Category Archives: agriculture

Growing the economy — agriculture flourishing on Kenai Peninsula

Redoubt Reporter file photos. Kenai Peninsula growers are finding high tunnels effective for Alaska-hardy produce as well as more exotic fare, such as corn and fruit trees.

Redoubt Reporter file photos. Kenai Peninsula growers are finding high tunnels effective for Alaska-hardy produce as well as more exotic fare, such as corn and fruit trees.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

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.”

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Picked to pour — Alaska Berries plans winery from plant to finished product

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Brian Olson, owner of Alaska Berries, and wife, Laurie, opened their new winery about two weeks ago. It’s the only estate winery in the state — which grows all its own fruit to use in its wines.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Brian Olson, owner of Alaska Berries, and wife, Laurie, opened their new winery about two weeks ago. It’s the only estate winery in the state — which grows all its own fruit to use in its wines.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

By the time Alaska Berries opened its new winery last month, owners Brian and Laurie Olson had already spent two years of intricate, meticulously conducted, carefully recorded experimentation, testing and polling in creating their menu of fruit wines.

They built a facility just for this purpose, with conditions specifically designed for optimal wine production and storage.

They’ve spent over 10 years gradually working toward this step in their long-term plan for their farm, starting with gradually clearing and fencing their 4 acres at the end of West Poppy Lane off Kalifornsky Beach Road between Kenai and Soldotna, then cultivating and perfecting their berry plants, selling plant starts, expanding into producing and selling jams and syrups, and, finally, producing the fermented fruits of their labor.

Brian Olson has directly overseen and more-often-than-not personally planted, picked, pruned and produced this progression every step of the way. And, so, takes rightful pride in the quality of his ingredients and the fact that Alaska Berries is the only estate winery in the state — meaning the only to grow and use all its own produce in its products.

All Alaska Berries bottles bear the Alaska Grown label, and the new tasting room is decorated with signs of the blue-and-yellow logo. To Olson, Alaska Grown isn’t just a concept, it’s a personal mandate, as he’s the specific Alaskan doing the growing.

“It’s 100 percent field grown in Alaska. And I say Alaska, but what I mean is our farm. I know when people pull up here there’s no doubt in their mind, this is what we grow, this is where we harvest it, this is where we process it, it’s complete. That cycle, to me, is important,” Olson said.

You don’t get any more literally hands-on than an owner/operator of a small farm. Still, for all that direct effort and planting-to-pouring involvement, there’s one aspect of the wine that is not specifically crafted to Olson’s preference — the wine itself.

Don’t ask him to name his favorite varieties. Don’t request recommended food pairings. Don’t expect flowery descriptions of the wine’s nose — rich in earthy undertones with bright notes of fallen spruce needles and a chewy mouthfeel, or some such.

Olson doesn’t drink it — hasn’t had a drop of alcohol in 25 years, in fact. As far as he’s concerned, his nonwine-drinking tastes don’t matter. What counts is that his creations suit his customers’ palates.

“We don’t write stuff about the nuances of the flavors and the scents and all these things, because what we think of it is irrelevant. One thing I’ve learned about wine, everybody’s taste is different. Some people love one kind and hate the other, somebody loves this one and hates that one. So we said, no nuances. To me, it’s intimidating if they have all that on there and you don’t catch that peppery aftertaste and hint of molasses and caramelized pomegranate juice from a unicorn,” Olson said.

“We just want to say, ‘Hey, you’re the judge of it. Your description is what matters. Your taste is what matters.’ We want folks to come in and make their own decisions about what it tastes like and what they want to drink it with. They don’t need me to tell them that,” he said.

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Digging in to the growing food trend — Small agriculture continues to flourish on central peninsula

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Velma Bittick trims leeks at her farm plot on Echo Lake Road to take to the Farmers Fresh Market at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank on Tuesday. It’s harvest time for gardeners, like Bittick and her husband, Tom Gotcher, and those selling their crops are finding an ever-growing demand for their fresh, locally grown produce.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Velma Bittick trims leeks at her farm plot on Echo Lake Road to take to the Farmers Fresh Market at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank on Tuesday. It’s harvest time for gardeners, like Bittick and her husband, Tom Gotcher, and those selling their crops are finding an ever-growing demand for their fresh, locally grown produce.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

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.

Velma Bittick and Tom Gotcher transfer tomatoes to be taken to market Tuesday. They grow 31 varieties of tomatoes.

Velma Bittick and Tom Gotcher transfer tomatoes to be taken to market Tuesday. They grow 31 varieties of tomatoes.

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.

Fresh-picked bins of carrots, potatoes and green onions await transport to the market.

Fresh-picked bins of carrots, potatoes and green onions await transport to the market.

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.”

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Art Seen: Cozying up to fleece production

Photos by Natasha Ala for the Redoubt Reporter. Amy Seitze feeds her Wensleydale sheep at Lancashire Family Farm in Ridgeway.

Photos by Natasha Ala for the Redoubt Reporter. Amy Seitze feeds her Wensleydale sheep at Lancashire Family Farm in Ridgeway.

By Natasha Ala, for the Redoubt Reporter

Fiber arts is one of those art classifications that straddles itself between the craft world and fine art world. The common denominator of fiber arts is, of course, the use of fiber, as well as the technique in which the fiber is manipulated.

