I have a three fourths acre field of peonies, 30×96 high tunnel and a 20×30 Processing Center for Handling flower stems. The center has a 9 foot long table, guillotine cutter, 10×10 cooler and other civil amenities like bathroom and furniture. Six Paeonia Select growers and myself use these facilities to quickly clean, bunch, record and cool the peonies. I sell these stems to the Kansas City market one and a half hours away.
Sustainable practices are very much encouraged by Paeonia Select. Before the grant Paeonia Select shipped and continues to ship in recycled flower boxes lined with recycled newspaper. Growers use mulch between plants to save water and avoid the weeds and mowing. One grower collects water from his house and barn roof into a closed container for field watering. The area within the future high tunnel was solar blanketed to kill as many seeds as possible before erection and planting.
The selection of the peony stems as our product was centered on its sustainability. This plant has few diseases and pests, does not require additional water after becoming established, and has limited nutritionally needs. We are always looking for additional earth friendly practical sustainable ideas.
a. Erect a high tunnel to protect peonies from later winter freezes. The framing of the high tunnel and planting of the peonies is complete. The plastic will cover the peonies in the spring of 2011. The entire 2007 season crop was lost to a late spring cold snap. We look forward to the security of at least the high tunnel Charlie’s White, Mons. Jules Eli, and Bowl of Cream Peonies.
b. Grow peonies to picking stage several weeks earlier in high tunnel than the peonies in the field. Based on information given to me by a grower in Wichita, Kansas, the peonies did bloom a week or more before the field grown ones in the 2009 season. This difference in bloom time will vary by weather and variety. K-State Research Center in Olathe, Kansas uses part of a high tunnel for peony research. Their peonies have not matured so no clear information is available.
c. Sell early protected peonies on the market…for more money than later field raised peonies and extend market from high tunnel to field grown peonies. Establishing our reputation before the high tunnel peonies are ready for market has our market hungry for earlier local, quality peonies. This was not a choice, but did work to our advantage. We have been chatting about the high tunnel for a year now and have created an interest in the project and desire to have the peonies as soon as possible. We have no data to verify whether the price of peonies will hold over the long run and prove the initial expenses justified. There are many more peonies available commercially now, so our reputation and quality will hopefully carry our products.
d. Interest, educate and develop more growers for Paeonia Select. There is a cluster of small towns around the Processing Center in Lowry City, Missouri. Drawing from that area, potential growers met for an exploratory discussion on peony flower growing. From that pool seven elected to commit to become growers. The following spring a follow-up meeting was held and diseases and cultural requirements were reviewed. After the second growing season, the second class “Commercial Grower’s” class met in early spring and the harvesting, processing and record keeping activities were taught. These classes are available to other growers at a cost but free to Paeonia Select growers. A class spring 2010 already has several new growers and a paying grower registered.
This project reflects two main objectives:
1. Prepare, and build high tunnel, then plant peonies.
2. Demonstrate the effectiveness of high tunnel protection for production or enhancement to long term cash value for our growers and as educational tool and Standard for production.
High tunnels are being used for almost every crop…why not peonies on a small scale? Since everyone in the local farming community is familiar with high tunnel use and construction some of the common factors in erecting a high tunnel for Peony Select were assumed.
The physical layout of the land for the high tunnel construction initially appeared to be accomplished by just erecting the bows etc. for standard construction on bare ground. It appeared to be relatively flat with a gentle slope. In actuality the land did not drain properly and required much work. Mark Abney, Soil Scientist, from the USDA-NRCS Clinton, MO., came out and took core samples to help understand the drainage issue. The drainage problem set the project back one growing season and killed about 100 peony plants. Peonies are very sensitive to wet conditions so ignoring this issue was not possible. Twelve yards of river bottom soil was added and elevations taken to crown the land within the future high tunnel area. Of course the solar blanketing work was lost.
