Amongst the humid air and the rows and rows of greens, Don Thompson stood over a garlic plant, holding it’s scape, or flower bud, in his hand.
“Over at The Flats Bistro, they want these,” Thompson said. “I’ve never really had anyone ask for them before, but I always use them and make a pesto. If you like garlic, it’s really good on a bagel.”
Throughout his greenhouses and small area of land on Kalifornsky Beach Road in Kenai, Thompson fills his beds with a wide array of plants and, although some of the scapes may end up in his breakfast, a good portion of his crop will travel down the street and onto the plates at The Flats Bistro.
“I got lots of garlic, I’ll cut this off when it makes a complete curl,” Thompson said. “And I have celery over there, apple trees out the front and theres probably close to 40 tomato plants. That’s not a lot, but for me, it’s a lot.”
Although he isn’t a large scale production, Thompson is among a group of farmers and producers that are working to bring locally grown, central Kenai Peninsula products into the area’s restaurants. These relationships, like the one between The Flats Bistro and Thompson’s farm or between the Alaska Homegrown farm in Kasilof and Louie’s Steak and Seafood in Kenai, are incubating a perfect environment for the growth of local produce.
“Now is the ideal time for local food expansion in central peninsula,” according to a central Kenai Peninsula agricultural market analysis contracted by the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District released in April. “Businesses and organizations are interested in buying more local food; growers are interested in expanding their production and there are few barriers limiting this increased growth.”
More and more local restaurants are beginning to utilize local produce, said Heidi Chay of the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District.
“This year is kind of feeling like the turning point year,” Chay said. “The relationships between local farmers and restaurants, selling direct to restaurants, are emerging and becoming more lively every year.”
Thompson doesn’t prioritize monetizing his farm and instead uses it to stave off idle hands in retirement, but he said he was happy to share his crops directly to The Flats Bistro.
“I had one guy come out here,” Thompson said. “He said to me ‘I can see what you’re doing, all you’re doing is having a lot of fun.’ And that’s about it.”
A few miles down the Sterling Highway and back down Cohoe Loop Road, Jeff Babbit of Alaska Homegrown is working at a larger scale with over a dozen greenhouses on 30 acres of land.
“One thing we’re doing, is we’re growing romaine specifically for Louie’s and their dinner salads,” Babbit said on Friday, June 16 at a picnic table a short walk away from the greenhouses. “It’s growing really well …”
Babitt said he first started working with the Schilling family, who own Louie’s Steak and Seafood, about four years ago.
“They think that supporting local farms and having local produce is good for the community,” Babitt said.
According to the American Independent Business Alliance, a dollar spent on locally grown produce generates $1.48 of an economic impact, compared to $1.14 generated from products grown out of the area.
The market survey found that a further increase in local purchases can result in substantial economic growth for the central peninsula. If each of the 126 small businesses on the central peninsula identified by the study as produce purchasers started to buy 15 percent of their produce locally, it would generate an additional $165,000 in the local economy.
“When it comes to local produce in the central peninsula, small increases allow for sustained growth and financial benefit to the local economy,” the study states.
And the central peninsula is starting to see these small increases in both production and purchasing. Thompson had never sold his crops until The Flats Bistro approached him about it, Hynes said.
And Babitt said as of June 29 he has three new greenhouses on his property with a fourth and fifth going up soon.
“We have a goal of having an acre and a half under plastic and we’re actually in the process of building a fairly massive root cellar,” Babitt said. “What we want to do is push our season, when we have a root cellar, then all of a sudden we can start growing pumpkins, squash … and that means I can go three or four more months longer.”
According to the market survey, all participating central peninsula buyers want to buy more local produce and the local farms are reacting to the demand, with farm production on the peninsula increasing 70 percent from 2015 to 2016, and continuing to increase.
“So we kind of discuss what we’re thinking before the season,” Babitt said “… And we place seed orders based on conversations with the chefs. This year we’re expanding on the lettuce, growing romaine and green beans for Louie’s.”
But Alaska Homegrown is also working with other area restaraunts, including The Flats Bistro. During Babitt’s daily farm tasks, he stopped to take a phone call from the restaraunt’s chef Ken Hynes.
“I’ve got iceberg, leaf… I’ve got kale,” Babitt explained. “Would you want kale on the side, not mixed in?”
From the list of his offerings, Babitt moved into detailing what Hynes could expect to see coming from Alaska Homegrown over the next few months.
“The bottom line is, fresh is better,” Hynes said in a phone interview. “I’m trying to support the local community as well, support the local guys… That for me is better than getting something off a truck, or having it shipped up here from the Lower 48. The hard work and effort really shows.”
But for both the farms and the restaraunts, the real rush is about to begin.
“What we really try to do, is we try to have it all ready for tourist season and then they can tell the tourists theat they’re supporting local farms,” Babitt said. “How it works is, the chef will call us and we do daily deliveries… They’ll have fresh produce everyday.”
And Hynes said the fresh produce from both Alaskan Homegrown and Thompson’s farm will last the restaurant through into the winter.
“Pickling, curing, fermenting,” Hynes said. “There are all of these fun techniques… so that we’re able to utilize the vegetables in the winter time and they’re just as fresh as when we got them in the summertime.”
But, despite demand, growing in Alaska comes with it’s own challenges.
“We’re always battling the weather,” Babitt said. “This spring has been exceedingly cold so it really stunted stuff, but that’s just part of the gamble.”
According to the market survey, ramping up production of locally grown products is a safe bet.
“Down in the states, all of the locally grown and produced stuff is getting so popular,” said Kylee Smith, the front house manager at Louie’s Steak and Seafood. “It’s slowly making it’s way to Alaska now. The first year it was hard to push local greens, but each year it’s taking off more and more. And we’re looking at getting more vegetables for our sides, probably some summer squash towards the end of the summer.”