Alaska’s agricultural renaissance

  • By Kelly Sullivan
  • Wednesday, December 16, 2015 10:28pm
  • News

Integral members of the local farming community believe the state is experiencing an agriculture renaissance, and producers on the Kenai Peninsula are big contributors.

Heidi Chay, district manager for the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District, and Amy Seitz, a third-generation farmer and executive director of the Alaska Farm Bureau, presented on the progress and barriers relevant to the industry at Wednesday’s Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

The commercial value of Alaska’s agriculture industry grosses $32 million annually, $2 million of which is generated on the Kenai Peninsula, Seitz said. During her presentation, she mentioned hay, seed potatoes, peonies, nursery plants and Rhodiola Rosea as some of the notable products grown locally.

Since 2007, the number of farms has increased statewide as well as on the Kenai Peninsula, where the rate of growth has been higher, Chay said. She referenced the most recent available data.

The number of farms in Alaska increased by 11 percent between 2007 and 2012, and 30 percent on the Kenai Peninsula, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.

Farms selling direct to consumers increased by 62 percent in Alaska between 2007 and 2012, Chay said. On the Kenai Peninsula, farms selling direct to consumer jumped up by 111 percent during the same period, she said.

She attributes much of the acceleration of production to the use of high tunnels, of which the Kenai Peninsula has the highest concentration per capita in the U.S. Last year there were more than 300 in use locally. There are close to 400 this year, Chay said.

Chay mentioned a specific and immediate economic repercussion of increased production.

Michelle LaVigeur at O’Brien Garden and Trees told Chay the business doubled their plant sales this year from the previous year because of the high demand from high tunnel growers, Chay said.

Further, 30 percent of the state’s commercial peony farms are located on the Kenai Peninsula, Chay said. The largest and first farm, Alaska Perfect Peony, is established in Homer and exports tens of thousands of stems every year, she said.

Alaska Berries, owned by Brian and Laurie Olson, located on West Poppy Lane in Soldotna, is the only wholly Alaska-grown winery in the state, Chay said.

These farmers are making large sacrifices to develop and evolve their businesses, Chay said. They are investing in infrastructure, storage and refrigeration, to planting crops that take years to mature before they can be harvested, she said.

“These folks are thinking ahead, and so should we,” Chay said.

That means more consumer support and supportive policies at the local and state level, she said.

Small steps would have major impacts to the state’s economy. Seitz brought up the locally conceived $5 per week challenge as a quick, low-cost way to give a big boost to the state’s agriculture industry. If everyone in Alaska purchased $5 worth of Alaska-grown products, the annual $32 million would skyrocket to $188 million, she said.

Between 95 and 97 percent of the food consumed by the population every year is shipped in from outside, Seitz said. That means all of that money is going elsewhere, she said.

Buying locally also addresses the issue of food security.

Stores are on average three days away from empty shelves in the event of a natural disaster that cuts off import routes, Seitz said.

Seitz presented a few projects the Alaska Farm Bureau is working on that would further improve Alaska’s existing operations and make room for more. She mentioned the development of a long range plan for agriculture, which the organization believes would be collaboration between state and private agencies.

The bureau is also working to either have the state maintain management of Palmer’s Mt. McKinley Meat and Sausage, the only USDA-approved slaughterhouse that serves Southcentral Alaska from Delta Junction to Homer, Seitz said.

“It doesn’t make sense to cut it,” Seitz said. “It is not costing the state any money.”

It is a $2 million line item the state is looking to cut from next year’s budget, which grosses $1.9 in sales million annually, she said.

“Any shortfall is paid out of the state’s Agricultural Revolving Loan Fund, which earns interest on loans to Alaska farmers,” Chay said.

The farmers already pay it for, Seitz said. If the state gives up management, the bureau is also looking into the possibility of employing a private owner and manager.

Seitz said addressing the state of the industry is crucial to the long-term stability of the state. The most successful civilizations have had strong, viable agricultural systems, she said.

For anyone who eats, Seitz said, it is important to let elected officials know how critical it is to invest in an industry that will boost the economy and address food security.

Reach Kelly Sullivan at kelly.sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com.

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