By Jenny Neyman
Alaskans: If you like organic, locally grown, so-fresh-there’s-still-dirt-on-it produce, then put your money where you’d like your mouth to be — taking a bite of flavorful broccoli, stuffed with a mouthful of peppery salad greens, crunching on a crispy carrot or dribbling from a juicy tomato.
That’s the message local growers and agricultural supporters hope consumers are getting from events like the second annual Harvest Moon Local Foods Week, continuing through Saturday on the central Kenai Peninsula, and the summerlong farmers markets that are now winding down as growing season is coming to a close and the increasingly productive local garden beds are being tucked in for winter.
“If we’re serious about having a vibrant agricultural sector of our local economy, we have to be serious as consumers about putting our dollars in local agriculture products and local food. That’s what allows our local farmers to scale up,” said Heidi Chay, district manager for the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District.
So far, so good on that front, as there’s been growth in consumers looking for locally produced agriculture — with more customers visiting farmers markets, buying directly from neighborhood farms or shopping the Alaska Grown sections of supermarkets, said Danny Consenstein, executive director for the Alaska Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The number of farms in Alaska has grown. The numbers of farmers markets — we’ve got more than we’ve ever had. There’s more sales. Alaska is growing, it’s one of (the fastest-growing agricultural sectors) in the nation. And maybe we had further to go, but we’ve moved up,” he said.
But there’s also growth in types of consumers. There’s increasing value-added products being made using Alaska-grown ingredients, governmental agencies are procuring more from instate sources — such as school districts for lunch programs and the Department of Corrections for feeding inmates — and restaurants are sourcing directly from local producers, as well.
On the central peninsula, restaurant participation has been one of the areas of growth in the local foods week program from the first event last year to this year, the trend that Chay said makes her the most excited. Three restaurants participated in 2013, offering specials highlighting local foods. This year there were nine. Local restaurants in general are working more with local growers. Those relationships are crucial to local growers being able to scale up from gardening just for family and friends to having sustainable commercial operations.
“In talking to last year’s participants I’m discovering that relationships are growing between local farmers and restaurants that participated last year, so that’s really cool. Restaurants and farmers both are learning about each other and working together more, so that’s exciting,” Chay said. “If you can figure it out for one week then maybe next year you can plan in advance and actually talk with a farmer over the winter and actually plant what it is you’d like to be purchasing throughout the season next year.”
In Alaska, farming is small scale. It’s individual. It’s a couple with a couple of high tunnels, and couple-acre plots worked by the owners and maybe an employee or two brought on around harvest time. But there’s more and more of those setups every year, with production also increasing as new growers navigate the learning curves of agriculture in Alaska.
Happily for these small-scale producers, demand for locally grown products also has proven strong and still growing.
“I think the consumer side is actually what’s driving this. I’m not worried about the demand side drying up,” Consenstein said. “I think people are starting to choose local and I think that trend is going to keep growing. Particularly in Alaska, I think people understand the benefits of buying local, they understand the taste and health benefits of buying something that’s fresh. I think they understand the economic tradeoff of keeping dollars in your community.”