By Jenny Neyman
Here’s something to chew on with your breakfast: The eggs for that omelet you’re eating — or the milk in your cereal, the meat in your sausage, the honey in your tea, the jam on your toast — probably wasn’t produced in Alaska. But half a century ago, it probably was.
The factors contributing to this fact are many, and about as complicated as making a soufflé in an Easy-Bake Oven with no electricity at the 17,200-foot camp on Denali’s west buttress.
Convenience, cost, and consumer demand related to those, are big parts of the equation. It’s also a product of changes in globalization, infrastructure, transportation, supply chains, the increase in corporations and conglomerations vs. privately owned businesses, marketing strategies, subsidies, technologies and growing conditions. It doesn’t break down into an easy recipe, with one part of this to two parts of that, or three tablespoons of this whisked into four cups of that.
The result, however, is quantifiable: In 1955, 55 percent of the food consumed in Alaska was produced in Alaska. Today, a mere 5 percent of the food Alaskans eat is produced in Alaska.
And that, say experts concerned with the health, stability and economy of Alaska, is as bitter a problem as mistaking salt for sugar.
“In 1955 we were pretty self-sufficient, but from 1955 to 2010, we have gone from being self-reliant and independent to completely vulnerable, completely dependent on the next plane,” said Danny Consenstein, director of the Alaska Farm Service Agency of the United States Department of Agriculture.
Consenstein points to three justifications for needing a better local foods system in Alaska:
“Alaskans spend $2 billion a year on food. Ninety-five percent of that is leaving the state. Imagine if just 10 percent more stayed here — if we went from 5 to 15 percent. That 10 percent is like $200 million dollars that would be bouncing around local communities,” he said. “So the economic potential, I think, is big for Alaska. Why are we sending all of our dollars to Mexico or California when we could be keeping it right here?”
“We clearly have health problems in Alaska — obesity, diabetes, especially in the Bush. It’s got to be connected to the food that we’re eating. If we can provide healthier, fresh, nutritious, local food, it’s got to be good for Alaska,” he said.
3. Security and the ability to be more self-reliant in an emergency. Advances in transportation are part of the reason why Alaska moved more to importing food than producing its own, because it became faster and cheaper to bridge the gap between Alaska and beyond. But that gap still exists, both between the state and the main food-producing regions of the world, as well as within Alaska, with rural communities separated from main distribution hubs. An earthquake, fire, flood, avalanche, volcanic eruption or a number of other uncontrollable events could disrupt supply chains, with grocery stores only stocking enough to feed residents for a few days to, maybe, a week.
“How can Alaska be more prepared for an emergency? It’s a lot more than just stockpiling. It’s strategies like helping farmers grow more food. And maybe that’s a longer-term strategy. It won’t help us tomorrow, but in 10 years from now if we can get from 5 to 15 percent, we will be more secure, more protected against supply disruptions,” Consenstein said.
Getting there will take a homegrown revolution, the seeds of which have already been planted and the budding shoots of which can have taken root on the Kenai Peninsula.
All those factors contributing to Alaska relying on imported rather than locally produced food
still exist, expect now they’re starting to tilt the scale back in the homegrown direction. In the 1950s and before, residents of the state produced their own food out of necessity — because supplies from the Lower 48 were weeks to months away. As fuel costs decreased and supply chains increased in speed, capacity and number, it became easier and cheaper to feed a family from a grocery store than a garden plot.
As Alaskans became accustomed to that convenience, they came to demand it — wanting summer berries in the middle of winter, and fresh, exotic herbs from a world away — all for a buck and a half per pound or less. But now, as fuel prices increase and environmental concern over carbon emissions from transportation grows, producing food in Alaska is becoming more economically viable.
It’s still not a balanced equation, local food promoters acknowledge, especially not on large-enough scales to offer cost savings to big food buyers, like restaurant and grocery store chains. But governmental programs are stepping in to help bridge that already narrowing gap. The Alaska Legislature last year set aside $3 million to help school lunch programs purchase Alaska-produced foods to serve to kids. Statewide, the Alaska Grown program markets in-state products. On the peninsula, Kenai Resilience maintains a database of local producers for those looking to source food from their area. And the Alaska Division of Agriculture is rolling out its Restaurant Rewards Program, designed to reimburse food service businesses that purchase and promote Alaska Grown products up to 20 percent.
Funding for Restaurant Rewards comes from the United States Department of Agriculture, which supports various other efforts to grow local food production. Consenstein’s Alaska Farm Service Agency is a division of USDA, and it offers a variety of business-related services to producers, from loans, insurance and risk-management planning, to disaster relief, business planning and financial management.
