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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Common Ground: The real reel deal — Technology trumps testosterone when the hooks are down

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. If being manly means masochism, by all means reel in the real old-fashioned way. Otherwise, stowing one’s pride could lead to more fish hauled in with less backaches, though possibly more bellyaching.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. If being manly means masochism, by all means reel in the real old-fashioned way. Otherwise, stowing one’s pride could lead to more fish hauled in with less backaches, though possibly more bellyaching.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

There’s a fine line when it comes to technology and the outdoors. When someone first told me about an electric reel for fishing, my first thought was a scoff. My mental scoffing makes a “sha” sound that was learned from either being a Generation X outdoors woman or watching “Wayne’s World” too many times (or both).
I would never use an electric fishing reel, I mentally postured. Real men, like me, want to exercise their manly strength. Even though I’m not a man and my strength is not too manly, besides. But it’s strength, gall darnit. As long as it’s possible for me to seriously injure my shoulders, I want to do so. Because it honors the fish. They want to die knowing someone seriously injured her shoulders to eat flakey white meat.
Then came the day I saw my first electric reel on a halibut trip. A friend pulled this already dinosaur-looking contraption out of the cabin along with a battery pack powerful enough to start a Bush plane. “Sha,” I thought. “He’s not a man like me.” For some reason, when I’m feeling manly, my shoulders come up and my chest puffs out. My voice deepens and I imagine that I sound like John Wayne when I say, “Well that’s some reel you got there, partner.”
Back in my day we rode horses and, well, I don’t know how John Wayne would have caught a halibut, but he would never use an electric reel. And if the Duke wouldn’t, than neither would I.
“It’s great,” my friend said. “You just push this button and it reels up the fish.”
“Hmm,” I said. Then I waited for someone else on the boat to ridicule the reel. Ridicule likes company. “Those are great,” my other friend said. “I want one.”

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Snapshots of good deals, good health

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

We’re giving densely detailed thematic articles some well-deserved time off this week, instead taking some quick looks at subjects that we’ve saved for one of those inevitable rainy days.

New photo gear is always a good place to start.

Gearing up

Although I typically don’t find moderate wide-angle lenses very interesting, I enjoy working with the enhanced foreground perspective that’s the hallmark of ultrawide-angle lenses. Until recently, though, Canon users had few top-shelf, ultrawide-angle choices, even though Canon remains the most popular digital SLR camera maker.

Canon’s new, 16- to 35-mm, f/4 L-series ultrawide-zoom lens changes that. It’s smaller, sharper and better constructed than Canon’s f/2.8 version while costing $500 less. Canon claims that it covers a full frame well and, if so, that the widest 16-mm magnification will be extremely wide while the longer 35-mm setting acts as a moderate wide-angle lens. Mounted on Canon cameras using smaller APS-C sensors, this lens ranges from a moderately wide angle through normal magnifications. Every lens review site that has tested this ultrawide, full-frame lens raves about its optical and mechanical quality at a lower price. Although not inexpensive at $1,199 list price, this is a bargain for a quality, full-frame zoom lens.

Users of Canon’s APS-C cameras haven’t been forgotten, either. Canon’s also introduced a smaller, less-expensive, 10- to 18-mm, f/4.5 ultrawide-angle through moderate wide-angle lens designed for its less-expensive consumer dSLR cameras. Published reports indicate very good optical quality for a low $299 list price. Something’s got to give at such a low price point, and it’s mechanical construction quality. This 10- to 18-mm has a plastic body and lens mount. That’s a small disadvantage, though, relative to good optical quality at a low price. Building ultrawide-angle zoom lenses is complex and Canon should be commended for combining good optical quality and good value.

Sigma’s flagship wide-angle zoom lens is now available for all major dSLR camera lines. Its 18- to 35-mm f/1.8 (that’s right, an f/1.8 zoom, and a very sharp one) is not a small lens and not cheap at $800, but it’s a very good value. This is one of the sharpest wide-angle zoom lenses on the market, and that sharpness is even available at very wide, bright apertures.

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Petal power — Kenai wildflower field in full bloom

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The Buchholz-James family poses for family pictures in a field of wildflowers along the Kenai Spur Highway on Monday. Above, Carole Buccholz, of Soldotna, hoists granddaughter Olivia while photographer Shawna Shields of Narrow Road Productions captures the shot. Below, Kristina James coaxes her daughter to smile for the camera.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The Buchholz-James family poses for family pictures in a field of wildflowers along the Kenai Spur Highway on Monday. Above, Carole Buccholz, of Soldotna, hoists granddaughter Olivia while photographer Shawna Shields of Narrow Road Productions captures the shot. Below, Kristina James coaxes her daughter to smile for the camera.