The types of materials used can range from organic to synthetic items, such as wood, clay, fish skins, nylon fish line or even strands of copper wire, to name just a few. Many fiber artists have built careers using traditional fiber art-construction techniques with untraditional fiber materials. Other fiber artists are true to their customary fiber art processes, such as those processes and materials used in pottery, weaving, surface design and any number of other traditional methods.

A Wensleydale ewe at Lancashire Family Farm in Ridgeway.

A Wensleydale ewe at Lancashire Family Farm in Ridgeway.

Basically, however, the lid was blown off the definition of fiber art long ago, and today there is only a spectrum of fiber arts ranging from traditional purist methods of creation to contemporary, postmodernist methods of creation.

Alaska fiber artists are fortunate in that they have a rich abundance of natural organic materials from which to choose, right outside their back doors. Readily available to artists are an ample variety of hardwood, softwood, bark, roots and other plant fibers, as well as many different naturally existing clays, all of which can be freely harvested around the Kenai Peninsula. With lots of industry on the peninsula, there are also a wide variety of synthetic materials available, such as wire, netting and other monofilaments.

One material that is not overly abundant on the Kenai Peninsula, however, is locally produced sheep wool. But Amy Seitz and her family are working to remedy this deficit by producing an assortment of wool from their flock of around 50 sheep at Lancashire Farm, in Ridgeway.

Seitz says she grew up raising sheep as a 4-H project on the family homestead in Ridgeway, which was established in 1948 by her grandparents, Rusty and Larry Lancashire. Seitz said she is pleased to be able to return to the homestead as an adult and continue her family’s tradition of farming on the Kenai Peninsula.

“Farming is a lot of hard work,” Seitz said, “but it’s very enjoyable raising animals and promoting the growth of agriculture on the Kenai Peninsula.”

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Farm use grows — Agricultural sector sewing seeds of progress on peninsula

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Sue Benz, with the National Agricultural Statistics Service, presents during the third annual Kenai Peninsula Ag Forum, held Saturday at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Sue Benz, with the National Agricultural Statistics Service, presents during the third annual Kenai Peninsula Ag Forum, held Saturday at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Long winters, short summers, sloppy breakup floods, land rife with spruce trees and stumps making it tough to clear — agriculture in Alaska has its challenges, but that can make the fruits of farming labor all the more satisfying.

With so many difficulties, it can take many people working together to succeed, and that spirit of partnership was the purpose of third annual Kenai Peninsula Ag Forum, presented by the Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development District.

“It’s an educational event, and the hope is to bring agricultural producers from across the peninsula together — whether they grow flowers, produce, hay, livestock, whatever — to build a sense of community, and so they can exchange ideas,” said Heidi Chay, one of the organizers of this year’s event.

According to the Kenai Peninsula Census of Ag Data, as presented by Sue Benz of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, there are 124 farms on the peninsula, up from the 98 farms recorded by the census in 2002. Lee Coray Ludden, providing an update on the Alaska Fiber Association, said there also are numerous farms with four-legged animals across Alaska, including several on the peninsula, and these are home to as many as 18 different fiber-producing animals, such as sheep, alpacas and lamas.

Though growing, these figures are a small fraction considering the farmable land suitable for crops and/or livestock on the peninsula. So what limits the growth of more farms and farmers?

“The rigors of farming in Alaska are a lot more demanding than anywhere else,” said presenter Wayne Floyd, a peony grower from Cool Cache Farms, as one possibility.

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Homegrown revolution — Gardeners expand to tackle Alaska’s food insecurity

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.

Redoubt Reporter

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:

1. Economics.

“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?”

2. Health.

“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.

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Berry bright future — Soldotna-area farmer pioneers haskap plants in Alaska

By Jenny Neyman

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Brian Olson, of Alaska Berries, inspects his haskap berry plants at his farm outside of Soldotna. Olson is pioneering cultivation and commercial uses of the berry in Alaska

Redoubt Reporter

“Everybody’s baby is the best-looking baby, but ours really is,” said Brian Olson, in typical proud-papa fashion.

Olson can rattle off a list of his progeny’s admirable qualities that would make any parent proud: Hardy, resilient, easygoing, productive and exceptionally healthy with ample prospects for an impressive future.

Then the list takes a turn for the less typical, clearly not referencing offspring of the human variety: fast-growing, thorn-free, easily pickable, delicious and having the potential to revolutionize the agricultural industry in Alaska.

That’s a big reputation for the little-heard-of berry Olson and his wife, Laurie, have been cultivating at their farm, Alaska Berries, on West Poppy Lane off Kalifornsky Beach Road. But from the six years Olson has been researching, propagating and growing the berry, Olson is absolutely certain every one of those qualities, and then some, are true.

“The experimental phase was 2008 and 2009,” Olson said. “By 2010 we knew we had an Alaska-

Olson’s variation of haskaps have their origins in Japan. He’s developing his own genetically distinct strain of the hardy, flavorful berry.

hardy, relatively disease-free and insect-free plant that was doing very well for us. And the flavor of the fruit was phenomenal. So we knew that we were on to something, that this is going to eventually surpass the blueberry in Alaska as far as a commercial crop goes. It is a super berry.”

Olson has been growing haskap berries, and recently announced his intention to trademark the genetic strains he’s developing, put them into commercial production and also sell the plants to his fellow Alaska agriculturists.

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