By Jenny Neyman
Alaskan HomeGrown is a down-to-earth kind of operation, in any sense of meaning.
From Jeff and Rachel Babitt’s 25-acre garden and livestock operation in Kasilof to their new greenhouse location along Kalifornsky Beach Road next to Save-U-More, food production is about as practical, nonabstract an endeavor as they come. Plant it, feed it, water it, care for it and it grows. Eat it, store it or sell it and grow some more.
“It’s not rocket science,” Jeff Babitt said. “We’ve always been very self-sufficient, so a lot of this stuff is stuff we were doing anyway. This isn’t new; we’ve always had plants and animals, just on a smaller scale. We just didn’t know the rest of the peninsula liked this sort of stuff.”
But it’s more than just a retail supply of locally produced eggs, herbs, veggies and the like that is sprouting through Alaskan HomeGrown. Babitt is also nurturing a philosophy about self-sufficiency, community interaction and support that once was as commonplace as backyard garden plots, but in this day and age, has become just as outgrown.
Growing a lifestyle
Take a guy from Ohio with farmers in the family, cross with a girl from Glennallen who grew up gardening and raising animals and
you’ve got a couple rooted in practicality. Babitt said their family has always had at least a garden plot and put up their own food. They bought 25 acres in Kasilof about seven years ago and stepped up their self-sufficiency while taking a step down from modern conveniences. Babitt said Homer Electric Association would have charged an unaffordably astronomical sum to run power to their land, so they set up off the grid with wind and solar power, and expanded their food production activities.
These days they’ve got four acres of garden, with cows, chickens and plans to raise pigs for sale. They started selling their produce at farmers markets in the area and have tried various business endeavors, but hadn’t hit on anything that was financially sustainable.
“We’ve tried some other businesses, but they’re so economically driven,” Babitt said. “And before, we would do farmers markets but they’re only Wednesdays and Saturdays and the cash flow doesn’t pencil for what I have. I couldn’t bring enough produce or sell enough produce to make it work.”
This winter they started laying roots for growing the business. In January they began work on a greenhouse on the 1.25-acre parcel fronting K-Beach near the Poppy intersection, which is now open for business. The bulk of their production operation is in Kasilof, with the K-Beach location being a centrally located retail outlet. Though Southcentral’s spring growing season hasn’t yet kicked into full bloom, the greenhouse allows Alaskan HomeGrown to already sell lettuce, potatoes, herbs, cucumbers and a few other veggies, as well as an array of vegetable starts.
“I love it, you just get lost in here,” said Judy Benton, who works part-time in the greenhouse. “This time of year, people come in here and they stick their nose in the herbs and just get all excited. They smell things and they like the heat and the green stuff. We all miss that over the winter.”
Chickens and a rooster cluck and crow from a pen under a table. Tonka trucks are parked in the sand under another table, waiting
for little hands to put them to work while the owners’ parents browse the plants. Packets of Heirloom seeds for sale hang by the register. A grid of PVC pipes snaked with hoses serves as a hydroponics strawberry farm. Babitt already can’t keep up with demand for fresh eggs and is planning on adding 100 more chickens to the operation in Kasilof.
Smaller greenhouses sprout from the back section of the structure, where Babitt has a pipe-rolling machine to custom build greenhouses for sale. Setting up customers to grow their own produce when you’re in the produce-selling business may seem like the gardening equivalent of aerating oneself in the foot, but Babitt doesn’t see it that way.
Interest in local food production seems to be spreading on the peninsula, Babitt said, and he’d like to cross-pollinate his venture with the activities of others. The more the overall movement flourishes, the healthier everyone involved will grow.
“We all try to help each other out, because none of us have enough resources to do it by ourselves, so we’re trying to put together a sense of community. I guess what I’m saying is there’s hope. You see stuff like that, people helping each other out, and there’s hope,” he said.
Growing a community
Babitt and his workers mix their own dirt, starting with peat from a producer in Sterling, which is delivered by a friend with a truck. Tinker Ala, an electrician whose wife, Abby Ala, runs Strawberry Farms in Kenai, helped wire the Alaskan HomeGrown greenhouse, and Abby Ala has cucumbers for sale there. Carrol Martin from Diamond M Ranch delivered a load of manure, Babitt said. Bobbie Jackson of Jackson Gardens, Amy Dimmick of Winter Greens Organic Gardens, and Marion Nelson of the Central Peninsula Garden Club have offered invaluable advice, and Ron Sexton of Trinity Greenhouse has been a source of inspiration and encouragement, Babitt said.
