By Jenny Neyman
Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Farmers markets are sprouting up all over Alaska these days, yet another sign of a growing agricultural culture.
Here’s something to chew on with your breakfast: The eggs for that omelet you’re eating — or the milk in your cereal, the meat in your sausage, the honey in your tea, the jam on your toast — probably wasn’t produced in Alaska. But half a century ago, it probably was.
The factors contributing to this fact are many, and about as complicated as making a soufflé in an Easy-Bake Oven with no electricity at the 17,200-foot camp on Denali’s west buttress.
Convenience, cost, and consumer demand related to those, are big parts of the equation. It’s also a product of changes in globalization, infrastructure, transportation, supply chains, the increase in corporations and conglomerations vs. privately owned businesses, marketing strategies, subsidies, technologies and growing conditions. It doesn’t break down into an easy recipe, with one part of this to two parts of that, or three tablespoons of this whisked into four cups of that.
The result, however, is quantifiable: In 1955, 55 percent of the food consumed in Alaska was produced in Alaska. Today, a mere 5 percent of the food Alaskans eat is produced in Alaska.
And that, say experts concerned with the health, stability and economy of Alaska, is as bitter a problem as mistaking salt for sugar.
“In 1955 we were pretty self-sufficient, but from 1955 to 2010, we have gone from being self-reliant and independent to completely vulnerable, completely dependent on the next plane,” said Danny Consenstein, director of the Alaska Farm Service Agency of the United States Department of Agriculture.
Consenstein points to three justifications for needing a better local foods system in Alaska:
“Alaskans spend $2 billion a year on food. Ninety-five percent of that is leaving the state. Imagine if just 10 percent more stayed here — if we went from 5 to 15 percent. That 10 percent is like $200 million dollars that would be bouncing around local communities,” he said. “So the economic potential, I think, is big for Alaska. Why are we sending all of our dollars to Mexico or California when we could be keeping it right here?”
“We clearly have health problems in Alaska — obesity, diabetes, especially in the Bush. It’s got to be connected to the food that we’re eating. If we can provide healthier, fresh, nutritious, local food, it’s got to be good for Alaska,” he said.
3. Security and the ability to be more self-reliant in an emergency. Advances in transportation are part of the reason why Alaska moved more to importing food than producing its own, because it became faster and cheaper to bridge the gap between Alaska and beyond. But that gap still exists, both between the state and the main food-producing regions of the world, as well as within Alaska, with rural communities separated from main distribution hubs. An earthquake, fire, flood, avalanche, volcanic eruption or a number of other uncontrollable events could disrupt supply chains, with grocery stores only stocking enough to feed residents for a few days to, maybe, a week.
“How can Alaska be more prepared for an emergency? It’s a lot more than just stockpiling. It’s strategies like helping farmers grow more food. And maybe that’s a longer-term strategy. It won’t help us tomorrow, but in 10 years from now if we can get from 5 to 15 percent, we will be more secure, more protected against supply disruptions,” Consenstein said.
Getting there will take a homegrown revolution, the seeds of which have already been planted and the budding shoots of which can have taken root on the Kenai Peninsula.