HARRISBURG — When David Hilliard gets up in the morning and walks out his front door, he’s confronted with a 12 acres of brightly-colored peonies spilling down the side of a hilly field.
Although raising peonies commercially is a labor-intensive business, Hilliard reminds himself that the fruits of his labor will adorn the head table at wedding dinners, will add color to high school proms and brighten the lives of thousands of Midwest residents on Mother’s Day.
“I take it for granted,” he admitted. “I try to tell myself people would love to have a view like this.”
Hilliard, and his wife, Julie, have been growing peonies for more than 20 years. The partnership works well. He handles the growing and most of the field work, she handles the marketing and processing.
“Since Julie has taken it over, it’s really gone up,” he said. “I’m serious, it’s a lot more hands-on management. It’s just doing a lot better. Julie is the guiding light of the farm, I’m just the mouth.”
The Hilliards got into the flower business as something of a lark a couple decades ago. Now, a “Peony Hill Farm” sign hangs at the entrance to their lane.
“It started probably back in the late 90s when corn prices were real cheap” David said. “And, I’ve always been kind of sucker for specialty crops. We started raising for a wholesaler in Chicago. Everything we raised for the first 20 years or so went to Chicago.”
Now, the peonies the Hilliards raise are available to anyone that wants them.
“We sell from the farm, to retailers, to wholesalers, you name it,” David said. “We don’t turn much down.”
Peonies are more popular than ever. The flower, and by extension the Hilliards, got a real boost from high-profile celebrities.
“Actually, Martha (Stewart) and Oprah (Winfrey) played a large role in the popularity of peonies,” David said. “Both of them, it’s their favorite flower. We’ve sent flowers to Oprah. A wholesaler we used to deal with, his main headquarters is two blocks from Oprah’s studios. He called one year and wanted all the white peonies we had and he wanted them that week. He wanted all the white peonies we could get our hands on. For some reason I just happened to be watching WGN News that next week and Oprah had had a party and decorated with 25,000 white peonies.”
The Hilliards couldn’t foresee Oprah’s and Martha’s intervention when they decided to take their farm in a new direction 20-plus years ago. It was a set of interesting circumstances that dictated the direction of the Hilliards’ floral farming foray.
“That’s what the wholesaler we originally worked with wanted,” David said. “He kind of specialized in peonies.”
Why 12 acres?
“That’s what size the field was,” he said.
Now, about 25 years later, they have about 20,000-25,000 plants, representing more than 20 different varieties of peonies. It turns out bringing floral joy to brides and mothers is a labor intensive operation.
“They were all planted by hand,” Hilliard said. “I planted probably about 95 percent of them personally. They are all harvested by hand, weeded by hand. We try not to use chemicals, pesticides … fertilizer is really about it.”
Then, over a two or three week period at the end of April and beginning of May each stem will be cut by hand. The buds will be ready to harvest when a bit of color appears and it has the feel of a marshmallow.
“That’s not even the beginning of it,” Hilliard said. “We go through and break the side-buds off each variety. Every stem, it may have 6-8 side-stems. We prep the fields a little bit. We’ll mow it, try to maintain it. Julie will mow it until about the first of August, and then we’ll let it grow up. Then we’ll burn the field off.
“Field sanitation is very important. We’ll burn it off in late fall. I like a nice hot fire to burn all the old plant material.”
A crew of cutters goes to work at 6 a.m. each morning, harvesting the buds deemed ready to process. The peonies are cut before they bloom. The buds are placed in flower buckets on a wagon and transported to a barn.
“That’s when Julie’s crew takes over,” David said. “My crew will come back in the afternoon and we’ll cut again.”
“We sort them by color and stem length and put them in bunches of five,” Julie said. “That’s the way we were taught, bunches of five. You store them dry. They don’t go into the water until you’re ready for them to open.”
The flowers, wrapped in paper sleeves are placed in a cooler at temperatures just above freezing, until they are shipped out.
“They have a good vase life, if you take care of them,” Julie said.
Like all farming operations, peony growers keep a wary eye on the weather forecast. Temperatures in the 60s are ideal.
“They are a cool weather crop,” David said. “We are really on the southern edge of where you can reliably grow a wide variety of peonies. Heat can be a problem. The drought of 2012 was pretty bad. It just flat out killed a bunch of them. The other thing is, they don’t like wet feet.
“It’s another reason I like to burn the field. I want bare ground. I want as much cold in the ground as possible. A lot of people mulch them around their home. I tell them not to do that because they really need the freezing cold.”
On the other hand, peonies are a perennial. The plants can last indefinitely if cared for. They aren’t prone to insect infestation … which leads to the question the Hilliards face frequently. The ants? What about the ants?
Anyone who has ever cut peonies from their yard and brought them into the house knows ants are likely passengers in the flowers.
“People think they are required for the flower to open, that’s not correct,” David said. “Peonies put out two different kinds of nectar. The nectar they put out first attracts the ants. The ants are predators to some of the things that are pests to the peonies, some of the smaller bugs. It attracts the ants, which eat the predators. Later on when they bloom, they’ll attract the pollinators. That’s a different type of nectar.”
And, something else that makes peony farming possible in Southern Illinois … deer apparently don’t like the taste.
“If they did we’d be out of business,” David said. “There is a weed here. Deer love those things. I’ve seen them go right down through the middle of the peony plant, nip those off and leave the peony.”
Finally, Peony Hill Farm is more than just a growing operation.
Each spring the Hilliards allow students from area high schools to take photographs among the flowers. They open the fields to the public for a week, allowing visitors to wonder through the fields and purchase individual flowers.
Last year their open house was so popular it created a traffic jam on the narrow roads leading to the farm.
And, their reach certainly goes beyond the realm of Southern Illinois.
“We just had a couple from Chicago that came down for the day, just to look around,” David said. “We have several people that come from St. Louis every year. We have several people driving up from Memphis, Nashville, just to walk around.”