Right now, Renae and Robert Wall’s half-acre plot dedicated to rhubarb is covered in five-foot-wide, brown, slimy leaves.
Come June, the venture they hope will soon translate into a commercial operation, will be in full bloom, with minimal effort to get it there.
“What’s not to love about Rhubarb?” Wall said. “It’s the easiest thing to grow in Alaska and the moose don’t eat it.”
Wall hosted Tuesday’s Kenai Peninsula Gardening Club meeting that drew more than 100 community members to the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Center. The program featured Bruce and Vicki Bush, who run the Alaska Rhubarb Company LLC., with which they plan to produce rhubarb commercially.
Bruce Bush has relished rhubarb for decades. In the 1950s and 1960s it was a sought after staple for cooking and baking, followed by nearly twenty years of minimal popularity, he said.
Now it is in an upward trend again, and he is getting in on the ground floor.
“It has its cycles like every crop does, I think,” Bruce Bush said.
Right now the Bush’s have 1,000 plants in the ground, Vicki Bush said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Bruce Bush took a break so every audience member could sample the company’s main product- rhubarb juice, which he sells annually at the Alaska State Fair. It takes nearly 11 pounds of raw rhubarb to produce one gallon of the bright pink, slightly bitter juice, which he supplements with apple or pear juice as natural sweetener.
At this point, the biggest hurdle for selling rhubarb on a large-scale is the absence of a market, Bruce Bush said. While it is becoming more popular within Alaska, few buyers are seeking out the red or green stalks, he said.
“Alaska is the only state in the union that can grow really, really well,” Bruce Bush said. “I believe it is also a good location for shipping internationally.”
Bruce Bush and Vicki Bush are developing approved food preparation safety plan called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, which is required by the Division of Environmental Health to commercially process rhubarb juice.
In the state, if rhubarb juice is sold commercially, it must be consumed on the same day, which makes it problematic, he said.
Bruce Bush gave the audience some pointers for personally producing and consuming the juice. He said it is unlikely, but the bacteria causing toxin botulism may grow in the juice if not properly prepared.
To sanitize the liquid, bring it to a boil for ten seconds, and sterilize the containers it will be stored in, he said. Beware however; the stalks will destroy a regular juicer, he said.
“You don’t want to get anyone sick, especially when you are first starting out,” Bruce Bush joked.
Rhubarb is a healthy staple, Bruce Bush said. It has high amounts of vitamin K and “blows cranberry out of the water, per nutrients,” he said.
Wall said she heard Bruce Bush speak on the Kenai Peninsula four years ago and that is when she and her husband Robert started their operation, Wilderness View Farms. They planted the seedlings that are now yielding the massive, dormant plants
The crop needs very little care once planted, Wall said. Fertilizer, weeding and trimming off the seedlings so that the stalks get the bulk of consumed nutrients, is really all the attention the plants need, she said.
The Kenai Peninsula is also lacking a strong buyers market, Wall said. It would be a good option to market it to tourists because it is so prevalent in Alaska, she said.
Many people mistakenly believe there is a difference between the red and green colored stalks, Wall said. The plant is part of the buckwheat family, which also includes peonies, she said.
“I don’t understand why it’s not in every restaurant,” Wall said. “I don’t understand why it’s not the biggest thing since sliced bread, especially here in Alaska. It’s so versatile.”