Export program spared from budget cuts

For growers in the Kenai Peninsula’s developing agriculture industries, exporting internationally is still an option.

A Division of Agriculture inspector position that issues phytosanitary certifications, or phytos, which are required by some importing countries, has been restored indefinitely, after it was on the table during this year’s budget cut discussions.

“I put it forward because we had to make cuts,” said Division of Agriculture Director Franci Havemeister. “I had to make hard decisions. Everyone was looking at cuts across the board.”

Talk of cutting the position sparked concerns with some local producers who are in the middle of developing or considering supplying to international markets.

Peony growers are one of the most established exporters based on the Kenai Peninsula, said Kenai Peninsula Farm Bureau Executive Director Amy Seitz.

Wayne Floyd, who runs Cool Cache Farms in Kenai with his wife Patti Floyd, is a peony producer out of Kenai and member of the Alaska Peony Growers Association, a statewide cooperative that facilitates a more competitive and viable industry.

In 2014, roughly 150,000 stems were sold, Floyd said. Within five years, millions of Alaska’s peonies may be purchased annually, he said.

That kind of large-scale production takes planning, marketing and knowing what a buyer wants, Floyd said.

Peonies are perennials that take up to three years to develop strong, well-established root systems.

“Some outlive the grower,” Floyd said. “There are some flowers in the Lower 48 that are 100 years old.”

In China, red colored peonies are highly desired for weddings, Floyd said. In the Lower 48, which is where the majority of Alaska’s peonies are shipped at this point, light pinks and whites are preferred at weddings.

For most peony growers, 40 percent of their annual yield is red peonies, because they planned to appeal to an international market, Floyd said.

Other industries such as the Rhodiola, which is still in its infancy, are working toward international viability, Seitz said.

Steve Albers, who runs Dandelion Acres with his wife Linda Albers, has roughly a half-acre of Rhodiola planted, which equates to nearly 500 plants. The flowering plants are cultivated for the root and used to combat fatigue.

The Albers’ plants are four years old. Rhodiola, like peonies, take years to establish — up to five years to reach maturity.

Right now, less than one acre is being harvested in the state, said Al Poindexter in a previous Clarion interview. Poindexter owns and runs Anchor Point Greenhouse in Anchor Point, which is one of the largest operations in Alaska.

Currently, his plants cover four acres, which he will double by the end of the summer.

The Kenai Peninsula’s potato growers may eventually sell tubers abroad, but that is a long ways off, Seitz said. Alaska’s potatoes are particularly clean, and lack many diseases that are well established in other regions of the world, which may make them favorable to foreign markets, she said.

Alaska’s unsullied spuds are largely a result of the Plant Materials Center’s Potato Program through the Alaska Division of Agriculture, which was also on the table as a potential cut during budget discussions this year. Certified breeders propagate seed potatoes and sell them locally so there is a constant supply of disease-free crops.

The position that was originally cut and then restored equates to $96,200 annually, Havemeister said. She could not say if cutting the position may be a possibility again next year, but she does expect she will be asked to further cut division programs.