It is the height of harvest for Diamond Ridge Peonies. This year’s harvest is taking place about three weeks later than usual.
Sean and Gerri Martin started thinking about peony farming to look for a way to transition out of their charter operation, North Country Charters, started in 1979, now operated by their son and other partners. They attended an introductory workshop in Fairbanks before anything was ever planted. Their open meadow property on Diamond Ridge seemed to provide the perfect dynamics for a farm operation.
“We bit the bullet and bought 3,500 plants to begin with in 2013. We are an organic farm and this complicates the situation because we do have a big weed issue here. This year, particularly, all the rain has brought on a lot of boytrytis this year. Another fungus we’re looking at this year is a fungus called anthracnose,” Gerri Martin said.
“When we’re working organically, it involves mostly manual labor instead of hitting the plants with other potent weed fungacide mechanisms.”
The farm has now increased to a total of 7,000 plants.
“Our harvest season is shorter than the summer fishing season, but it is still pretty intense,” Martin said.
Ethan Martin runs the field and crew of approximately nine people, all working part time on different shifts.
There are approximately 25 peony farms in the Homer area. Rita Jo Shoultz with Alaska Perfect Peony in Fritz Creek is the largest. Scenic Place Peonies and Diamond Ridge Peonies are two of the larger operations, also. There are many smaller farms that work on their own fields but deliver together work through a local cooperative market, Alaska Beauty Peony Co-Op Farms.
Gerri Martin explained to the Homer News that the climate in Alaska is what brought all of the farms into this community and other places in the state.
“We typically have a great climate for these plants, though it’s been colder than usual this year. But there are other places in the state that do quite a bit of harvesting, also. Fairbanks harvests the earliest; they have the longest days and the hottest weather. The Delta Junction area has quite a few farms also. There are also farms in the Matanuska Valley area and some on the upper peninsula. Homer is just the right kind of community; there are a lot of people drawn to farming here,” she said.
Diamond Ridge Peonies sells their product through wholesale. “For example, I have one buyer who wants 2,000 stems on Mondays and Wednesdays. I send them a compilation of bouquets in either mixed varieties or just a single. We ship mostly out of state but I do have a little kiosk outside of North Country. I can do wedding venues or other events, but that’s not typically how our farm operates,” Martin said.
In years past, the farm has been finished by the end of July but this year they have another few weeks left to go, Martin said.
“We needed every bit of that sunshine we had a few weeks ago to get the plants ready to harvest now. Now, though we’ve had to do some harvesting when the flowers are wet and when that happens, the flowers need to dry out before they can be put in the cooler. It just adds more labor to harvest in the rain,” she said.
Once the plants are harvested, leaves are stripped, they are graded by bud size and checked for any signs of fungus before storage. When the flowers are put in the cooler, the bud burst stops and they can be stored as long as six weeks, according to Martin. This year, shipment is happening as soon as the plants are harvested.