By Joseph Robertia
Long winters, short summers, sloppy breakup floods, land rife with spruce trees and stumps making it tough to clear — agriculture in Alaska has its challenges, but that can make the fruits of farming labor all the more satisfying.
With so many difficulties, it can take many people working together to succeed, and that spirit of partnership was the purpose of third annual Kenai Peninsula Ag Forum, presented by the Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development District.
“It’s an educational event, and the hope is to bring agricultural producers from across the peninsula together — whether they grow flowers, produce, hay, livestock, whatever — to build a sense of community, and so they can exchange ideas,” said Heidi Chay, one of the organizers of this year’s event.
According to the Kenai Peninsula Census of Ag Data, as presented by Sue Benz of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, there are 124 farms on the peninsula, up from the 98 farms recorded by the census in 2002. Lee Coray Ludden, providing an update on the Alaska Fiber Association, said there also are numerous farms with four-legged animals across Alaska, including several on the peninsula, and these are home to as many as 18 different fiber-producing animals, such as sheep, alpacas and lamas.
Though growing, these figures are a small fraction considering the farmable land suitable for crops and/or livestock on the peninsula. So what limits the growth of more farms and farmers?
“The rigors of farming in Alaska are a lot more demanding than anywhere else,” said presenter Wayne Floyd, a peony grower from Cool Cache Farms, as one possibility.
Based on Lower 48, large-scale agricultural standards comprised of hundreds to thousands of acres of land, Alaska farming may barely seem comparable, he said. But what Alaska farmers lack in the size of their operations, they often make up for in diversity. Floyd has grown hay and commercially cultivated bees prior to growing peonies.
The same could be said for filling niche markets. With peonies, for instance, the Alaska-grown flower begins to bloom just as the Lower 48 flower season is ending, providing a product for late-season weddings and other special events.
But farming is about more than pulling on the boots, rolling up the sleeves and developing calloused hands from tilling the soil. In the modern age, farming is also about technology.
“We’re now just three clicks away from anyone, anywhere in the world,” said Richard Repper, a peony grower from Echo Lake Farms.
Repper was speaking from experience. Peonies may be marketed through flower brokers, or cooperatively or privately, and he has had a bride in a crunch contact him at the last minute for peonies.
“And when the end users can speak directly to the grower it makes them very happy,” he said.
Becoming tech savvy means more than just having a website and a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Being connected also means becoming networked with cooperative extension services, national associations, and regional and state associations of growers.
Repper went on to explain other business aspects of farming that are often overlooked by would-be or first-time growers, such as keeping good records, getting borough and state licenses, having a qualified accountant, the possibility of incorporating and having farm insurance.
“In the world of flowers, distance is no object and the buyer pays the freight,” Repper said, himself having sent peonies all the way to Italy for an event.
Like the roses that come here on Valentine’s Day, from South America or as far as Africa, Repper said that while these peonies may get shipped around the world, the money paid from them comes here.
“It’s not just oil and gas, mining and fishing that can bring money from Outside. Ag can also bring money right here to the local community,” he said.
Other presentations included “Borough Land Use Survey Results: Ag on the Map,” by Marcus Mueller of the Borough Land Management Office; “Ag Marketing in Alaska,” by Amy Petit of the Alaska Division of Agriculture; “What is Sustainable Agriculture?” by Lydia Clayton of Cooperative Extension Service and Rupert Scribner of Funny River Fjord Ranch; “Certified Seed Potato Production,” by Don McNamara and Donna Rae Faulkner or Oceanside Farms; “High Tunnel News from Homer,” by Kyra Wagner of Sustainable Homer; and “Introduction to Food Safety for Growers,” by John Walker of JTAK Food Safety.
For more information on the Ag Forum, contact Heidi Chay of the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District at 283-8732, ext. 108.