Harvesting growing demand — Growers find favorable conditions to scale up commercial agriculture

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. High tunnels extend the growing season, retain heat and help mitigate against the challenges of Alaska’s climate, meaning things like sunflowers can be grown successfully. And “easier” plants to grow, like cucumbers, can be done in greater volume.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. High tunnels extend the growing season, retain heat and help mitigate against the challenges of Alaska’s climate, meaning things like sunflowers can be grown successfully. And “easier” plants to grow, like cucumbers, can be done in greater volume.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

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 high tunnel cucumbers copy 2products 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.”

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Buy the book — Kenai library fundraiser is annual mark of support

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Kathy Heus, chair of the Friends of the Kenai Community Library’s annual book sale, sorts books at the Home Gallery in Kenai in preparation for the event.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Kathy Heus, chair of the Friends of the Kenai Community Library’s annual book sale, sorts books at the Home Gallery in Kenai in preparation for the event.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

“Game of Thrones, “50 Shades of Gray,” Harry Potter. These and many, many, many more are among the books that may be available during the Friends of the Kenai Community Library’s annual book sale, Sept. 18 to 20 at the Home Gallery furniture and flooring store in the Kenai Mall (old Carrs Mall).

“We unpacked six pallets of books today and we still have many more to do,” said Kathy Heus, who chairs the book sale, last week while working to organize books by subject or genre.

Unlike the minisale at the library itself last month, this book sale will be five times that size and is too large to hold at the library, which is how it came to be held at the furniture store, in the former Sears location, at the Kenai Spur Highway location.

“We had to find a large-enough area and they were kind enough to give us space for a week,” Heus said.

With a planned 5,000 to 10,000 books for sale, space is dearly needed.

“We didn’t have one last year, so we knew we had to have one this year due to the volume of books we have now,” Heus said.

Lee Cassel, owner of Home Gallery, said he has helped with the book sale in years past by helping move boxes of books, and so he didn’t hesitate to offer up his store when the book sale needed a location.

“I wanted to help. It didn’t seem like a problem and I thought it could bring some foot traffic though the store,” he said.

Volunteers Carolyn Ostrander and Kathy Heus unload boxes from the trunk of Heus’ car. The boxes will be filled with books to make them easier to lift on to tables for the sale.

Volunteers Carolyn Ostrander and Kathy Heus unload boxes from the trunk of Heus’ car. The boxes will be filled with books to make them easier to lift on to tables for the sale.

The books being sold are titles being phased out of the library’s main collection, as well as books donated by the community in order to raise funds for the facility and its programs.

“Typically, hardbacks and large paperbacks are sold for $1, and trade paperbacks are sold for 50 cents, which is very reasonable pricing for what is available, which includes all types of fiction, thrillers and nonfiction, cookbooks — a little bit of everything,” Heus said.

From time to time a few literary gems or valuable books will show up in sale piles. This year volunteers have found several first-edition books dating back to 1882, 1895 and 1912.

“Some of them could be valuable,” said volunteer Jean Taylor. “And they’re all in good shape.”

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Even better — Lifelong artist finds concrete appeal for abstract works

“Nikiski Winter,” stone lithography print by Jim Evenson, of Nikiski.

“Nikiski Winter,” stone lithography print by Jim Evenson, of Nikiski.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

It might seem like abstract art would be “easier” than representational art. After all, there’s no subject matter to render recognizably, no imagery to which to stay true, no colors to replicate, no textures to duplicate, no bells of familiarity to ring.

In that sense, less expectation and less constraint should mean less difficulty. But that is emphatically not the case. All the same technical rules of successful art apply, such as line, composition, balance and tone. But the supposed limitation of representational art — forging agreement that what the artist makes looks like something viewers recognize — is actually a framework, of sorts. It’s a bridge between viewer and artist. It’s scaffolding helping to impart focus, structure and direction to otherwise completely boundless creativity.

It might also seem that a successful artist is one who keeps viewers and potential purchasers in mind, with the belief that a certain level of commercialism is necessary to support one’s art production. Creativity is free, after all, but paint and paper are not.

