Peninsula hungry for locally grown food

The time is ripe for central Kenai Peninsula farmers, according to a market study that found an overwhelming demand for locally grown food in the area.

“The amount of produce being grown right now is not even close to meeting demand,” said Melissa Heuer, of Spork Consulting, the company that authored the market analysis. She presented the survey findings at the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District’s Farmers and Chefs event Thursday night at Odie’s Deli in Soldotna.

“Basically, now is the time for everybody, on both sides,” Heuer said. “There is demand. There is opportunity. This is kind of the perfect picture.”

The survey included answers from 26 producers, or farmers, and 27 buyers such as restaurants and retail stores from the central peninsula area, including Kenai, Clam Gulch and Funny River. The questions were related solely to produce, including fruits, vegetables and herbs.

“Our objectives were to provide an improved understanding of farmer and retailer customer needs… (and) identify the potential for growth and improvement and increase access to local produce,” Heuer said.

From 2015 to 2016, 56 percent of farmers surveyed reported an increase in sales, with a majority of their sales coming from central peninsula farmers markets or direct to other businesses. Of the farmers who were actively trying to sell their produce last season, 40 percent sold more than 90 percent of their harvest. Other farmers indicated that they kept some of their products for personal use or for feed.

“If you’re trying to sell your crops, there is a market for it,” Heuer said. “Some farmers said that their sales have increased or even doubled every year.”

The survey found that central peninsula businesses are spending an average of $25,800 on produce a year.

“And five to 10 percent of that produce is Alaskan grown, which is substantially higher than the rest of the state average,” Heuer said.

Every buyer surveyed said they want to buy more local produce, she said.

“Buyers did indicate a number of problems to purchasing locally, though, such as a lack of year-round available produce and lack of reliable quantity,” she said. “I think price plays a part, but I don’t think it’s a limiting factor because several buyers indicated they would be willing to pay more for local produce.”

Currently, 95 percent of all purchased food in Alaska is imported, but as demand for locally grown products and the amount of farms both continue to grow, Heuer sees a great opportunity for import numbers to drop.

“Unless there is a drastic change in how our food transportation works in the Lower 48 and prices drop substantially, the demand will still be overwhelming. The trend is small farms, growing small amounts of food and there is a lot of hunger for it,” she said.

Half of the farmers who participated in the survey are currently farming on one acre of land or less, in comparison to the national average of 434 acres. The survey also indicated that more than 65 percent of farmers are looking to expand their production in 2017 and extend their growing season by introducing new crops and building high tunnels, shortening the gap between supply and demand. During the meeting, Odie’s Deli owner Megan Schaafsma said she is planning to incorporate more local produce in her menu.

“Our goal this year is to move two items in our kitchen, before the end of the year, completely over year-round to local produce,” she said. “Then, every summer, pick up one or two more items. Each year, keep picking up one or two more things and then over time the majority of the kitchen is switched over.”

According to the survey, Schaafsma isn’t alone in her goals — more than 75 percent of buyers said they would like to purchase more than 50 percent of their produce from local farms.

“There clearly isn’t quantity right now, but it’s an excellent sign of future growth — 50 percent of local produce is a lot of produce that could be grown right here in central peninsula,” Heuer said.

The survey was funded by a Rural Business Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Heidi Chay, district manager of the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District.

“The district decided to embark on this project because we were repeatedly getting questions from people who are moving to the peninsula to start farms or people who have been here for a while and want to scale up, but are looking for data,” Chay said.

The data may be slightly skewed, Heuer said, because those who volunteered to participate in the survey may have a predisposed interest in locally sourced food. Still, though, she reiterated that the results are promising. A full, detailed report will be released in a few weeks with more information, she said.

Reach Kat Sorensen at kat.sorensen@peninsulaclarion.com.

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