By Jenny Neyman
Pilot bread is a point of pride in the heritage of Alaska food culture, but it no longer has to be a pantry provision. Powdered eggs, canned vegetables, dried fruit, wilted iceberg lettuce and other easily transportable, engineered-to-last food options are increasingly just staples of memory for Alaskans, rather than ingredients for today’s dinner.
In their place are locally grown, organic vegetables, varieties of produce that weren’t seen on the shelves of even the fanciest city stores a decade ago, and eggs so fresh the chicken hasn’t even missed them yet.
The trend toward agriculture continues to flourish in the state, expanding capacity to meet the growing demand of consumers for food that is fresh, organic and local. But that doesn’t mean more large-scale, 100-acre commercial operations. Rather, as with most things Alaskan, it’s individualized and localized, cultivated with equal parts ingenuity and I’ve-got-the-will-so-get-out-of-my-way determination.
“The growth in agriculture in Alaska is small farmers, that’s where it’s all happening,” said Danny Consenstein, executive director of USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Alaska.
It’s in backyards turned into raised beds. It’s in farmer’s markets. It’s in CSA — community supported agriculture — subscriptions for boxes of seasonal produce. It’s in farmers marketing directly to restaurants and other consumers. It’s in recreational gardeners scaling up from personal consumption to commercializing their harvest, and in more people giving growing a try.
“Maybe if this was Iowa it would be different, but that’s all we are is new farmers. We don’t have a long agricultural history and much of that generations of family culture of farming. And I think it fits us because Alaskans are, I think, kind of natural entrepreneurs, natural pioneers. We’re gonna do it, we’ll figure it out, we’ll clear that land and grow some potatoes,” Consenstein said.
It’s in people like Velma Bittick, of south Soldotna, who is working on scaling up to 2 acres in production at her place on Echo Lake Road.
“The last three to four years I told my husband I wanted to get back into my true love. I call gardening my drug of choice,” she said.
Bittick comes from generations of farmers, raised on a farm in Idaho. She and her first husband, deceased, worked in agriculture themselves until his respiratory condition required them to liquidate their farming operation in the Boise Valley and move to a colder climate. He’d worked on the oil pipeline, so they chose Alaska. They moved up in 1982.
Now 67, Bittick retired from catering work and jobs in retail management about 10 years ago. She and her husband, Tom Gotcher, traveled, fished and otherwise enjoyed retirement, and about four years ago Bittick got the itch to expand her home garden — berries, perennials and some vegetables — into something more substantial.
Thanks to the USDA National Resource Conservation Service’s grant program to help Alaska growers install high tunnels, which greatly lengthen the growing season and increase production, Bittick’s operation is flourishing. She put in a 64-by-30-foot high tunnel in 2012 and a 20-by-30-foot high tunnel this year and has used a 10-by-20-foot high tunnel for home production. About an acre of their 6-acre property on Echo Lake is currently in production, with another cleared and ready for production next year.
“When I first started gardening I gave a lot away — kept my family in vegetables and stuff,” she said. “My husband and I strive for 85 percent of our own food production — with hunting, fishing and growing. I haven’t figured out how to grow elbow macaroni yet. But we pretty much eat what we grow and try to market the rest of it.”