Onaway farmers grow peonies in unique, profitable ways
ONAWAY — Growing peonies is a family affair at Kammer-Paulus Farms in Onaway, where an estimated 7,000 peonies are grown and sold to florists each year.
Doug Paulus, his wife, Shelley Kammer-Paulus, and their children, Tanner and Kayleigh Paulus, split their time between their home in Grayling and their farm in Onaway, where they actively grow and pick flower buds from 2,615 peony bushes.
The peonies come in a variety of colors, including half a dozen shades of pink, as well as magenta, red, white, and yellow. Shelley said the family grows more than 200 varieties of peonies, including the more well-known double bomb peonies and single peonies.
Add in a field outside of the farm, and the family has another 1,000 peonies in their entire collection, representing 700 varieties of peonies, many of which people have never seen before, Doug said. He said they have all but three hybrid varieties from the late Professor A.P. Saunders, a world-renowned peony hybridizer.
The couple also grow a variety of peonies from seed, instead of the usual tuber. Shelley’s father, Richard Kammer, helped procure the seed, which Doug said comes from the north slope of the Himalayas.
“It takes seven years to go from a seed to a flower,” he said.
The flowers, which are cut as buds before they bloom, are cut early in the morning and are then stored in the farm’s cooler until they can be taken to the florist. The family also has a way to extend the life of the flowers so they can be stored and sold over a longer duration of time, but Doug would share details, calling it “proprietary.”
When the peonies finish sending up flowers, the farm’s sheep are let in to graze and fertilize the field with their manure.
Shelley said she loves the different varieties of peonies that can be grown, but, for Doug, it’s part of his heritage. Both of his grandmothers had peonies on their farms, particularly his grandmother who farmed in Onaway.
“On a smaller scale, there wasn’t hardly a wedding in Onaway in those days that didn’t have gram’s peonies,” he said.
The couple originally decided to grow peonies as a crop, to sell the tubers on their property in Onaway and make a little extra money. But some of Shelley’s friends who had flower shops offered to buy her peonies if she also sold fresh-cut flowers.
The farm belonged to Doug’s great-grandparents and has been in the family since 1908. He said it has “been every kind of farm you could imagine,” including an award-winning dairy farm in the 1940s and 50s.
Doug said much of the acreage in the region was dedicated to doing or growing what other farmers were doing or growing. He said the region has sandy soil and it’s too cold to grow corn or soybeans, although everybody tried.
Doug said peonies are a northern Michigan crop, just like rhubarb and peas. He said their four acres of peonies probably equals the profitability of 600 acres of corn.
“As we were thinking about cash crops, this one came to mind,” he said of the peonies. “What has survived on this farm for a century? The first thing that came to mind was grandma’s peonies sitting out in the front yard and nobody has touched them in a hundred years and they’re just as good as the day they went in.”
Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.