U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks during an interview at the Juneau Empire on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2109. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks during an interview at the Juneau Empire on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2109. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Alaska Voices: Agriculture is an economic driver crucial for state food security

The Kenai Peninsula has the largest number of hoop houses per capita in the U.S.

  • By Sen. Lisa Murkowski
  • Thursday, September 5, 2019 9:14pm
  • Opinion

Despite our giant pumpkins, Alaska isn’t the first state people think of as a farm state. Yet, Alaska’s farmers, ranchers, nonprofits, tribes, schools, and others are responsible for an escalating economic boom that is contributing to our food security.

According to USDA’s latest Census of Agriculture, the number of farms in Alaska has increased 30% between 2012 and 2017. Compared to the 3.2% decline in the Lower 48, that’s remarkable. We have the highest percentage of new and beginning farmers in the nation. Over 200 are military veterans and over 800 — nearly half of all Alaskan commercial farmers — are women. The market value of our agricultural products has increased by 22%, and net cash farm income is up a whopping 68%. There are nearly 15,000 cattle and calves in Alaska. We rank #14 in the U.S. in aquaculture, with over $35 million in sales. Sales of crops like barley, vegetables, and flowers reached nearly $30 million in 2017.

Farmers’ markets are popping up like fiddlehead ferns where we can find a cornucopia of delectable treats, including the sweetest carrots anywhere, kelp salsa, turkey, leeks, seafood, berries, and Brussels sprouts. In 2006, there were just 13 in the whole state. Today, we have twice that number in Anchorage alone, and nearly 25 more in towns from far western Alaska to Southeast. The Kenai Peninsula has the largest number of hoop houses per capita in the U.S., extending the growing season and expanding the variety of crops for backyard gardeners, food banks, and schools. There are reindeer herders in Kotzebue and geoduck harvesters on Annette Island. Cattle ranchers and barley fields in Delta Junction and dairy cows on Kodiak Island. School children in Coffman Cove are eating salads they’ve grown themselves; some are also selling their crops. It’s easy to find an Alaska Grown sticker in the produce section of the supermarket. And the number of FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) chapters in Alaska is rapidly expanding, showing that more and more young Alaskans recognize that agriculture isn’t only an economic opportunity, but can help us be more food independent. And Alaskans love to be independent.

No wonder multiple news articles over the past few years have called agriculture the fastest growing industry in Alaska.

Despite all this good news, Alaska still imports over 90% of our food. We are one major disaster away from empty grocery store shelves. And we export just one agricultural product grown on land — peonies. What more can be done to take advantage of the bountiful opportunities before us?

Alaska’s farmers, the Division of Agriculture, the University’s agriculture researchers and Cooperative Extension agents, food banks, nonprofits and Native organizations, and schools are working hard to take advantage of this economic opportunity and increase food security. Each of us can do our part. I’ve placed a grow tower in my office in Washington, D.C., to show that you can even grow lettuce at work! Working with stakeholders across the state, I designed a new program recently authorized in the Farm Bill called Micro-Grants for Food Security that will help everyone from the backyard gardener to the reindeer herders grow more food.

I’m also working to maintain the federal programs that help our agriculture sector grow.

National Institute of Food and Agriculture programs are central to the University of Alaska’s ability to conduct agricultural research, provide youth leadership, find ways to mitigate climate change impacts like new invasive pests, and develop renewable energy to grow food. NIFA also backs the Cooperative Extension agents who help make us smarter about everything from growing garlic to raising pigs. Natural Resources Conservation Service programs support soil surveys, fund hoop houses, prevent erosion, and increase organic farming. Funding biomass systems that heat school greenhouses in Southeast. Making it easier for young people to afford veterinary school, as large animal vets throughout the state reach retirement age. These and many other federal programs are integral to the success of Alaska’s agriculture.

We can each do our part to grow Alaska’s economy and increase our food independence. What will you do?

• By Sen. Lisa Murkowski

More in Opinion

Gov. Mike Dunleavy discusses his veto of a wide-ranging education bill during a press conference March 16 at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Governor, please pay more attention to Alaskans

Our governor has been a busy guy on big issues.

A roll of “I voted” stickers sit at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Juneau in 2022. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Strengthening democracy: Native vote partners to boost voter registration

GOTNV and VPC are partnering to send over 4,000 voter registration applications this month to addresses and P.O. boxes all over Alaska

Priya Helweg is the acting regional director and executive officer for the Region 10 Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Happy Pride Month

This month is dedicated to acknowledging and uplifting the voices and experiences of the LGBTQI+ community

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York on May 30.
Opinion: Trump’s new fixers

Fixers from Alaska and elsewhere step in after guilty verdict

Ballot booths are set up inside Kenai City Hall on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Perspective from an election worker

Here is what I know about our Kenai Peninsula Borough election system

Apayauq Reitan, the first transgender woman to participate in the Iditarod, tells the House Education Committee on March 30, 2023, why she opposes a bill restricting transgender rights. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The imaginary transgender sports crisis

House Bill 183 is a right-wing solution to a problem that doesn’t exist now and never will.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican, speaks in favor of overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, March 18, 2024. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman: Session ends with budget, dividend and bills passed

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau

The Alaska State Capitol. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Listen to PAs; support Senate Bill 115: Modernizing PA Practice in Alaska

Health care is rapidly evolving, demanding a more flexible and responsive system

Mount Redoubt can be seen across Cook Inlet from North Kenai Beach on Thursday, July 2, 2022. (Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion file photo)
Opinion: Hilcorp Alaska: Powering Southcentral Alaska — past, present and future

Hilcorp Alaska has and will continue to fully develop our Cook Inlet basin leasehold

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican, speaks in favor of overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, March 18, 2024 (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman: Collegiality matters

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau

Juneau Empire file photo
Larry Persily.
Opinion: Alaska might as well embrace the past

The governor, legislators, municipal officials and business leaders are worried that the Railbelt will run short of natural gas before the end of the decade