan and Dick owned was
even worse! So…. In Fall 2001, we cleared the black spruce forest to carve
out a field. By pushing tree berm piles along perimeter of the field, we hoped
for some deterrent for wandering moose (they don’t eat the peonies but they can
destroy IRT/drip tape and damage roots by stepping on them)
In spring 2002, we started work
on the fields (this is an ongoing, never ending process). We planted 20
assorted peony varieties as a test row, and then add a few more in 2003, and a
few more in 2004. Each year, working the soil - to help warm, dry and enrich
what we had. Finally, in Spring 2005, we took the plunge and planted 2,000 more
Since then we have struggled with poor soils, bad drainage, and cold soils. We have added high tunnels and had some success by moving plants. Our field is a continuing experiment on growing on permafrost. A struggle to be sure, but WHAT FUN!
Visitors are always welcome,
especially if you can weed - give us a call and we'll give you a tour.