Farming and science have always gone hand in hand. But when two biology professors took a summer teaching gig in Alaska, the last thing they expected was to become flower farmers.
“We’re geek farmers,” says Jill Russell, who owns Boreal Peonies, a Certified American Grown flower farm, along with her husband, David Russell. “It’s Mr. Magoo goes to the farm.”
Both professors at Miami University in Ohio, they’d spent their honeymoon in Alaska, and had always wanted to go back. So when Jill found out the University of Alaska Fairbanks needed professors to teach summer biology classes, she leapt at the opportunity.
“We loved it,” she says. “We absolutely fell in love with Alaska.”
While there, they discovered that researchers at the university had been studying peonies for years. It turns out peonies in Alaska bloom at a time of year when they aren’t available anywhere else in the world. Over the past decade or so, as the state explored new agricultural possibilities to potentially replace the oil industry, these popular wedding flowers emerged as a promising crop. Amateur farmers began planting them experimentally—and one of them was the occupant of the office next door.
The following year, upon returning to Fairbanks for the summer term, the Russells found out their office neighbor had presold her entire crop by February. She showed them her business plan and urged them to give it a try.
As scientists do, they started researching. Within a year, they were ready to take the plunge. They bought an old hay farm on 40 acres and planted their first crop in 2013. Boreal Peonies, they decided, would serve a dual purpose as both a production and research facility. Of their 5,700 plants, they would devote 1,600 to science.
“You can’t really have a farm without doing research,” Russell says. “We totally geek out on it.”
Every day they measured the height of their plants and tracked their development. They experimented with soil chemistry in search of the perfect fertilizer. They shared their findings with the local farming community to help their adopted state grow its fledgling peony industry.
“Being biologists has really helped,” she says. “Soil chemistry is so key to success of the growth of these peonies, and we’ve learned a lot that we didn’t know. We’re still working on our fertilizer formula.”
Now in their ninth summer teaching in Alaska—and their fifth year growing peonies—the Russells have become permanent residents there, spending the school year teaching in Ohio before returning to Two Rivers for the growing season. With 16,000 production plants and 1,500 research plants, they anticipate harvesting some 40,000 stems this year.
“The industry is going to explode this summer,” she says. “There are a lot of farms like us.”
The farming bug has proven infectious. Two of their kids, both grown, and one of their graduate students also spend summers working on the farm—and they spend the rest of the year looking forward to it.
Kelly Burger, graduate student, is spending her summer doing research in Alaska. Her work on boreal peonies focused on the effects of compost tea on peony growth.
“We wait all year to be in paradise,” Russell says.“Peony farming in Alaska is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life. Nothing is more satisfying than having your hands in the dirt. You plant something, baby it and take care of it. Watching it bloom and grow, you feel connected to it.”