Friends tackle challenges of peony growing in permafrost

Janice Hanscom, left, and Carolyn Chapin enjoy growing peonies in Fairbanks. (Photo courtesy Polar Peonies)
Photo courtesy Polar Peonies
Janice Hanscom, left, and Carolyn Chapin enjoy growing peonies in Fairbanks.
Nancy Tarnai

Two Fairbanks women have answered the age-old question about whether friends remain friendly while operating a business together.

“Yes,” say Janice Hanscom and Carolyn Chapin, owners of Polar Peonies, the state’s first privately owned commercial peony farm.

“We had a few tiffs,” Hanscom said. “But we decided the friendship was more important. We’re both strong women.” The solution was to put each in charge of one area; Hanscom is in charge of production and Chapin marketing.

“This allowed us both to be in charge and yet have one business,” Hanscom said.

“It’s worked very well for us,” Chapin said.

Both women come from agricultural backgrounds. Chapin grew up in Palmer working in a greenhouse, belonging to FFA and earning a degree in natural resources management at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She raised livestock for years and prefers peony growing to shoveling manure.

Hanscom was raised on a potato farm in Maine, earned a biology degree at the University of Maine and worked for UAF’s School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences for decades.

While employed at the Georgeson Botanical Garden, Hanscom learned about peonies and in 2001  suggested to her friend that they grow them on Chapin family land on Chena Ridge. All Chapin knew was that it was a flower, but since then both women have learned a tremendous amount and offer workshops to share their knowledge with newbies. Their advice? Be patient. “You’re not going to see a return in short order,” Chapin said. “Do your homework. Start small.

“We made mistakes that others can learn from,” Chapin said. First off, the black spruce forest land they chose was permafrost soil with poor drainage. Clearing the land they got the tractor sunk up to its axles. “We’ve had a lot of adventures,” Chapin said. “We’ve learned how not to do this.”

Still, they have 4,000 peony plants in the ground and sell their blooms to not only locals for events and weddings, but have buyers from all across the U.S. and as far away as Asia.

They helped form the Arctic Alaska Peony Cooperative, are active in the Alaska Peony Growers Association and run a packhouse for themselves and seven other farms. Hanscom visited New Zealand in 2009 to study peony operations.

Curiously enough, both admit you won’t find vases of peonies decorating their homes during the summer; they’re too busy to bother. Chapin takes time off from her job advising biology and wildlife students at UAF and Hanscom is retired.

“It’s been a blast,” Hanscom said. “I wouldn’t say it’s successful. We are growing peonies but it’s a challenge.”

The soil on their farm is so bad that both admit they’d be better off pulling up their stock and moving on. “I’m just plain stubborn,” Hanscom said. “I am going to grow peonies there.”

“We will,” Chapin added. “We are learning how to farm in the Interior on marginal soils.”

Recalling a highlight of the venture, Chapin said she did a happy dance the first time she shipped a box of peonies to Hawaii. Usually brides find them through the internet and then inform florists in their area where peonies can be purchased in July or August.

“We sell everything we’ve got,” Chapin said. “For every one stem we sell we could sell eight more.”

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This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at