Who would have thought that those flamboyant peonies down at the Homer Farmers Market could get you a trip to the White House?
Well, Rita Jo Shoultz has never done anything half way. Now she can add to her long list of achievements that she is a finalist for the White House Champions of Change for the Future of American Agriculture.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. She is the president of the Kenai Peninsula Farm Bureau and constantly trying to figure out new ways to support any and all forms of agricultural production, whether it’s flowers or veggies or animals.
But seeing her down at the Market with her booth full of exuberant white, pink and red blossoms may not give you a clue to the extent of her dedication to agriculture. The casual visitor may not remember Fritz Creek Gardens and few have seen the 15,000 peony plants she now has in five acres of fields.
Rita Jo, Leroy and their four kids moved up here in 1966 and she has been gardening here ever since. She ran Fritz Creek Gardens for 17 years. Her old production greenhouse where folks used to pay for plants or tours now houses lilies and tomatoes. She has added two 98-by-30-foot high tunnels, one that is entirely veggies for home consumption.
But her true love is peony production. She has been promoting the idea of northern peony production for years. Local producers soon realized that the exuberant blossoms were prized around the world in a market where most of the peonies had faded by the time these flowers in Alaska were just starting to bloom. The perfect niche market.
Rita Jo is nonstop. Her son Shannon is now a partner in her peony business, she has an 8-by-20-foot chiller for storing peonies and has plans for building a larger one. She may not be at the Market this Saturday, but it’s because she is on her way to Washington D.C.
Head on down to the Homer Farmers Market to support local agriculture yourself on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m.
Kyra Wagner is the director of Sustainable Homer and the Homer Farmers Market’s biggest fan.