By Jenny Neyman
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.
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.
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.”
At first she sold just to neighbors.
“I kind of developed a market as I went along through word of mouth. Marketing is a problem sometimes because of the time involved, but if you’ve got happy clientele they spread the word,” she said. “I was pretty successful with getting rid of everything I grew, but my production has gone up.”
And what does “gone up” mean, exactly? Well, various berries, six kinds of carrots, four kinds of beets, six kinds of onions, 12 kinds of potatoes, seven kinds of winter squash, five kinds of green beans, 11 kinds of summer squash, five kinds of cauliflower, five kinds of cabbage, three kinds of broccoli and 31 kinds of tomatoes.
“I like an assortment,” she said.
On Monday she and her husband picked only a few of their 18 winter squash plants and already had 228 pounds of produce.
“My production went up, and, so, I had a gal I met that talked me into going to market,” she said.
Taking her produce to one of the four local farmer’s markets, she means. Specifically, the Farmer’s Fresh Market at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank on Tuesdays. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, going to customers instead of customers coming to her, but she’s found it to cut more successfully than not.
“It takes a lot of time to get ready to go, load up and go down there, but it’s pretty productive. You get a lot of sales in one afternoon,” she said.
All aspects of farmers markets on the central peninsula have grown in recent years — there’s more markets, more producers taking part, more to be purchased and more customers to do the buying.
Heidi Chay, Kenai district manager for the Soil and Water Conservation District, said that Bittick is a prime example of that growing success.
“There’s a learning curve, generally, that people didn’t necessarily go into the high-tunnel growing thinking that they would be marketing produce, or they were just marketing to their neighbors very effectively but at a certain point they’ve scaled up enough that it just made sense,” Chay said. “She is just a great example of the scale of farming that makes sense on the Kenai Peninsula — it’s small and it’s intensive. For the most part the people who are really dynamic and growing farm-based businesses here are producing all that they can off of a half an acre, or an acre or two 2 acres.”
Bittick, coming from a family farming background, had a gentler learning curve than many who also are new to growing commercially on the peninsula. Gardening in Idaho is different than gardening in Alaska, and the realm of high tunnels and marketing is still a new experience.
It’s imperative to have a long-range plan, Bittick said. Every aspect of her operation has been plotted in advance — from how many, when and where her raised beds and high tunnels would go in, to crop rotation, to marketing her harvest — including CSA subscriptions and seasonal bulk advance orders for potatoes and such — to having a backup plan.
“I’m sure I’m going to reach a point and a plateau and then I’ll probably start doing some more value-added products,” she said, adding to the salsa, tomatillo sauce, bread-and-butter pickles and picked beets she already sells.
But so far, what she grows, goes.
“It helps that there’s an awareness in local-grown food. That’s been a tremendous help,” Bittick said. “People are willing to pay a little more for things that are grown locally, aren’t saturated with herbicides and pesticides. It just tastes so much better. And it’s fresh. Like I’ve told my customers, I call them and say, ‘It’s ready, come and get it. It doesn’t know it’s dead yet.’”
Dig in to local food
The second annual Harvest Moon Local Food Week will be held Sept. 14 to 20 on the central Kenai Peninsula, including:
- Apple tasting from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 14 at O’Brien Garden and Trees in Nikiski (follow signs from the Kenai Spur Highway and North Miller Loop). $5 admission.
- Local berry hike with the UAF Cooperative Extension from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Sept. 15 starting at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank. Free.
- Slideshow presentation, “Harvesting Wild Alaska Sea Vegetables,” with Eliza and Conner Eller, of Ionia, at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Soldotna Public Library. Free.
- Screening of the documentary, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” at 7 p.m. Sept. 19 at the residence hall at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus, followed by a “Farming on the Kenai” panel discussion at 8:30 p.m. Free.
- Local foods lunch at 1 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Soldotna Public Library. Free.
- Presentation by Gary Ferguson, wellness and prevention director at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, on the “Store Outside Your Door: Food As Medicine,” at 2 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Soldotna Public Library. Free.
- Screening of the documentary, “Eating Alaska,” which chronicles the journey made by a former urban vegetarian now living on an island in Alaska as she explores food traditions and community connections, at 3 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Soldotna Public Library. Free.
- Local Food Week also includes Harvest Moon specials at several restaurants on the central Kenai Peninsula. Visit the Kenai Local Food page on Facebook for a list.
- Farmers Markets continue in their regular times and locations — 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at the food bank, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Soldotna Elementary School bus lot, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. (The Soldotna Wednesday Market has closed for the year.)