September 19, 2018

Steve Adelman: Peony farmer, Willamette restoration ally

Steve Adelman poses at his Salem-area peony farm, where a walk-in flower cooler doubles as an essential tool in the Willamette Basin’s river restoration efforts.

For all his adult life, Steve Adelman has been a peony farmer. He grows so many flowers on his 200-acre farm near Salem, it takes a 2000-square-foot walk-in cooler to store them all while they await shipment to customers around the globe.

"It started as a hobby for my mom and just continued to grow over time," he says.

After an unexpected phone call six years ago, Adelman found himself in the river restoration business, too.

A neighboring nursery owner had heard some Willamette Basin restoration groups were looking for a place to store native trees and shrubs before planting them along the basin's rivers and streams. She wanted to know if Adelman would consider renting out his cooler.

"I said, 'Well, I'll at least talk to them,'" he recalled.

As it turned out, the restoration groups' needs perfectly aligned with the Adelman Peony Gardens' growing calendar. The farm used the cooler heavily between May and October. But in January, when the restoration groups needed a home for their plants, the facility sat vacant.

"It was a good way for me to keep one of my employees full time through the winter, get a little more business and utilize our cooler when it would otherwise be empty," Adelman said.

The cooler now spends its winters stuffed with hundreds of thousands of bare-root Willamette Valley plants -- 34 species in all. Its fans hum along at a constant 33 to 36 degrees.

"You want to keep the temperature down low enough so the plants stay dormant, but you want to make sure they don't freeze, either," Adelman said.

Adelman Peony Gardens plays a crucial role in the Willamette Basin restoration movement. By providing a space to store large quantities of saplings, the cooler enables restoration groups to buy plants in bulk from area nurseries through a program run by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. That makes it easier for them to get the quantity and type of plants they need, which ultimately enables them to get more restoration done, more efficiently.

From January through March, the cooler is a hub of near-daily activity, with planting contractors dropping by early in the morning to pick up orders before they head to the day's work sites.

Adelman tracks the flow of inventory on a spreadsheet. To date, more than 2 million plants have stopped over at his farm on their way to restoring hundreds of acres throughout the Willamette Basin. Some are now growing at Willamette Mission State Park, just a few miles away.

"It's neat to know I was a part of that effort," Adelman said.

By mid-March, the cooler is empty again, ready to absorb the latest crop of fresh-cut flowers and peony root stock.

–– Kelly