We chose to reinforce the high tunnel to withstand high winds and a possible heavy snow load. We chose a heavier gauge steel and the bows are placed on a four foot center. Additionally, braces were placed to strengthen the tunnel for our worst storms coming from the west. I sleep better at night and hope to never need that extra steel.
The zoning for the high tunnel construction became an issue. As a high tunnel with no permanent foundation, it is allowable by the city code. Several neighbors chose to identify the structure as a ‘greenhouse’ which is not an acceptable land use within the zoning area where the field is located. After MUCH discussion, the issue seems to have died for now. The plastic has not been placed on the high tunnel ribs. I imagine at each visual change, a new fight will be volleyed. I have asked the mayor to write a letter verifying the inclusion of high tunnels within the guidelines of the city code. He agreed to write a letter but has never written the letter. I continue to pursue verification as insurance against future hassle. The Mayor last month told me he would write the letter if he chose not to run for re-election for if he lost.
Cost becomes the final detail to suffer a major challenge. From the point of the bid and discussion soaring and everyone was raising prices in panic. The cost to pick-up the structure was $200.00 more just for gas in the truck. The 2×6 exterior lumber cost was 1.5 times the initial bid. Paeonia Select was committed and ate the costs.
Paeonia Select has been most fortunate to be guided by outstanding, committed, and bright mentors and professionals. These include:
Dr. Alan Stevens, Kansas State University, Director K-State Horticultural Research and Extension Center, Olathe, Kansas. Mentor and go-to help for cultural and business concerns.
Dr. Ted Carey, Kansas State University, K-State Horticultural Research and Extension Center, Olathe, Kansas. Vegetable Crop and High Tunnel Expert. Ted has been helpful in selection of high tunnel to best fit my needs and construction advice.
Donald Schuster, Coordinator, USDA-NRCS, assisting Osage Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council (RC & D) a local non-profit organization that includes St. Clair and Henry Counties in Missouri. Don guided me to other professionals within the farm community for help with the drainage issue and critiqued my grant proposal. He is now retired and continues to offer ideas.
David Lydell, retired USDA agronomist, Clinton, Missouri and member of Osage Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council (RC & D). A longtime community supporter and suggested contacts in the outlying areas.
Mark Abney, Soil Scientist, USDA-NRCS, Clinton, Missouri. Took core samples to identify drainage concerns for Mr. Elmer Hershberger, a grower, and me.
Wayne Prewitt, University of Missouri Agricultural Extension Farm Management Specialist, Nevada, Missouri, Wayne visited the field and advised that growing peonies was a good use for the land in Lowry City, Missouri.
Mike Sheffler, University of Missouri Agricultural Extension Small Business Specialist, Helped with a long term business plan and gave me contacts within the Henry/St. Clair Missouri farming community.
Don Russell, University of Missouri Agricultural Extension Small Business Specialist, has replaced Mike and suggested several meetings to develop a business plan. He set – up a meeting with an accountant which suggested how to better deal with multiple accounts.
Marilyn Odneal, Missouri State University, Outreach and instructor, publisher of Berry Basket Newsletter. I spoke at a regional conference on commercial flower growing and wrote an article about peonies.
Don Holingsworth, owner and peony breeder and Luke Hudson, field operations and breeder, Hollingsworth Nursery, Maryville, MO 64468. Mentor, guide, promoter also source of excellent peonies.
Bill Lysinger, Manager MFA, Lowry City, processed soil sample thru University of Missouri, and helped with soil nutrition and peonies.
Norma Thompson, President, Lowry City Betterment Committee, champion of Lowry City beautification and Peony Select.
Association for Specialty Cut Flower Growers, M.P.O. Box 268, Oberlin, Ohio 44074. A supportive and knowledgeable collection experienced flower growers who freely share and help.
American Peony Society, Claudia Schroer, APS Editor, 713 White Oak Lane, Gladstone, MO 64116-4607. Supportive growers passoniate about peonies.
