Fox Hollow Peonies, a Certified American Grown farm, has its roots in near total disaster.
In 2008, a forest fire threatened to destroy the home of Milt and Wanda Haken in Nenana, Alaska, a town of about 400 people in the interior of the state, 54 miles from Fairbanks.
Although the fire burned thousands of acres, the Hakens, along with neighbors and firefighters, were able to save their house. But they were left with a completely charred landscape.
The Hakens slowly cleared the burned property, and used the wood to heat their home. But what they were left with, Wanda says, was “a large, open field in need of a mission.”
What once was acreage burned by fire, is now fertile soil for 5,000 peony plants grown by Fox Hollow Peonies. Photos provided by Fox Hollow Peonies.
The Hakens discovered that mission in a roundabout way. Wanda, a school counselor, attended a class at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, on connecting students to the food they eat by bringing agriculture into the classroom. During the class, the head of state’s agriculture division was a guest speaker who gave an overview of state’s industry.
“She said, ‘If I had any land right now, I’d be putting in peonies,’” Wanda said. “She said, ‘Peonies are going to be Alaska’s next gold rush.’”
The class later went on a tour of North Pole Peonies, one of only three peony growers in the state’s interior at the time. It was there that Wanda learned about Alaska’s niche in the global peony business: The flowers bloomed in July and August, a time when no one else in the world had peonies for sale.
“I went home that day and told my husband, ‘I know what we’re putting in that field we cleared.’
“Of course, he’s mister macho man – he’s a retired police officer, a Teamster – and he says, ‘We’re putting in flowers – you’ve got to be kidding me.’”
The next weekend the university put on a seminar for people interested in growing peonies that was led by Patricia Holloway, the horticulturist who discovered that peonies could grow in Alaska. Wanda wasn’t able to attend, so she sent Milt.
“He came home and said, ‘Yep, that’s what we’re going to do,’” she said. “So, we ordered our first roots that fall.”
That was in 2010. Since then the Hakens have gradually expanded their operation, and they now have 5,000 peony plants and 21 varieties.
Growing peonies wasn’t a complete stretch for the couple. Both come from generations of farmers in the Midwest and they spent time on relatives’ farms growing up. Wanda has always had a garden and a greenhouse and had dabbled in selling some produce locally, such as tomatoes.
Still, getting Fox Hollow Peonies off the ground took some trial and error. Their first set of plants had a hard time breaking through the heavy soil. Before planting their next group of roots, they reached out to other growers who showed them how to amend the soil to create a better growing environment.
“We had real good success with them coming up the second year,” she said.
For the business side, the Hakens teamed up with other growers in the area to form a co-op – Arctic Alaska Peonies. The Hakens were a founding member of the co-op that now numbers 20 farms. They share marketing efforts, chillers for their flowers and negotiate for the best deals on shipping and supplies.
Wanda is a member of the co-op’s marketing committee and makes it a point to spread the word about Alaska peonies wherever she goes.
“Whenever I travel, I spend a day or two doing nothing but marketing,” she said. “I pack materials and go visit all the florists, all the garden centers and wholesalers wherever I am. There are still a lot of people out there who haven’t heard that Alaska has peonies in July, August and September.”
Wanda and her husband Milt have found an unexpected calling as peony growers.
Wanda has spent her career in education but in Fox Hollow Peonies she may have found her true calling. She recalls taking a career interest survey as senior in high school and it came back showing that she should explore the floral industry. So focused was she on becoming a teacher that she thought that idea was “ridiculous” and “crazy.”
Looking back now, she says the survey probably picked up on her affinity for gardening, her creative streak and the desire to work outside.
“I just enjoy working with plants,” she said. “I’ve started making bouquets for the farmer’s market here and I think that’s my favorite part of the whole thing.”