By Jenny Neyman
What is Matti’s Farm? Beyond stating the obvious — livestock and crops and such — at this point it might be easier to explain what it’s not than all the ideas, goals and aspirational dreams of what organizers hope it will become.
The nonprofit organization is proposed as a solution to many problems plaguing the central Kenai Peninsula. At first blush these problems, though significant, seem hodgepodge in terms of interrelation, as if the results of a brainstorm about community weaknesses were dumped in a hat and drawn at random:
Unsustainability of the predominantly shipped-in food supply and the social, health and economic harms that come from people being disconnected from fresh foods, kids with emotional and developmental challenges lacking access to a therapeutic treatment program, teens needing training in vocational skills and work ethic, city kids wanting to participate in 4-H but lacking space to do so, fish waste overwhelming the Kenai beach during dip-netting season, foster kids being shipped far away due to a lack of local placement options, the borough landfill facing a costly expansion, youth soccer players needing a snow-free place to practice in spring, or beginning dog mushers needing practice trails without fear of running into moose.
What do they have in common? If organizers’ plans coalesce and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly grants a lease request for a 240-acre parcel of land along Kalifornsky Beach Road, they will all have Matti’s Farm as a solution.
Although, not a solution in and of itself, exactly. More like a nourishing environment in which ideas, partner organizations and efforts toward change can be planted, helped to grow and harvested for the good of the entire community.
“If you can just envision Matti’s Farm as a catalyst, analogous to a spoke and wheel. We’ve got a little hub here, but wouldn’t it be great if (a youth therapy group) contributed one spoke, and 4-H was another spoke, and the Boys and Girls Club another, until finally everybody’s working together so this whole wheel coalesced in one place under one theme of furthering ecologically sound food production with giving disadvantaged children a leg up. It’s going to help the whole community, regardless of their age. This whole wheel is going to make our quality of life better for everybody,” said Blair Martin, treasurer of Matti’s Farm.
The borough Planning Commission on April 22 considered a petition submitted by David Thomas, president of Matti’s Farm, to classify a 240-acre parcel of currently undesignated borough land as institutional, opening it for use by churches, private schools, cemeteries, clubs, associations or nonprofit organizations. Classification is required in order for Matti’s Farm to obtain a 20-year lease of the land, as it hopes to do.
The parcel is off K-Beach Road behind Trinity Greenhouse, just north of the Duck Inn and Red Diamond Center, extending to the east to Ravenwood Street and Poppy Ridge Road, and south to Bonita Avenue. It’s in the vicinity of gravel-extraction operations, though does not contain a gravel pit. The parcel was appraised in 2012 at $1.8 million.
Borough planning department staff recommended that the commission instead classify the parcel as resource management, which would not allow it to be leased. According to a staff report, “The subject parcel is one of the borough’s most prime and versatile land holdings in the central Kenai Peninsula area and is strategically located to serving the growing community center of Kalifornsky known as Red Diamond. Because of its location, characteristics and versatility, this property is expected to continue to become increasingly important for the growth and sustainability of the surrounding community. … Classification of the subject land, determinative of its long-term use, is premature as the highest and best uses of the subject land is to be realized in the future.”
Despite that recommendation, the commission voted unanimously — with Martin, a commission member, abstaining — to approve the request to classify the land as institutional, clearing the way for Matti’s Farm’s lease application to be considered by the assembly at its May 7 meeting. The decision wasn’t without some discussion, Martin said. Commission member Robert Ruffner, himself the head of a nonprofit organization, the Kenai Watershed Forum, had questions about the organization’s goals and plans, Martin said.
“He recognized the infancy of the organization and gave us several polite chastisements, that the design isn’t well fleshed out and stuff like that. I told him, ‘Absolutely, that was by design,’” Martin said. “We wanted to get this out into the public and let the public weigh in on what direction they want to move with this public land.”
That sort of input and organizational partnering is how the project has taken shape thus far — unusual though that shape may be. It started simply, with the Martin family, of Diamond M Ranch and Resort on K-Beach, believing in the positive impact that raising food and animals can have, and wanting to share the agricultural experience with youth, especially those from disadvantaged and at-risk populations particularly in need of gaining the skills, work ethic and sense of accomplishment that can come from working on a farm.
“All the way around the circle the (planning) commissioners made their unique comments on how a farm upbringing is helpful. Isn’t that what every young employer is looking for — honesty, strong work ethic, devotion to duty and sticking to it?” Martin said. “We don’t have it precisely scientifically quantifiable why growing up on a farm is so advantageous, we just know it is. But we don’t have to analyze it, let’s just replicate it and start with some children who need it the most, who don’t have a stable, two-parent family.”
A family tragedy in August 2009, the death of Blair and Ronna Martin’s 9-year-old son, Matthias “Matti” Martin, motivated the family to start putting those beliefs into action. But the more people and groups they spoke to about their ideas for Matti’s Farm, the more they realized that, in pursuing the central mission of giving disadvantaged kids the benefits of a farm experience, they could help tackle several other local issues, as well.