Given those two suppositions, it might further seem like Jim Evenson’s stone lithography art show at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center this summer should have been a flop. That an artist creating strictly for himself, as Evenson does, without consideration of salability and with an increasingly strong abstract bent, to boot, wouldn’t be successful. Wouldn’t build a sustained and distinguished artistic career, wouldn’t garner much of a following, wouldn’t sell any work, wouldn’t be acknowledged as one of the most respected artists in the state.

In Evenson’s case, those suppositions would be as wrong as his work is engaging, respected and successful, even if he never meant for that to be the case. When he got his master of fine arts degree in the 1950s, his instructor at the time told him he had the skill and training to be a professional artist, but if he wanted to do art as a profession, then that was commercial art.

“You could either paint for yourself or paint for other people to enjoy and be a commercial artist, doing things that you think will be sure to sell to other people. I don’t do that. I’m a professional artist, but I’m not a commercial artist. I only paint for myself,” he said.

Evenson, now 87, chose to create what he wanted, the way he wanted, and make his living in other venues — being a teacher for 25 years and a commercial fisherman in Cook Inlet for 43 years. Originally trained in drawing and painting, his individualistic curiosity and sense of exploration led him to take a sabbatical in Spain to study the exacting, not-widely used, labor-intensive method of stone lithography, invented in the late 1700s. In it, an artist creates an image on a litho stone with a greasy paint or crayon, and the stone is moistened with water. Oil-based ink is rolled onto the stone and the greasy parts of the stone pick up the ink, while the nonpainted wet areas don’t. Paper is then pressed onto the stone to pick up the image.

“There’s a lot of technology and a lot of chemistry involved. You’re never really sure how one’s going to turn out,” Evenson said. “A painting you can do in one day, a lithograph can take a week or a month.” Continue reading

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Plugged In: Good showing takes theme, thought

Illustration 1

Illustration 1

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Several readers have asked how to put together a photo exhibit. Although I can’t speak for others, I’ll describe this week how I gradually developed my own photo exhibit now hanging at Kenai Peninsula College’s Gary L. Freeburg Gallery through Oct. 10.

It’s my belief that organizing a show around a generally coherent theme works better than simply throwing together a group of strong but unrelated images. When images reflect a consistent concept and body of work, they support each other. If good images are carefully selected, then the resulting exhibit should convey coherent overall content and a visual impression that’s stronger than the sum of the separate images.

Finding a theme that ties together your images is an obvious first step. While technical

"Winter Window Veronicas"

“Winter Window Veronicas”

proficiency is necessary, it’s not sufficient to carry a weak concept to a satisfactory conclusion. The art’s in the message, not the medium. Unfortunately, the concept for my current Kenai Peninsula College show came together only slowly and, at first, rather vaguely.

In early 2013 I shot a number of possible images at Nazi Germany’s infamous Dachau concentration camp near Munich. One of our Soldotna Rotary Club members was among the 42nd Division soldiers who liberated Dachau in 1945, and he expressed a willingness to speak to a wider audience about his experiences. Although the Dachau photos suggested a possible theme, my sense was that there were not enough strong images to sustain a complete, 20- to 25-image solo exhibit.

Matters remained unresolved for several months. By chance, I independently made

"Under the 2014 Fire Front at Skilak Lake"

“Under the 2014 Fire Front at Skilak Lake”

another photo that slowly “grew” on me. That photo, of two shadowy figures on a wall, is set out here as this week’s Illustration 1. This photo struck me as an appropriate key image around which to organize an exhibit, both suggesting and exemplifying the overall emotional experience of the Dachau photos.

A strong key image is not enough. The exhibit’s theme still required further conceptual development. It’s not very convincing to simply assert that a bunch of photos fit together without articulating why.

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Digging in to the growing food trend — Small agriculture continues to flourish on central peninsula

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Velma Bittick trims leeks at her farm plot on Echo Lake Road to take to the Farmers Fresh Market at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank on Tuesday. It’s harvest time for gardeners, like Bittick and her husband, Tom Gotcher, and those selling their crops are finding an ever-growing demand for their fresh, locally grown produce.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Velma Bittick trims leeks at her farm plot on Echo Lake Road to take to the Farmers Fresh Market at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank on Tuesday. It’s harvest time for gardeners, like Bittick and her husband, Tom Gotcher, and those selling their crops are finding an ever-growing demand for their fresh, locally grown produce.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

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.

