By Jenny Neyman
When people think about the economy of the Kenai Peninsula, it’s usually oil and gas, fishing, and maybe education, health care or government. But there’s a growing trend to add another sector to that list — farming.
“These are not hobby farmers, these are hard-working folks. They are investing in infrastructure, they are buying equipment, they’re building storage, they’re building refrigeration for peonies, they’re putting up more high tunnels planting more. These folks are thinking ahead, and I think the rest of us should, as well,” said Heidi Chay, manager of the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District, speaking at a Kenai Chamber of Commerce meeting Dec. 16.
Commercial agriculture is typically thought of on a big scale, but the Kenai Peninsula is growing its own agricultural revolution, one small operation at a time.
“Today the farms that are making headlines are the small farms under 10 acres, very likely under 5 acres,” Chay said.
From 2007 to 2012, there was an 11 percent increase in the number of farms statewide, and a 62 percent increase in the number of farms selling direct to consumers. On the Kenai Peninsula, farm numbers increased 30 percent in that time frame, and direct-selling operations have increased 111 percent.
A lot of that increase is due to high tunnels. The Kenai Peninsula has the highest number of high tunnels per capita in the country.
“If you don’t know already, this technology has transformed farming and food production in this state,” Chay said. “We can grow crops that we couldn’t grow easily here before. And these high tunnels lengthen the season significantly enough that farmers can harvest earlier than ever before, allowing them to put in a second crop, or even a third.”
The Kenai Peninsula is home to Alaska’s first and biggest peony farm, and the peninsula has 30 percent of the peony farms in the state.
“In 2012, Kenai Peninsula farms produced nearly $2 million worth of crops and livestock, and all indicators are that things have continued to grow in the last three years,” she said.
But the peninsula — and all of Alaska — still has a ways to go to develop agriculture.
Amy Seitz grew up farming in Soldotna, and now is the executive director of the Alaska Farm Bureau. She said that 95 to 98 percent of Alaska’s food is shipped in.
“And this also means that the money is leaving the state. Ninety-eight percent of our food is from outside the state, so that means all that money is going somewhere else,” Seitz said.
She wants to see that change.
“The people who eat the food should also being letting elected officials know that it’s important, we want to have fresh food, we want to have food security, and also just buying Alaska-grown products,” Seitz said.
Currently, Alaska-grown products are about a $30 million industry in the state, and about $2 million on the peninsula. The Alaska Farm Bureau is promoting a $5-a-week challenge. If everyone in the state bought an Alaska-grown sack of potatoes, carton of eggs, jar of jelly or bottle of wine a week, it could grow the industry to $188 million.
“It will help stabilize the economy, you’re getting fresher food, it tastes better, it doesn’t have to travel as far,” Seitz said.
Beyond advocating that Alaskans put their money where their mouths are, the Alaska Farm Bureau also is working on securing the future of the Alaska Meat and Sausage facility in Palmer, which is the only USDA-certified slaughterhouse in the state. Another initiative is promoting the Alaska Products Preference program to encourage state agencies to purchase Alaska-made products whenever possible.
And the organization is working on a long-range plan to help keep agriculture growing in Alaska.
“We need to look at what policies are needed, what policies hurt the agriculture industry, what infrastructure is needed to build the industry, and how to build markets, how to increase production. How to make agriculture more of a contributor to our economy,” Seitz said.
For more information, visit alaskafb.org and kenaisoilandwater.org.