Each year in October, many cooperatives pause to celebrate National Cooperative Month. This year, the theme “Owning our Identity” focuses on what makes a cooperative different from other businesses.
For the Alaska Peony Cooperative, the cooperative model was an unlikely business structure that helped peony growers leverage their collective resources to provide a unique product to communities: Alaskan Peonies. Though peonies were not grown in Alaska prior to 2000, Alaska is uniquely equipped to produce the vibrant flowers. Peonies require a minimum of 45 days below freezing temperatures while dormant for bud formation. During the growing season, plants require at least eight hours of direct sunlight each day to yield the best flowers. Alaska’s 22-hours of daylight in the summer intensifies the flowers’ colors. Additionally, the season for peonies is July and August, a time of the year when they are difficult to source anywhere else, allowing Alaskan growers to fill a pivotal gap in the industry
Although the weather and industry were primed to see success for peonies, many farmers and growers struggled to make a profit juggling the costs of production, harvesting, shipping, and marketing. The peony growers throughout Alaska soon began working together and two important insights came to light; the cut flower industry is very competitive and successful growers use cooperatives.
But using cooperatives does not guarantee success. Cooperatives aren’t sustainable and resilient solely by virtue of their structure but as a result of their common purpose, principles, and practices imbedded in their structure.
With Rural Development’s Cooperative Development Grant, the Alaska Cooperative Development Center has utilized funds for several years since 2006 to expand outreach and technical assistance to communities looking to start a cooperative. In 2015, Andrew Crow, the Executive Director of the center, began working with Alaskan farmers to start a marketing cooperative, helping to form the Alaska Peony Cooperative in 2015.
Today, the cooperative brings together farmers throughout Alaska, many of which are family or women-owned, to share in the costs and profits of the business in a democratic way, with each cooperative member getting a vote on operational and organizational matters. Alaska’s peony growers have shown that they can grow 48 varieties of premium grade buds and ship to retail and wholesale buyers around the US and internationally within 24 hours, maintaining a vase life that often exceeds the competition.
To learn more about USDA Rural Development’s Cooperative Services, visit our website.