The final results will not be available for several more years. Peonies require three years minimum to reach a stage of maturity to support picking. As a note, I have been in contact with a grower in Kansas that has peonies in a high tunnel. While her peonies have matured and are available for picking earlier, she does not charge a higher price for her stems. This grower had lots of interest in her stems but no one locally (within her marketing area) would pay a premium for earlier high tunnel peonies. The local market was only willing to pay the field grown price. If that situation is repeated for Peony Select, this project will be a failure. However this may also support my original hypothesis that early is good because the demand will be high but, only in a market area able to support higher priced product.
The Kansas City market will support a higher priced early stem due to demand from the retailers. Because of the hard work from our growers, Peony Select (Paeonia Select changed its name to Peony Select. This switch is to simply pronunciation and internet searches. Name was changed officially in 2008) has established a reputation for quality peonies. Our reputation will help us move into the early market with peonies.
The high tunnel as a tool for the commercial peony grower may change the USA bloom range. This flower traditionally starts its annual production in Early April through July in the USA. If the cold requirements can be met with plants growing in a high tunnel in South Carolina/Arkansas, a grower may cut steam in March. Competition among growers is keen in this tight market. For Peony Select, this addition of early production to our product will fill the demand for peonies that carries into the traditional field picked crop.
The carbon issue of focusing on buying locally grown flowers is also complimenting the ideal of high tunnel use for peonies. Much of the product now comes from Israel for February and March. Even with a premium prices, locally grown will be less expensive and a fresher product. Giving the retailer choices is good and having the cost favor local will be a winning combination.
Finally, the weather, always changing, has frightened many away from flowers. We’ve experienced freezing conditions in late March and April. This destroys the immerging terminal buds. This either wreaks havoc on the crop by killing the flower buds completely or necessitates pruning each stem to grow a lateral bud to appear as a slightly deformed but sellable terminal bud. These altered stems take considerable additional time to prepare. The price per bud is then almost out of reach for the market.
Another weather related issue is rain during harvesting. For the past two years early morning showers eliminate the possibility of picking until the buds dried. Several days of rain may create losses of 1/3 or more of the crop. This has been a huge problem for my growers. Last season many of Charlie’s White stems were picked “dry.” Upon opening it became obvious that the buds were wet internally because mold was present.
A high tunnel crop protection will have benefits. I look forward to financially figuring out the pricing necessary to break even then make money with our high tunnel.
At this time I have no hard data to compare the high tunnel production with the field grown peonies.
The most basic tool I used to talk about this project and develop interest within the grower community is my enthusiastic sharing. Because others have such a wealth of information and a willingness to support and encourage newbies, this project grew and continues to grow because of their knowledge base. I asked questions and shared ideas and the ideas grew into an experiment with realistic potential financial gains, I hope.
Project events are a word of mouth process, internet and paper poster advertisements. Peony Select has a presence on the internet: www.peonyselect.com and will have a new student through internet outreach. All my other students developed from personal contacts. My peonies grow in an area with many Amish families. Several new families have expressed an interest in growing peonies for Peony Select.
I spoke to a group of 25 growers interested in commercial flower growing during a workshop at Missouri State University at Mountain Grove. I was also invited to speak because of being a SARE Grant recipient during the Missouri Small Farmer’s Conference in Columbia, Missouri in 2008. I was told 30 people were in the group for that brief 20 minute meeting.
As another way to develop more growers, I give referral rewards to our growers. I place posters in the locals closest to the processing center; restaurants, libraries, city halls, county seats, local stores and groceries. I have given a talk at a gardening club of 50 members. Hopefully in the future I will have more opportunities to speak with more local groups where members may develop into growers.
Peony Select uses tags on each bung of our flowers. The wholesale florists do not allow direct contact information on the tags but name recognition is great and works for them and use. This past year a local flower grower, who does direct marketing, sold Peony Select Peonies. This tag name recognition benefits his business as well as ours.
I have never participated in any kind of agricultural grant project before. Without the support of my mentors, I would not have been able to give any financial information. Without a crop to compare value with, I still have no financial comparisons. I lost in how to share the information I have collected because it doesn’t fit anywhere.