How does food grown by farmers on the Kenai Peninsula find its way into residents’ mouths — and how much, in what varieties, and for what price? The Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District intends to answer these questions with the first market survey of the small producers and potential large-scale buyers of Kenai Peninsula agriculture.
Heidi Chay, district manager of the Soil and Water Conservation District, said most of the information her group presently has on the buying and selling of local food comes from a 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census, which states that local farmers produced roughly $2 million worth of crops and livestock. Finer details that would be more useful to buyers and sellers are missing, Chay said.
“We don’t have detailed information, for instance, about what local restaurants would be interested in buying from local farms if they could get it, or what volume they would require, that sort of thing,” Chay said.
Most of the output of peninsula farms goes directly to consumers via farmer’s markets, subscription services, or groups like the Kenai Peninsula Food Hub, while little of it ends up in commercial or institutional kitchens, Chay said, citing anecdotal evidence that locally-grown produce makes up a small percentage of all fresh produce bought by local business. The district’s study is meant to find more ways farms and businesses can feed one another. Chay said that there’s “a lot of energy for growing the economy in this direction,” giving as an example a district-hosted gathering of farmers and chefs, held Nov. 1, which drew out 26 people. There were eight restaurateurs and the rest were farmers or prospective farmers interested in connecting their businesses. The problem, Chay said, is that there isn’t a systematic way to do so.
“What we learned that night is that restaurant people are very busy,” Chay said of the Nov. 1 gathering. “Farmers often don’t know the best time to approach a restaurant effectively … We’re hoping to provide enough information from the survey that farmers will have a much better idea of how to approach restaurants, and restaurants will have a better idea of what’s available locally, what can be grown here, and what the reasonable timing is.”
Luke Thibodeau, owner of Kenai’s Flats Bistro, is one local restaurateur looking to make his business’s ad-hoc connections with farmers into something more systematic and dependable. He said it was easy to meet local farmers at markets during the summer and make small-scale orders.
“We’d mostly use the vegetables we got from the farmer’s market in more exotic stuff,” Thibodeau said. “Like we’d send out purple cauliflower or something that doesn’t taste much different, but aesthetically they’re more cool. I’d mostly use it for specials. Multi-colored carrots and really unique stuff that made our plates look better.”
Next summer he hopes to expand those purchases into longer-term buying agreements — a more logistically complicated prospect, he said.
“It’s something you need to set up in advance,” Thibodeau said. “I need to tell them ‘this summer we’re going through leeks, golden potatoes, arugula, beets.’ … You basically have to tell the farmers by February what you’re going to want, so that by March when they start their plants in their greenhouses, they know what starters to do for us.”
Despite such planning, Thibodeau said it can still be hard to balance supply and demand.
“I think farmers, especially with small restaurants like me, you have to really want to work together,” he said. “I have no idea if I’m going to be able to go through how much product in a given week. In the summertime I can give them a minimum I can buy, but I might need more than that. And it can be difficult if they grow something specifically for me, and I don’t need all of it, they can hopefully sell it at the farmer’s market or find another buyer.”
Such requirements make sourcing food from farmers more difficult than buying from large established distributors who can ship in given quantities of a given product at shorter notice, but Thibdeau said he’d be willing to put extra work into it. Next summer the Flats is getting a new chef, he said, who is very interested in locally sourcing as much food as possible.
“Getting local food, for any restaurant, it’s a labor of love,” Thibodeau said. “But it’s worth it. Supporting your local economy, and you know where your food comes from.”
In order to gather the information that would allow farmers to better market to buyers such as Thibodeau, the Soil and Water Conservation District has set up two online surveys — one for produce buyers and the other for growers. Following the surveys, researchers will hold interviews to gather more specific information from 50 prospective large local food buyers. In the Conservation District’s U.S Department of Agriculture grant application for the study, the district’s list of these potential buyers includes Central Peninsula Hospital, Serenity House Treatment Center, local senior centers and several lodges and restaurants.
The two online surveys and subsequent interviews are being conducted by Anchorage-based food consulting group SPORK. They will be open until Dec. 5. After conducting interviews with selected participants and doing further study, the district plans to release the results in a publicly-available report around March or April 2017.
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.