Rita Jo Shoultz moved with her husband in 1996 to open a small retail greenhouse center in Fritz Creek, Alaska, and quickly became well-known for offering the widest variety of plants in the state. After Shoultz established her business, University of Alaska professor Pat Holloway approached her with an idea: Why not grow peonies for the cut flower market? By experimenting at the university’s botanical gardens, Holloway had discovered that Alaska peonies bloom when they’re not available anywhere else in the world.
Shoultz began growing peonies 3,500 at a time. She says, “No one had ever done this in Alaska so there were no ‘mentors’ or anyone to answer questions. We made every mistake I think possible.”
Shoultz worked on a New Zealand peony farm for two seasons to learn the trade. She also visited farms throughout the United States to learn techniques. She has now expanded to four fields of peonies, and last year harvested more than 50,000 stems. Shoultz ultimately sold her garden center to make more time for the peony business.
Shoultz works with SCORE mentor Bryan Zak, who she has consulted with about potentially exporting her peonies. Shoultz says, “Bryan has introduced me to all the players in the exporting business both on the Alaska level as well as international. He was instrumental in introducing me to NASBITE where I was invited to speak in 2017 about the Alaska peony industry and exporting opportunities.”
As an ASBC finalist, Shoultz also took part in an all-expenses-paid trip to a SCORE networking and training event in Reno, Nev., where she learned more about marketing and sustainable business practices. She advises other potential small business owners to, “talk to anyone who will sit still long enough to answer your questions.”
Aside from growing her peony output by a factor of 14 over the years, Shoultz supports the peony industry in Alaska (which has grown to include over 200 farms) through root sales, advice, a blog and a newsletter. She also speaks at conferences and runs trainings for people who want to start growing peonies.
In 2017, the mayor of Homer, where Shoultz lives, declared Homer “The City of Peonies.” The town’s main thoroughfare includes gardens that Shoultz herself designed and planted. In 2018, Alaska Perfect Peony was named a finalist in SCORE’s American Small Business Championship (ASBC).