Harvesting growing demand — Growers find favorable conditions to scale up commercial agriculture

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. High tunnels extend the growing season, retain heat and help mitigate against the challenges of Alaska’s climate, meaning things like sunflowers can be grown successfully. And “easier” plants to grow, like cucumbers, can be done in greater volume.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. High tunnels extend the growing season, retain heat and help mitigate against the challenges of Alaska’s climate, meaning things like sunflowers can be grown successfully. And “easier” plants to grow, like cucumbers, can be done in greater volume.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Alaskans: If you like organic, locally grown, so-fresh-there’s-still-dirt-on-it produce, then put your money where you’d like your mouth to be — taking a bite of flavorful broccoli, stuffed with a mouthful of peppery salad greens, crunching on a crispy carrot or dribbling from a juicy tomato.

That’s the message local growers and agricultural supporters hope consumers are getting from events like the second annual Harvest Moon Local Foods Week, continuing through Saturday on the central Kenai Peninsula, and the summerlong farmers markets that are now winding down as growing season is coming to a close and the increasingly productive local garden beds are being tucked in for winter.

“If we’re serious about having a vibrant agricultural sector of our local economy, we have to be serious as consumers about putting our dollars in local agriculture high tunnel cucumbers copy 2products and local food. That’s what allows our local farmers to scale up,” said Heidi Chay, district manager for the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District.

So far, so good on that front, as there’s been growth in consumers looking for locally produced agriculture — with more customers visiting farmers markets, buying directly from neighborhood farms or shopping the Alaska Grown sections of supermarkets, said Danny Consenstein, executive director for the Alaska Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The number of farms in Alaska has grown. The numbers of farmers markets — we’ve got more than we’ve ever had. There’s more sales. Alaska is growing, it’s one of (the fastest-growing agricultural sectors) in the nation. And maybe we had further to go, but we’ve moved up,” he said.

But there’s also growth in types of consumers. There’s increasing value-added products being made using Alaska-grown ingredients, governmental agencies are procuring more from instate sources — such as school districts for lunch programs and the Department of Corrections for feeding inmates — and restaurants are sourcing directly from local producers, as well.

On the central peninsula, restaurant participation has been one of the areas of growth in the local foods week program from the first event last year to this year, the trend that Chay said makes her the most excited. Three restaurants participated in 2013, offering specials highlighting local foods. This year there were nine. Local restaurants in general are working more with local growers. Those relationships are crucial to local growers being able to scale up from gardening just for family and friends to having sustainable commercial operations.

“In talking to last year’s participants I’m discovering that relationships are growing between local farmers and restaurants that participated last year, so that’s really cool. Restaurants and farmers both are learning about each other and working together more, so that’s exciting,” Chay said. “If you can figure it out for one week then maybe next year you can plan in advance and actually talk with a farmer over the winter and actually plant what it is you’d like to be purchasing throughout the season next year.”

In Alaska, farming is small scale. It’s individual. It’s a couple with a couple of high tunnels, and couple-acre plots worked by the owners and maybe an employee or two brought on around harvest time. But there’s more and more of those setups every year, with production also increasing as new growers navigate the learning curves of agriculture in Alaska.

Happily for these small-scale producers, demand for locally grown products also has proven strong and still growing.

“I think the consumer side is actually what’s driving this. I’m not worried about the demand side drying up,” Consenstein said. “I think people are starting to choose local and I think that trend is going to keep growing. Particularly in Alaska, I think people understand the benefits of buying local, they understand the taste and health benefits of buying something that’s fresh. I think they understand the economic tradeoff of keeping dollars in your community.”

The challenge, then, isn’t creating demand, it’s the details of supplying that market in a manner that’s efficient, effective and sustainable. The use of high tunnels has greatly helped producers mitigate the challenges of agriculture in Alaska, by extending the growing season and offering some protection against the challenging and changing weather conditions.

A cost-sharing program through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has continued to see increased participation. In October 2012 there were 232 high tunnels on the Kenai Peninsula that came about through participation in the NRCS program. In April 2014 there were 274 on the peninsula, out of 510 in Alaska, with applications for 166 more. And that doesn’t even count the other high tunnels that are built without NRCS support.