Velma Bittick and Tom Gotcher transfer tomatoes to be taken to market Tuesday. They grow 31 varieties of tomatoes.

Velma Bittick and Tom Gotcher transfer tomatoes to be taken to market Tuesday. They grow 31 varieties of tomatoes.

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.

Fresh-picked bins of carrots, potatoes and green onions await transport to the market.

Fresh-picked bins of carrots, potatoes and green onions await transport to the market.

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.”

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Not far from spar — Kasilof man gets living-room seat to moose show

Photo courtesy of Leon Mensch. Two bull moose spar in a yard in Kasilof on Sunday, with blood-stained antlers from having their velvet recently sloughed off.

Photo courtesy of Leon Mensch. Two bull moose spar in a yard in Kasilof on Sunday, with blood-stained antlers from having their velvet recently sloughed off.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Living in Alaska, residents get fairly used to living a little closer to nature than their Lower-48 counterparts. With that comes seeing more wildlife. But even with that expectation, Leon Mensch, of Kasilof, woke up to a spectacle Sunday morning that still made his jaw drop.

“Not too many places you can have a morning like that,” he said.

A moose in his yard doesn’t garner much attention. A bull with a nice-sized rack warrants more than just a glance. Two bulls with racks is downright noteworthy, and those bulls smashing their racks into each other calls for undivided, mouth-hanging-open attention.

The spectacle started slowly. Mensch, a dog musher, had just gone inside after feeding his huskies. Having a yard full of dogs is usually a good alarm of anything unusual, like an animal wandering through. But Mensch said that his dogs must not have seen the moose arrive that day, because they were quiet.

“When I came back in I looked out the window and first saw just one. I went to grab my camera and when I got back to the window both of them were there, sparring in what will (next year) be our garden,” he said.

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View from Out West: Now you see ‘um… Hatch of gnats enough to drive Alaskans buggy

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

On the Kenai Peninsula you can’t see no noseeums like the ones you can’t see here in Bristol Bay.

I spent more than half a century being inoculated by the peninsula’s flying insects, so when I was warned, prior to moving to Dillingham last year, that Bristol Bay bugs swarmed thick and fierce and that I’d better be prepared for the worst, I thought, “We’ll see. We’ll see.”

After all, some Junes on the Kenai unleashed a veritable contagion of wings, and no rousing bath in DEET could keep all of the needle-bearing invaders at bay.

Near Soldotna, I once received so many mosquito bites on my sweaty legs, neck and arms during a week of brush-cutting that I began imagining the crawling and stinging even after I was safe indoors. Driving on the flats outside of Sterling during a particularly notorious outbreak of Culex culicidae, I once considered simply peeing my pants rather than braving the bug-filled brush.

In the fall, I’d packed moose meat out of the boggy lowlands of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge with deer flies divebombing the back of my head and nipping at my wrists, and white sox crawling under the brim of my hat and flying into my eyes and ears, as I struggled sweatily under the weight of a bloody hindquarter.

I’d also been bank fishing along the Kenai River after sunset, when the day breeze had wheezed its last gasp down the valley and the last light had faded behind a ridge — and a sudden prickliness had seized each of my exposed extremities as the noseeums fled the grass and began burrowing into my flesh.

What greater torment could Bristol Bay offer?

Plenty, said my brother, a fisheries biologist with experiences in this area. He told me that although noseeums and white sox around King Salmon were the worst he’d ever seen, Dillingham’s could be bad enough.

The locals said the mosquitoes could be a plague — unless the wind was blowing. The wind almost always blows in Dillingham. Ergo, I figured I’d probably be just fine.

When summer arrived here, so did the mosquitoes. They were thick at times, particularly in the tall marsh grass along the Nushagak River. Overall, though, I found them tolerable. No worse, certainly, than anything I’d seen on the Kenai. The locals said, “Pshaw, ain’t bad this year. Too dry. Seen ’em a lot worse.”

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