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A horticulture-professor friend of theirs had planted some test plots on the grounds of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and she was looking for some more data on their hardiness in subarctic conditions. Could peonies become a commercially viable export crop? The next year, Ron and Marji had 50 roots. A year later, 100. Now, the couple has 15,000 roots in ground, with the goal of reaching 18,000. Their company, North Pole Peonies, will ship close to 30,000 stems to the continental United States this year for hotel floral displays and showy wedding bouquets. “We started with just a few back here, and now everything you see is peonies,” says Marji. Alaska is home to 200 commercial peony farmers, clustered in the three hot spots around its center and south-central coast. The state isn’t known for its agricultural exports, but peonies have quickly become a cash crop for its entrepreneurial farmers. Last year, these growers shipped more than 200,000 stems to local, state, and international markets, including Taiwan, Canada, and Korea. Ron Illingworth, who is also president of the Alaska Peony Growers Association, expects it will be closer to 1 million by 2020.
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