“Our mission is really about helping producers — farmers, ranchers, growers — helping them be successful financially. People are going to grow food because they love doing it. But they’re only going to keep doing it (commercially) if they can make a profit. So we really work with people to help them make money. We’re sort of business consultants or financial advisers for farmers,” he said. “I tell people, you obviously don’t need my help in how to grow, but if you do need some help in how you organize your books, how you keep track of things, what your business or marketing plans are, call me. We can help you think about the future and how we can help you achieve what your vision is for where you want to go.”
Consenstein said that, even in difficult financial times such as the nation is facing today, government still has a vested interest in food security.
“Farmers can go under, they can go out of business if they have a really bad year. Farmers in America or Alaska, do you want them to go out of business just because there was a natural disaster — a bad winter or drought? No. We want to help you through those rough spots. It’s the safety net idea, where the government is there to catch you, particularly about food, something we all care about. We need to be producing more food, particularly in Alaska,” Consenstein said.
In Alaska, government has learned that being directly involved in production — for instance, the failed, state-funded Delta barley and Port MacKenzie dairy projects of the 1970s and 1908s — isn’t the best way to go, Consenstein said. Instead, he said that a better approach is to support producers — through loans, assistance to build high tunnels, and the like — and to help create demand for their output — such as through the Alaska Grown marketing program or, on a larger level, like the state funding for schools to buy Alaska products.
Demand exists on a much smaller scale, too, though it’s the one that has the most potential to effect longstanding change: Cooks preparing their dinner menus, every parent packing their kids’ snacks, every busy worker pulling through a fast-food drive-through on their brief lunch break, and every shopper walking into a grocery store. If general consumers demonstrate a desire for locally produced foods and put their money where their mouth is, retailers are more likely to accommodate.
And that is starting to happen, Consenstein said. For instance, farmers markets have blossomed in number around the state.
“People like farmers markets because they can see the farmer right there. They know where that food’s coming from, instead of some food from who knows where? I think people are craving that,” Consenstein said. “A farmers market is not that easy to shop. It’s not convenient like most people like, but they’re willing to go out of their way, they’re willing to pay, in a sense, a price in the inconvenience, and they’re also willing to pay a higher price for knowing where their food’s coming from.”
Restaurants, too, are cooking with more local ingredients, and promoting that fact to diners. Consenstein said that he was in a restaurant recently with table tents saying the salads were made with locally grown ingredients, and naming the supplying farms.
“So you get a connection that’s more than just the Alaska Grown bug, but an actual connect to a farm. Why do they do that? I think consumers are looking for that personal connection where their food’s coming from,” he said.
Even grocery stores with supply chains from the Lower 48 — like Safeway and Fred Meyer, are incorporating increasingly large Alaska Grown produce sections.
“Cheap food, cheap transportation kind of drove the local businesses out because they had higher costs. But I think costs are starting to go the other way, and there’s more economy of scale up here to start to making local food a little bit more competitive,” Consenstein said. “And consumer choice is changing. I think consumers are driving the bus. They go in and say, ‘Hey, you got any Alaska Grown? I think eventually they had to say, ‘Whoa, our customers want this.’”
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Want is one thing, meeting that want is another. But that piece of the local-production puzzle is flourishing, too. The old stigma of Alaska is it’s inhospitable to food production — too dark and too cold for too long to maintain sustainable, economically viable farming, ranching, dairy or other endeavors. But technology and experience are proving that old adage wrong. Growers have experimented with varieties of vegetables, livestock and even grain that do well in Alaska. And high tunnels add months to Alaska’s growing season.
The National Resources Conservation Service in Alaska, another arm of the USDA, operates a
cost-sharing program to help growers install high tunnels. On the central Kenai Peninsula, there were only a handful of high tunnels prior to 2010, when the cost-sharing program began. From 2010-12, 58 high tunnels went up on the central peninsula, and 174 in the Homer area. Another 50 applications are pending for funding in 2013, said Heidi Chay, high tunnel coordinator for the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District.
“The high tunnels definitely have been a huge boost. We’ve never had people harvesting greens in April before, but we did this year,” she said.
High tunnels are fueling what already is a growing movement toward local production, said Marion Nelson, with the Central Peninsula Gardening Club.