“What we’re trying to do is take a bunch of ideas that a lot of people have had and coalesce them into one place,” Martin said. “There are other ways to slowly chip away — get some private grants, start small — but we’re setting our sight high on this 240 acres because we believe it’s best choice and in the best public interest.”
Already on-board is Nature’s Way Rehabilitation Services, offering hippotherapy (hippo being Greek for horse) to kids with disabilities, including occupational and speech therapy. Currently the program trailers and transports its horses about 20 miles each way, each day to an outdoor arena that is only usable in the summer. Interest in the program is growing, but its available space to operate is not.
“We would love to collaborate with another nonprofit that could lease us land. One of Matti’s Farm’s long-term goals is to have an indoor riding facility, which would allow us to operate year-round and expand to serve more clients. … There are many existing agencies/nonprofits that already have up-and-running programs that are operating just like ours that would benefit from this 240-acre borough land parcel being approved for a lease to the nonprofit group Matti’s Farm,” wrote Angela Beplat, of Nature’s Way, in support of Matti’s Farm.
Carroll Martin, Blair’s dad, obtained a large, roughly 140-by-200-foot building from the BP Gas-to-Liquids facility with roofing material that lets about 80 percent of natural light in. If Matti’s Farm gets land on which to operate, they plan to use the building as an indoor riding arena in the winter for youth involved in Matti’s Farm. But why stop there, when so many other groups could use a large, covered, protected-from-the-elements space? Youth soccer could practice there in the spring, when they otherwise would be waiting for snow to melt off their fields, Martin said. Nature’s Way could operate its hippotherapy year-round. All the area’s horse enthusiasts could have a covered rodeo ground. Possibilities go on and on.
As for farming, a high-tunnel greenhouse and raised-bed garden plots would be immediate priorities, to get kids working in the dirt as soon as possible.
“Stuff to make the kids excited about growing — things that they could eat right away, like peas and carrots and broccoli,” Martin said.
The Boys and Girls Club and other youth groups and organizations could come for field trips and activities, and Matti’s Farm is planning on bringing the farm to kids, Martin said. They’re working on acquiring school buses, equipping them with planters and turning them into mobile greenhouses.
“We can bring the growing environment to the schools. Volunteers would show up with a pre-approved curriculum once a week for a spring growing lesson, with the kids hands-on in the dirt growing something exciting, and the school district doesn’t have to maintain the facility,” Martin said.
Martin also sees potential for a cash crop that participants of Matti’s Farm could operate.
“What bugs me is the unsustainabiltiy of shipping Christmas trees from the Lower 48 to Alaska. I’ve looked, and one of the things we can grow good up here is trees,” Martin said. “We could teach the kids how to prune Christmas trees and in one or two years they’d have a marketable product that they could sell that would compete with what’s shipped in (because theirs wouldn’t have shipping costs) and there’s no carbon footprint.”
The farm would involve pasture fencing and other facilities for livestock — the usual and potentially not-so-usual varieties.
“4-H is really excited about broadening the species spectrum wider than just cows and pigs and sheep to include reindeer. Reindeer are going to need confinement to keep wild caribou and moose out,” Martin said. “So this would be a perfect match. And kids that live in town or don’t have the wherewithal to confine these projects, they could be housed on this property within these pasture enclosures.”
Horse enthusiasts using the property will want trails on which to ride. Come winter those trails could be used for other pursuits, such as cross-country skiing. And the local dog mushing community has indicated interest in having some beginner-friendly trails. Matti’s Farm is planning pasture fencing anyway to keep raised critters in and wild ones out.
“Junior dog mushers could start without worrying about getting stomped by a moose,” Martin said.
The ultimate goal of Matti’s Farm is to be a stable home for peninsula foster kids.
“All this infrastructure is mainly pointing toward someday — years down the line, but hopefully not too many years — a place where foster children could spend their formative years growing up on a farm, not being transferred from one good-hearted couple to the next, depending on how well it worked out in each different situation,” Martin said.
Though Martin and his wife, Ronna, don’t anticipate being foster parents themselves, he said that he’s seen firsthand the importance of helping these kids, as Martin’s parents fostered when he was growing up, and both he and Ronna are certified teachers.
“Foster kids are getting a bum rap and our culture needs change. How best to change our culture then to work with the young folks? And we’re not just talking about food production here, we’re talking about giving kids a solid, healthy way of growing up,” he said.
Matti’s Farm would like to build housing that could be offered at low cost to families taking in foster kids. That would do two things. One is provide a stable, enriching environment for local kids in need of placement, instead of them getting bounced around several times, being sent off the peninsula or even sent out of state because of a lack of local placements.
“That way there would be stability. They would have the same school, the same bedroom, same pets, same chores, the same backyard and everything. That would be less disruptive to their lives,” Martin said.
And two, it would it would allow willing, loving, quality families to participate in foster care when they otherwise wouldn’t have the finances to do so.
“There are a lot of people out there who think foster care would be exciting but they’re just not in an economic situation where they have an extra bedroom or can afford it,” Martin said. “In this situation we would lower that threshold and make it less complicated to be involved. There’s no direct correlation between being qualified to be a good foster parent and being financially potentially wealthy. If this nonprofit could subsidize the housing part of the equation, then one parent could stay home and be with the kids. The more people who try it I’m sure that we would have more people who like it.”
