Alaska Beauty Peony Co-Op, A Fresh Cut Look into Value-Added Opportunities

By Sandra Yerges, University of Minnesota Crookston

Allison Gaylord taken by Clear Sky Images

The delicate nature of peony flowers requires an abundance of care well-suited for the dozen Alaskan farmers that make up Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op. Allison Gaylord, a founding member of the Alaska Beauty Peony Cooperative and Board Chair, has a deep-rooted passion for gardening and farming that stems from her childhood.

Her passion for organic gardening began as a child on the outskirts of New York City where she gradually dug up the lawn surrounding her family’s suburban home while planting strawberries and vegetables. Her interest in gardening and agriculture was further inspired through her travels, education, and work in environmental planning and research, eventually settling in Homer, Alaska. Allison has had years of experience that she draws upon in her current role today.

Adding to the breathtaking views of Alaska, the peony fields harvested by the farmers within the co-op have created local agritourism opportunities while tapping into a niche market for fresh cut summer peonies across the United States. According to Allison, the Alaska peony season is well timed for harvesting fresh cut peony stems from July through early September. With the demand for the prized flowers being non-stop, the farmer’s co-op markets and distributes Alaska peonies to customers who wish to have them for special events or simply to enjoy in their homes.

The varied terrain of Homer and the surrounding region allows the farmer’s co-op to keep up with orders through an extended season. Early blooms emerge from high tunnel greenhouses producing the season’s first coveted stems in June. This is followed by the harvest of low elevation farms and gradually extends into the higher elevations, often into late August.

As a perennial plant that can live for over a century, the flowers flourish in the ground for a considerable amount of time. In addition, the annual growth rate of this flower is tremendous during the long summer days of Alaska’s midnight sun. According to Allison, there was a study completed by a research farm in Fairbanks which tracked eight centimeters of stem growth due to cellular elongation in 24 hours. “It’s kind of hard to imagine they grow that fast,” she admitted.

Because of the swift annual growth of these plants, the spring season is known to be a busy time for the peony farmers of Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op. “As soon as the snow retreats, the stems are jumping out of the ground,” Allison explained. The timing of this snow melt varies from year to year and is also dependent on elevation. The retreat of the snowpack in the higher elevations is typically a month later than the lower elevation farms which staggers the emergence of the annual stems for this herbaceous perennial.

Once the flowers reach the mature bud stage, it is all hands on deck for the farms to keep up with the laborious undertaking of cutting, processing, and grading for delivery to the central pack house. Allison recalled that this past year, she spent 16 hours every day out in the field for a span of 12 days. With the help of other workers, she was able to harvest 28,000 peonies in that short time frame. Every year once the flowers are harvested, they are rapidly placed in cold storage to remove field heat and hold in stasis for up to a month before shipping. Holding the stems in cold storage allows the farmer’s co-op to extend the shipping season. Distributing as mature buds prevents bruising during shipping and provides the best opportunity for maximizing vase life.

Between all of the growers in this co-op, there is a broad range of sustainably grown peony varieties cultivated with minimal use of USDA National Organic Program (NOP) approved fungicides. One of the most well-known peony varieties, named after the flamboyant French film star, Sarah Bernhardt, is a pink peony with a thick, double petal pattern. Allison referred to this variety as the “red delicious of the peony” as it is not only robust in the field, but holds well through the distribution chain as a fresh cut flower. In general, the denser double petal form varieties are better suited for shipping in a box.

Not all of the 40 flower varieties cultivated by the co-op farms are suited for wholesale distribution from Alaska to the Lower 48. Many of the single and semi-double flower types simply do not ship well in a box. However, they are appropriate for local markets or dehydration.

This attention to shipment has always been on this company’s mind, but the destination of their products have expanded throughout the past few years. Up until 2019, all of the orders the Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op shipped were to customers out of state. Now, as the company has realized that there is risk involved in shipping far distances, they have been actively expanding their in-state market. This new local focus in addition to the traditional customers has been advantageous for the group of growers. Securing a diversity of markets has allowed the business to grow through the challenges of the pandemic and distributing from Alaska.

“Farming in Alaska is a bit challenging,” Allison admitted as she explained the cost of obtaining supplies from other states. Not only is the price of freight increasing, but there are also large expenses that come along with labor and fertilizer being shipped into the state. With the perishable nature of fresh cut flowers creating a compounding concern in the shipping process, it gives the farmers peace of mind knowing that many of the orders are traveling short distances within Alaska.

Over time, this company has seen a broad shift in the individuals with whom they do business. Before the pandemic, the company primarily focused on a small group of florists and distributors. However, in 2020, the company greatly expanded their consumer base to include over 600 smaller retail buyers while also shrinking the size of the orders they offered. This placed them in a business position that has continued to work well into 2022.

These Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op consumers will soon be able to choose from fresh cut peonies as well as dried flower products. Among these products, the co-op has found that many of the more fragile single petal form peony varieties dry nicely. To appeal to visitors during the region’s annual Peony Celebration, the farmer’s co-op aspires to offer additional value-added products. Homer is officially known as the “City of Peonies,” and the farmer’s co-op is working to promote their swag, such as calendars, artwork, and bags, during the Peony Celebration in July. “There are a lot of folks that are pretty crazy about peonies out there,” Allison stated.

Alaska Peonies most common cultivar Sarah Bernhardt with backdrop of snow capped mountains by Vikki Jones.

Because the off-season of peony farming leaves the company time to market new products, they have been assessing the potential for the new flower products they could provide. With a vision of expanding the value-added products available to their customers with the plethora of peony types they offer, the farmers of this co-op looked to the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) to start the process. Andrew Crow, Executive Director of the University of Alaska Cooperative Business Development Center, knew of the grant’s success from working with Seattle Wholesale Cut Flower Growers Cooperative. After following his advice to look into this funding opportunity, the Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op successfully secured a planning grant to develop a feasibility study and update their business plan.

To explore their future value-added product options, the grant funds have allowed the company to work on a feasibility study. Their primary objective is to make a return on investment with the products they sell to offset the operating expenses of the cooperative. Whether it is dehydrated peony products or extractions such as distilled hydrosols, there are many possibilities for this group of farmers. “If this is going to be a sustainable industry moving forward, I feel pretty strongly that we must figure out some value-added product that makes sense,” Allison noted.

As a board operated business, everyday tasks can be time consuming for the volunteer-based group. With the help of the VAPG, Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op has been able to financially support a part-time operations manager who takes on the marketing and bookkeeping work originally completed by the board. In addition to this employee, the farmer’s co-op also hires part-time workers during the peak summer months to help pack flowers.

The VAPG has been a large asset to the company’s marketing endeavors as well. Allison expressed that their rebranding efforts, including newly designed product tags and updated labels for their new jelly, have provided them with a beneficial learning experience about copyrights and trademarks with funding assistance provided from the grant.

All of these grant benefits are bringing Allison optimism for the next few years of expansion. Trying to look for ways to mitigate plant waste while bringing a new product into the Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op inventory is the next step to ensure the peony industry thrives. She explained, “I’m hopeful that the value-added product will help us become more sustainable as small-scale growers.”

Visit Alaska Beauty Peony Cooperative ( to learn more.