Michelle Morton is an Alaskan peony grower by way of Los Angeles, Australia and Scotland.
She was born in Scotland, grew up in Australia and landed in Los Angeles as a young adult where she studied music, percussion specifically, at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. It was, she found, “a very strange place.”
“Somebody said ‘You should try Alaska,’ and I said ‘Alaska?’ And I ended up coming up with just a backpack and I loved it. It’s so extremely different from anything that I’d known.”
She put down roots in the state and eventually bought five acres in Homer, which would eventually become the home of her business, Stone Circle Peonies, a Certified American Grown flower farm. The property was filled with dead trees, the victims of a beetle infestation. After she cleared the trees, she was left with land she didn’t know what to do with.
It called out, however, to her lifelong love of gardening. She started with a small vegetable garden. That eventually led to enrolling in the USDA’s high tunnel program, where the government reimburses growers for building the enclosed structures that allow produce to be grown in a protected environment.
It’s a four-year program, “where they’re basically teaching you how to farm,” she said.
It was also a time when peonies were exploding in Alaska.
“There were workshops on growing peonies,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, what’s a peony? I’ve never even heard of a peony.’”
Morton found herself a budding farmer in a suddenly fertile flower-growing environment.
“I’d grown vegetables for the farmers market. I just thought I’m going to grow peonies, they’re beautiful and there’s a demand for them, it’s a new industry and there’s a lot of hype about them.”
Peonies had taken off in Alaska after a government pilot project in the early 2000s found that the flowers thrived in the state’s long summer days and were ready for harvest in July and August, a time when the rest of the world’s annual supply of peonies had been picked, sold and used up. It also coincided with the peak of the wedding season, which the big, showy blooms seem tailor-made for. And the flowers were relatively light weight and perfect for export via air. Alaska went from zero peony farmers in 2004 to more than 200 by 2014.
Morton was part of that boom. She planted a quarter-acre in 2012, and nurtured her plot for the four years it takes to develop a commercially viable crop.
The learning curve, however, was steep. “Everest steep,” she said. She’s grateful for the kindness of Homer’s other peony growers.
“I have a lot of people who have taken me under their wings and have been teaching me,” she said. “And I’m not afraid to ask people for help. A lot of the old-timers in Alaska have been helping me with understanding the soil and what things need to be happy. People have been very kind in helping me understand the needs of the peonies.”
Three years ago, she harvested a thousand blooms. Last year it was 6,000; this year, she figures the number is 10,000, and she sold all of them.
She manages to keep the farm going with just the help of her two children, Fiona, 14 and Seamus, 12.
Fiona designed Stone Circle Peonies’ website and does much of the marketing via Instagram and other social media platforms. Both she and Seamus help out in the fields.
“We post photos that show the flowers in the Alaska setting” Morton said. “Our theme is ‘love Alaska, love peonies.’ We want to show people what a beautiful place Alaska is and how beautiful peonies are.”
Morton sells the flowers to florists, flower designers and directly to consumers in the lower 48 states, and has her eye on the international market.
“Growing flowers, what a great job,” she said. “We’re not destroying the earth, we’re working with Mother Nature and we’re trying to do it as naturally as we can. I do my own compost, I talk to my flowers. It’s a happy environment. I work from home and my kids can be a part of it.”