The legal details and licensing aspects of the foster care portion of Matti’s Farm would need to be ironed out as the project progresses, and Martin says the nonprofit has knowledgeable people involved to spearhead that focus, including board member Tim Gillis, director of Nakenu Family Services and a mental health clinician with a private practice and involvement in the New Hope Counseling Center.
“I don’t have all the answers, but what I’m trying to do is coalesce a group that thinks this is important and wants to pursue this as a community,” Martin said.
But how is this going to come about, and be financially sustainable? Organizers have a plan for that, too. Rather, several plans.
Stipends go along with foster care, and though it’s not usually enough to cover a foster family’s costs, it would be a help in contributing toward housing on the farm, Martin said. And he expects to be able to access funding as a foster care community, especially if it would keep kids from being sent away, as happens currently.
“I’m a free-market capitalist. I don’t want to be always looking to government grants as the answer, but the money’s being spent on transporting these kids temporarily outside of our borough, and closer to home is better no matter what. It’s just an automatic fit. Once I started realizing how much need there was, then I started getting really motivated,” Martin said.
He’s already gotten support from vocational education programs that could provide the labor to build housing and other structures on the farm, and expects to find donations to help with materials.
“They get the experience of building buildings without having to come up with their own land, and Matti’s Farm gets buildings. I’m sure there would be a lot of entities that would be willing to help us out with materials once we build credibility,” he said.
As for operating costs, this is a farm, after all. Residents and participants will be expected to work for their keep, and the farm must earn its keep, as well. There will be some produce to sell — food, livestock and the Christmas trees. But the big plan is to branch into composting. Namely, “Solve the fish waste problem at the mouth of the Kenai River,” Martin said.
“Use that as a revenue stream. We’ve got some possible buyers looking at that product. Salmon compost is becoming notorious as some of the best money can buy, so it’s just a matter of us producing it. You can imagine the hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish carcasses that are getting dumped at the mouth of the Kenai River during dip-netting season,” he said.
The Martins have already experimented with composting, collecting the fish waste from summer guests at Diamond M and turning it into nourishing fertilizer. Diamond M usually orders two, 6-yard Dumpsters that get emptied three times a week in July. Last year they only ordered one for only trash and used all organic waste for composting.
The city of Kenai already is working toward curtailing the practice of just sweeping fish waste into the surf. Martin said he’s been in touch with the city and is working toward a plan to haul fish waste from the dip-net fishery to the farm to compost it, then sell it.
“They’re already one year ahead of us (in designating containers for fish waste), and we’re all moving in the same direction. We just need a good place to process it,” Martin said.
But why stop with just the Kenai beach? Martin said he also has been in touch with the director of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Landfill in Soldotna. The landfill is reaching capacity and expansion costs millions of dollars. Every bit of waste than can diverted from going into the landfill — whether through recycling or composting — will help postpone future expansion costs. Martin’s idea is to collect organic waste from the landfill and compost it. If a pilot composting program proves successful, he hopes to approach the borough for a contract to continue the service.
“At the assembly level we can ask them to chip in if we can prove how much money we saved them over a few years,” Martin said.
So, let’s see — cleaning up the Kenai beaches and the borough landfill, enriching the lives of foster children, providing recreational and therapeutic opportunities for area youth, contributing to a sustainable food supply. And that’s just the current plans. As more people get involved, more ideas might develop.
“That’s the scary part. I always hesitate to spill all the beans because it would bury you,” Martin said. “I’m just a dreamer and a schemer. An idea has to start somewhere. Dad and I been talking about this for years, trying to figure out a way to get the ball rolling.”
If they’re going to start, they might as well start big, Martin said. That’s why Matti’s Farm is applying for the lease on the 240-acre borough parcel, and that’s why they’ve got a call out for volunteers and supporters interested in helping with any or all portions of the nonprofit. They particularly need someone to act as executive director, Martin said.
“We need help. That’s our big thing right now. Dad and I have a can-do attitude — we can do anything, but we can’t do everything. We’re really at a chicken-and-an-egg scenario. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? I don’t know anybody who lays eggs, so we need to figure out some other way to make it work.”
But Matti’s Farm intends to temper possibilities with practicality. It wants to be a hub of a spoked wheel, not reinvent one.
“We want to think big but we don’t want to overpromise,” he said. “I’m not an inventor. I don’t generate any novel ideas. All I do is collect ideas that have been done. This model has been built before.”
And if anybody can find solutions, work hard and see things through, it’s a bunch of farmers.
“If this is as good an idea as I think it is, it’ll go, and we’ll take it back to the assembly and we’ll extend the lease or we’ll do a purchase at fair market value, or less than fair market value depending on what we can justify. I mean, if we really are saving the community money and providing a great service, the community representatives — the assembly — should decide that,” Martin said. “It’s a simple matter of proving ourselves over the first five years. If it grows, it goes and if it doesn’t, it’s been nice knowing you and we’ll do something smaller.”
For more information on Matti’s Farm, visit www.mattisfarm.org.