North Pole Peonies Finds Thriving Home in Alaska

fellowship fund north pole peonies
Beginning farmers and ranchers often find one of the most difficult decisions is deciding what to grow. For Air Force veteran Ron Illingworth, growing flowers in the most sparsely populated state in the U.S. wasn’t on his radar.  But one conversation facilitated a change in course, leading to a thriving multigenerational business with North Pole Peonies, in yes, North Pole, Alaska. Ron’s agrarian roots reach back to growing up in an Iowa farm family, and after 20 years in on-base housing he was ready to get back to the land. After his military retirement in the late 1990s, Ron and his wife Marji were operating a diversified produce and U-pick berry operation. They lived not far from Eielson Air Force Base and were both nearing retirement from their jobs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks when they happened to meet Dr. Patricia Holloway, who was running a nearby botanical garden and had a special interest in peonies. Holloway asked Ron if they had any peonies growing on their farm. He replied, “Well, yeah, we have four growing around the house.” She went on to explain that her university and its botanical garden recently had a visitor from England who emphatically told her that Alaskan farmers had a “gold mine” of peonies due to the rarity of blooms available so late in the summer.

Perfect Spot

While peonies thrive in full sunshine, they also need a period of cold weather to induce dormancy.

At that point in time there were no commercial peony growers in the entire state. Ron consulted with Holloway and asked her for insight on what varieties to plant.

Ron and Marji started with five varieties alongside their vegetables and berries and found which ones thrived through the harsh winters.

By 2010 Ron completely retired from teaching as the flower business grew to over 12 acres of cultivated peonies.

Their business now offers a multitude of varieties from the vibrant red of Felix Supreme to the most popular white: Festiva Maxima.


Their family was also growing. Their daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Chris got involved, along with their three children. They worked together on expanding the business, from shipping throughout the United States to exploring overseas markets.

The farm was a recipient of a Kubota UTV with the generous support of AgWest Farm Credit through FVC’s Fellowship Fund. This has enabled Ron to expand from spraying one row at a time to four rows at once, increasing efficiency.

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