A feature from the 2022 Farm Prodcuts Guide.
Styer's Peonies founder and namesake J. Franklin Styer did not start out as a flower farmer. Styer was a talented botanist who pursued a wide variety of interests including landscaping, mushrooms, apples and peonies. He pioneered the use of air-conditioning in mushroom houses and extensively researched apple production in New York.
In 1920, Styer founded Styer's Peonies where he worked with his father on peony hybridization at their Concordville, Pa. farm and surrounding properties. Even at the height of the Depression, customers were eager to buy flowers. Peonies were-and continue to be-a popular flower for weddings and celebrations.
Over the 100 plus years Styer's Peonies has been in operation, J. Franklin Styer (and the business's subsequent owners) have grown peonies in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and even Canada. Chester County has always been a favorite location, though.
"Old Man Styer said Chester County was the perfect place to grow peonies; our production is higher here than any other location," says current Styer's Peonies owner Richard Currie, citing the climate, rich soils and well-drained fields.
Styer' Peonies' current farm headquarters, first planted in 2004, is at Hill Girt Farm in Chadds Ford. The farm shares synergy with adjacent produce farm, SIW Vegetables (Currie is brothers-in-law with SIW Vegetables' farmer H.G. Haskell).
Currie originally became involved with Styer's Peonies in 1990. At the time he was an importer and wholesaler of fresh cut flowers sourced initially from his farm in Zimbabwe and (post-Apartheid) South Africa.
Over the next decade, Currie and Styer's then-owner, Sandra Evaniuck, combined resources overseeing different parts of the business. Evaniuck had worked for J. Franklin Styer before purchasing the business, and when she retired in 2004, Richard purchased it from her.
Currently, Styer's Peonies grows over 200 different peony cultivars on a combined acreage of approximately 100 acres. Each farm's different microclimate allows the business to extend peony availability for a total of six weeks.
Currie and his team select for flowering time, yield, color, fragrance, size and susceptibility to disease out of over one thousand peony varieties available on the market.
"I can't harvest all the peonies I grow; I keep wanting to plant more and more," he laughs.
Like with all businesses, the pandemic was particularly challenging.
"Events and celebrations came to a screeching halt," says Currie. Florists and the large flower markets, his largest customers, stopped ordering.
Despite the pandemic uncertainty, their direct-to-customer business has increased significantly in recent years. "Studies show that people are willing to spend extra on flowers in an economic downturn; it's an affordable luxury to cheer yourself up," he says.
Direct to customer sales were increasing, but Currie was interested in finding other avenues to increase flower sales. A fellow grower in New Jersey gave Currie the idea to open the peony fields to the public.
Says Currie: "For years, my friend was pessimistic about his tulip business until he tried inviting the public onto his farm. It's been a huge success. He's been able to expand and thrive, and it's all smiles when I see him at grower conventions now."
"Styer's Festival of the Peony," a two-week event, opened to the public in 2019 after working with the township to obtain the necessary permitting. The following year, Currie and his team pivoted to provide a pandemic-friendly, drive-through-only festival, only two days before the festival was scheduled to open. He wasn't sure how the drive-through restrictions would be received.
He needn't have worried.
The three-mile driving route provided a way for visitors to see 25 acres of fragrant flowers in all shades of white, pink, yellow and red. Peony enthusiasts from as far away as Chicago flew in to experience the flowers at their peak. Currie doesn't know exactly how many visitors attended (they charge per vehicle), but he estimates thousands were able to visit.
"Everyone left with a smile on their faces, even during a difficult time," says Currie. "I was happy to see that Styer's made that possible."
Last year, visitors were able to experience the flowers in person as well as via car, drawing plenty of families and selfie-seekers. Heading towards their fourth year of the festival, May 14-31, Currie is looking forward to welcoming guests back to the fields.
Following the success of the Chadds Ford peony festival, Currie is considering hosting a similar event at his New York farm. He also enjoys working with his son who is now involved in the peony business and is excited to help shape Styer's future.
"With Longwood and Winterthur nearby, people are making this region a true horticultural destination and we are excited to be a part of that," says Currie. "Agritourism is an important component to the future of farming in Chester County."