“The whole self-reliance thing, the sustainability thing, the overall interest all over the country in kind of like the victory garden thing, just getting back to being a little bit more self-sufficient. And, certainly, economics,” Nelson said. “They want to try to figure out how to do things, how to turn some part of their acreage or their yard to make it produce something for them. Where do I start with all of it? We certainly have seen that. We’ve shifted our programs over the years from ornamentals to more food production. And it hasn’t been by design, it’s by interest.”
Most backyard growers begin with the desire to simply feed their own family and friends but, especially with high tunnels and other advances in growing technology, their production eventually starts to outpace their own consumption needs.
“I always ask people when I meet them if they have thought about this as a business and usually they will say, ‘Oh, I just want to feed my family and my extended family.’ Or, ‘I’ve been gardening forever and I just give it all away to my neighbors and my friends.’ Which is great, but there also is a lot of potential here, I think, too. And we’ve seen some businesses take off,” Chay said.
Consenstein sees this trend of blossoming gardeners leading to more and more burgeoning businesses.
“I think there will also be more businesses that come out of that, where people have got way too much for their family and they’re starting taking it down to the farmers market or setting up a little farm stand on side of the road,” he said.
That’s not an easy leap to make, going from personal consumption to adding a retail layer on
top of all the work already involved in establishing and maintaining a garden. For instance, where do they sell their crops, to whom and for how much?
“Because our current crop of local growers — most of them are very small, they’re micro-growers — they might experiment with doing, say, a big crop of lettuce or a big crop of some other special thing that a restaurant would want. But at this point they don’t have experience with providing a 30-pound case of anything or knowing how to price that. They’re at the stage, a lot of them, where just going to the farmers market and figuring out what to charge there is new,” Chay said.
And growing to sell is different than growing to feed family and friends.
“There are many examples to point at for ‘what ifs,’” Nelson said. “Somebody with a good-size high tunnel is growing a lot of stuff in there, but then it comes to looking at a restaurant and what are they ordering? Well, they could clean you out of a row or two of this or that in no time. … OK, you sell your broccoli pretty quickly, and then where are you?”
Along with consumer demand are purchasers. Single consumers can visit farmers markets and shop for whatever they like, or pester their grocery store of choice to carry more locally grown products. It’s more complicated for a larger purchaser, like a restaurant, to shop locally if they need reliability along with reasonable costs. A restaurant specializing in pesto could be reluctant to contract with one grower for all their basil needs if the grower hasn’t demonstrated the ability to fill every order on time with proper quality and quantity.
“You may have a situation where you have a small restaurant and local growers where the grower brings in what he has that week and the chef adjusts his menu that week to fit, at least to some extent, what’s being grown fresh, and there’s a lot of give and take. But you can only do that with a certain-size facility. It just depends on what’s going on in a certain place,” Nelson said.
To help facilitate the transition from personal gardener to commercial producer, and establish links of supply and demand on the Kenai Peninsula, an effort is under way to bring together producers and purchasers and all the various agencies and organizations interested in seeing those relationships grow.
An agriculture forum has been held on the peninsula the last two years, and Kenai Resilience is maintaining its database of local producers. More recently, a survey of growers was conducted.
“We realized that a lot of the growers are interested in scaling up to be able to work with restaurants. We know that a small number of growers have already developed one-on-one relationships with restaurants and are kind of inching into it with a product or two, or several at a time,” Chay said.
Next, they’d like to survey restaurants and other potential large-scale buyers.
“What we really need to do is a survey of the restaurant owners and ask, what do you buy? What kind of quantities? What do you now pay?’” Chay said.
The intention is to see where there is, or could be, overlap. Once the supplies and demands are known, plans can be devised to meet them.
“We know that there are some growers, often high tunnel growers, who are ready to start working together. We’re all trying to provide enough zucchini and yellow squash, let’s say, for a restaurant that uses that as a regular side dish. Well, you’re going to grow this much and I’m going to grow this much and he’s going to grow that much and we can put it all together,” Chay said.
A joint Kenai-Soldotna chamber of commerce meeting is being planned for Jan. 16, to bring producers and purchasers together in the same room at the same time to talk about issues of supply, demand, marketing, pricing, etc.
That will be a step in the ultimate direction of raising awareness of the locally grown capacity that already exists, and is expected to grow even more in upcoming years.
“I think we have a lot of work to do to raise awareness amongst the general public about what’s possible here for us to fully realize the economic opportunity of growing these ag-based businesses,” Chay said. “In order for us to fully realize that economic potential, more and more consumers need to be aware that, if we’re concerned about growing a strong food system, we have to work on both sides — our ability to produce more and also our desire and willingness to consume those products. This is going to grow hand in hand, the consumer demand and the ability of the producers to produce.”