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

To say there’s been an explosion in Kenai is, yes, a gratuitous use of verbiage to describe a field of wildflowers, but such is the force with which it has bloomed that the gentle terms usually associated with landscaping simply don’t apply.
The previously drab dirt pile along the Kenai Spur Highway across from the Welcome to Kenai sign has blasted forth recently with such a ruckus of color that it’s a veritable assault on the eyeballs.
But in the nicest way possible.
“It’s beautiful up here!” said Carole Buchholz, of Soldotna, who was wandering amid the riot of yellows, oranges, pinks, purples, reds and blues Monday with her family — husband, Curt, daughter and son-in-law, Kristina and Clint James, and granddaughter, Olivia James.
The Buchholz-James family was one of several groups posing among the poppies for a Kenai wildflowers baby photog momfamily portrait, with photographer Shawna Shields of Narrow Road Productions in tow.
With the landscape aflame in color it was impossible not to get striking shots, even if 2-year-old Olivia’s patience was quickly flaming out.
They tried bubbles. They tried tossing her in the air. They tried hiding keys and other personal effects for Olivia to find among the flowers — “OK, but I do need my credit card back,” Curt Buchholz said — hoping each tactic would elicit a smile to match the rapturous scene through which they were wading.
“I’d love to know how many seeds they used,” Carole Buchholz remarked, a little dreamily.
“I’d like to see the bees that come up here,” said Clint James, a little more pragmatically, as the toddler squirmed away from mom and made a beeline toward grandpa.
“No, she’s good,” Shields reassured the family. “I’m getting some good ones. This is such a great spot. It’s so neat they did this.”
“It seems like it’s very successful. People seem to really love it,” said Kenai Mayor Pat Porter.
The field was — pardon the 1989 Kevin Costner movie reference — one of dreams.
“It’s a project I’ve been working on for several years and it finally come to fruition. It’s always been a dream of mine to plant wildflowers on that hillside,” Porter said.

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Hope for more space — Organization breaking ground to better serve residents with disabilities

Photo courtesy of Hope Community Resources. An art residency program held at Hope Community Resources in conjunction with Frontier Community Services and Peninsula Community Health Services.

Photo courtesy of Hope Community Resources. An art residency program held at Hope Community Resources in conjunction with Frontier Community Services and Peninsula Community Health Services.

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Here’s hoping.
For a place for art, music, dance, pottery, scrapbooking and other creative endeavors to be held in all their loud, messy glory. Where cooking classes can be taught and a community garden maintained. Offering training in employment, communication and writing skills.
Where dances, holiday celebrations and other festivities can bring people together for the sole purpose of social interaction. For all these varied activities and more under one roof, all facilitating one goal — to support those with disabilities and their families in the community.
That’s the hope of Hope Community Resources, which is embarking on construction and a funding campaign for a new community center to serve the Kenai Peninsula from its Soldotna regional office off Kalifornsky Beach Road.
“Just like for everybody else, inclusion really is having a sense of belonging and being in a community where you feel like you do belong. I think we all crave that. The population we support often are ostracized and not valued. And I think that’s our big focus, making sure everyone that comes into our facility knows that they do have a place where they belong,” said Holly Scott, director of community support services for Hope Community Resource’s Kenai Region, which covers the peninsula outside the Seward area.
Hope serves people with disabilities and their families, with a particular emphasis on inclusion and community integration, in several areas of the state — Anchorage, Barrow, Kodiak, Juneau, Sitka, Dillingham and the peninsula. Services are tailored to the needs of each person. Likewise, each regional office tailors itself to its community, Scott said. The Kodiak region, for example, which Scott used to represent, included a strong recreational program, with Special Olympics and a fish camp being especially popular. In the Matanuska-Susitna region, the area’s agricultural nature is reflected in a ranch and various associated programs.
On the peninsula, community interaction is a main identifying quality of Hope’s program.
“Here on the Kenai Peninsula we do a lot of collaborations. It’s kind of interesting because a lot of people that have come from outside regions have really been impressed about just how community oriented the Kenai Peninsula is and seeing us doing lot of community events,” Scott said.

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