All of them operate in the same industry, but rather than treating each other as competitors, they back each other up, Babitt said. Come summer, his new venue will be able to return the favor. He’s planning on hosting a farmer’s market at his location on K-Beach, where producers can set up permanent booths to sell their wares to the public. He’s got spaces for about 23 vendors to sell arts and crafts, produce, prepared food and the like. He’s also hoping to attract a petting zoo and other kids activities, plus coffee and ice cream stands.
Growers are well-acquainted with the idea that life is a web, within which everything circulates. Babitt takes the same perspective on the business community in the area.
“We try to patronize businesses that are owned by people that live here or in the state. We had a hardware store. How it worked was I came to your store to buy something, and within about a week you came to my store to buy something,” he said.
Babitt said he’s also looking to set up a farmers’ co-op, where producers who don’t have a high-traffic location or the time, means or proclivity to effectively sell their produce can do so through Alaskan HomeGrown. Producers can sell on consignment or sell straight to him for resale.
“What we’re trying to do is work with all the other kinds of people who do this kind of stuff. We’re noncompetitive. I’m not afraid to have someone bring their stuff in and sell it out of our location. I think it’s a civic responsibility to help. They need to make a living, too. We’re trying to provide a retail location for all those people who are good at the things they’re good at, but aren’t good at retail,” he said.
Growing a business
HomeGrown’s expansion has brought learning curves to navigate and a lot of hard work to be done, but incremental progress is nothing new to a food producer. Patience and pragmatism go hand in hand in this profession. Babitt has big goals for the future of the business. He’d like to transform the gravel lot he’s on — “make it all prettied up,” he said. He wants to attract vendors for the farmers market and partners for the co-op, and provide a commercial kitchen and bakery for local producers to use. He’d like to build an old-fashioned, post-and-beam country store, with pickle and candy barrels, a barrel stove, a bakery and coffee corner, “Where people can sit and argue until I throw them out,” he said. But it’ll all happen on a cash-available basis, he said.
Even with his hands full of projects, they can’t stay still. Visiting with customers in the greenhouse, Babitt picks wilting lettuce leaves to toss to the chickens, or idly plunges his hand into a tub of dirt, rolling the moist grit through his fingers.
As the plants grow, so, too, does Alaskan HomeGrown’s network of helpers.
Along with Benton, Michelle Martin is working on various projects, and Babitt has longtime friend and part-time employee Mike Mata helping out.
“Jeff’s the first guy I met on the peninsula when I moved back here. We’ve been friends ever since. Whenever Jeff needs me, I’m a phone call away,” Mata said.
The Babitts’ own five boys and daughter are at the greenhouse on Saturdays, and they can usually be found at work of their own volition.
“It’s optional for them, but the interesting thing about children is they usually choose to pitch in. We don’t have to encourage them or even ask them. They have the option of riding their bikes around the parking lot or being in the greenhouse helping, and they’re in there helping,” Babitt said.
On Monday, Eva Peterson was lending a hand transplanting herbs in exchange for vegetable starts. Peterson and her family live
nearby and figured she’d see if Babitt would be willing to arrange a work share.
“I didn’t really want to spend money on plants, so I asked if I could possibly help him out, trade some work for some plants. He said, ‘That’d be great,’ because there’s all this work to be done,” Peterson said. She wanted tomatoes and cucumbers for her greenhouse. “Aside from saving money, I think it’s more nutritious. And if I can grow enough to can or freeze any of it, that would be great. I’ve got a family of six, so saving on grocery bills is always nice.”
Babitt said he’s seeing growth in the grow-your-own mentality on the peninsula. He still shops for groceries, particularly staples like flour and salt, and it’s nice to buy a bag of chips or the occasional drive-through meal, he said. But producing as much food locally as possible doesn’t just nourish his business, it feeds the health of the overall community, he said.
“It’s just something that needs to happen. Ninety-four percent of our food comes up from the Lower 48, and the town needs to start paying attention. It needs to start growing vegetables again. We need to not be so dependent on the Lower 48 for our food. We’re so convenience-driven,” he said. “This is kind of a recession-proof job. You’ve gotta eat.”
For more information on Alaskan HomeGrown, visit its Facebook page.