It takes most growers a few years to get used to the technology before they can put it to commercial use.

“That’s the right way to do it if you’re a beginner is start small and as you learn more you can do more,” Consenstein said. “It’s a learning curve. Which crops work best, how do you rotate them through? Even experienced farmers are learning every year.”

Moving to the commercial realm, the learning curve isn’t just how to grow, it’s how to grow what consumers want to buy, in the quantities and time frames they’ll want to buy them. Consenstein tells of a new farmer in Fairbanks who started greens early, then switched to tomatoes and cucumbers only to discover the local market was in fresh greens all summer long.

On the peninsula, Chay mentioned a grower having 300 pounds of spinach early in the season he couldn’t sell, and another with hundreds of heads of lettuce he ended up having to donate to a wildlife sanctuary because buyers wanted something else at the time. Or the converse — restaurants in August wanting salad greens from a grower who had already switched to root vegetables. Growing is about planning and patience. It simply isn’t feasible to make spur-of-the-moment changes.

“That’s a big reason why we have a local food group and a local foods directory and are trying hard to make the connection between farmers and consumers,” Chay said. “And I think we will start seeing certain farmers start to specialize and not trying to grow everything. But I think that’s just beginning. A lot of the high tunnel growers are still trying to grow everything and trying to figure out what the market wants.”

Storage is another challenge in Alaska. It’d be great to supply local produce beyond just the growing season, but people are just now starting to work out how to store what’s grown in the summer for commercial supply in the winter. On a recent trip to visit with farmers on the Kenai Peninsula, Consenstein said he heard a lot about the need of food storage from several people.

“That’s a constraint. You can only grow so many potatoes, for example, if you don’t have room to put them. Somebody might have land and a tractor and the ability to grow a lot more, but it can only be sold when it’s harvested and it can’t be stored and sold later, which a lot of crops could — cabbage, carrots, potatoes, you could be selling them throughout the fall and winter if you had a good place to keep them,” he said. “I think storage is something that could benefit Alaska in other ways, too — with food security, in times of natural disaster or emergency, if we had more storage we’d be more secure. So it’s not only a constraint on production, but we want to be better prepared.”

Another challenge Consenstein heard about on his trip is consumers beyond just the human variety.

“People talk about predator and game problems — bears or something eating their chickens, or moose eating their hay,” he said. “I’m not sure there’s a good answer, but it’s one of the things I heard, ‘If we’re going to be successful, that’s one of the problems.’”

The path to more agriculture Alaska might be a challenging row to hoe, but progress is continuing. Consenstein noted elements in the newly passed U.S. Farm Bill that will support small-scale farmers, such as help with loan programs, crop insurance and education. The state of Alaska also has demonstrated a commitment to support agriculture, including state agencies purchasing more food locally, and the creation of the Alaska Food Resource Working Group, which connects representatives of all the state agencies that in some way deal with food to recommend policies and measures to increase the purchase and consumption of local wild seafood and farm products.

“I think that’s exciting that the state is seeing that food is something we should paying attention to. Whether it’s for economic reasons or health reasons or emergency-preparedness reasons — there are all kinds of good policy reasons why we should pay attention to where we get our food,” Consenstein said.

There also are grassroots efforts to coordinate, collaborate and educate. The Alaska Food Policy Council is a new nonprofit open to anyone interested in improving Alaska’s food systems, currently connecting more than 175 agencies and individuals representing federal and state agencies, tribal entities, schools, university programs, farmers, fisheries and food systems businesses. The AFPC will offer an Alaska Food Festival and Conference from Nov. 7 to 9 at the University of Alaska Anchorage, open to anyone interested in food in Alaska, with presentations, group discussions and workshops around a wide variety of Alaska’s food topics.

Locally, the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District offers various programs to support producers and the Soldotna University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Office and Central Peninsula Garden Club offer a wealth of information and connections to help aspiring farmers get growing.

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