January 3, 2022
I blog for several reasons. So, others won't make the same mistakes we made and because I love the farming industry. So, here's a very long, detailed lesson about our recent losses.
The 2021 season was a disaster. When everything thawed and the buds started sticking their little heads out of the ground, it became quite obvious we were in trouble.
We knew the winter was harsh and we also had some flooding but this was a lot more serious. Huge areas in the lower/newer fields, nothing was showing. It was a later season than the last few years but we've grown accustomed to the 'every year crap shoot' as to when the buds will come up and more important, when will the flowers be ready for the shipping season? But this was different.
We kept putting off the inevitable realization we were experiencing devastating losses. While of course, we wanted to know what caused the losses, the first priority was how will our farm survive? Over the years we have built up our infrastructure with a large, efficient processing area, 4 coolers from the high velocity cooler to remove field heat quickly to the cooler for the temperamental reds to the coldest cooler for the hardy pinks and finally the cooler where everything goes packed for shipping. Probably more important is, we are very blessed to have experienced staff coming back, year after year. And we have been very successful with our marketing efforts.
Inventorying our assets and reviewing our options and prioritizing which included retaining our customers, we set out to find other farms to purchase stems. We were blessed to have 6 farms to partner with for the season. We signed contracts to cut and or manage 2 farms besides our own. They were close so we felt we could manage. Three other farms delivered their stems to us. Some delivered them ready to be boxed and shipped and some were straight from the field.
That part seemed to be under control so we set about trying to figure out what happened. We didn't want to replant or take any action until we had some answers. I sent out an SOS to my go to gurus and about the same time FloralDaily asked if I had anything to report for the season. They had written a couple articles about our farm in the past. So, I shared our story. As a result, we received quite a few emails from around the world with theories. It was a great surprise to hear from so many extremely knowledgeable experts.
The patterns of loss were the first mystery. Our original fields, where the soils were bad, lots of clay, and we made every mistake possible as we knew nothing, suffered no losses. Our next oldest field only had one area that had the big losses. The hardest hit were our newest fields (mostly 8–10-year-old plants) where we thought we knew what we were doing. The best soils, excellent drainage, good varieties. There would be 20 great looking plants then 10 nothing then 8 shoots coming up from the secondary buds, then 5 rows of beautiful plants. It wasn't variety specific. It didn't seem to be location specific. Areas where we had flooding didn't seem to be any worse than other parts of the fields. The newest 3-year-old plants experienced little or no losses.
Anytime an Alaska peony farm suffers losses we always look at drainage first. We did experience a huge ice storm December 6 th covering our entire fields. At first, we thought the rows closest to the grass pathways were better but it wasn't definite. Dr Holloway theorized the grass pathways might be pulling water off the hills offering better drainage. The survival of the younger plants made us think less root mass so wouldn't hold as much water. Several University folks were gracious enough to travel UP TO 800 miles to take a look.
The newer field had the best soils which we now feel were easily eroded/washed away from the crowns over the years. Our rows are mounded. We did pull up the soil to cover the crowns better a few years back in some areas and have added Fishy Peat over the years but we now feel, was obviously not enough.
While there are probably several causes, we now feel the major cause was erosion on the crowns. The original field with its more clay soils are heavier and less likely to have erosion thus those fields were not affected while the newer fields with more friable soils were the more affected.
We learned a lot from this experience about our fields, varieties, drainage, weather patterns, more than I really wanted to know. We also learned we are never alone. The worldwide agriculturecommunity, literally, sharing and suggestions we received is very humbling. I'm looking at this now as an 'opportunity' for new varieties and better field designs for easier maintenance and harvesting. Of course, it goes without saying, without my Son and partner, I would have thrown in the towel. Shannon has spent countless hours on the excavator, tractors and with a hand shovel, ditching and preparing for new planting procedures and researching how farms all over the world plant.
We did plant a couple of rows with a newer technique. We’ll let you know how that went next year.