Opinion: Future is bright for Alaska farming

It’s hard not to be optimistic about the future of farming in the 49th State.

  • By David W. Schade, MPA
  • Monday, September 2, 2019 8:34pm
  • Opinion

As news of a record-breaking 2,051-pound giant pumpkin caps another successful Alaska State Fair, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the future of farming in the 49th State. With over 85,000 acres of farmland in Alaska, the successful growth of farmers markets around the state, 40-plus farms producing peonies for domestic and international markets, and industrial hemp creating enticing opportunities, there is much to be excited about in Alaska farming.

Raised on a family homestead farm in Homer, I brought personal and professional Alaska farming experience when I became director of the Division of Agriculture in January. I know what it means to weather the storms of nature and industry to achieve a successful harvest.

While Alaska’s fiscal situation has been challenging for the industry and the division, Governor Michael J. Dunleavy has listened closely to both farmers and legislators to achieve fiscal solutions that work for us all. Our division is pleased to have their support as we work to realign our services for the 21st century and promote agriculture in Alaska — our share of the state’s constitutional mandate, “to encourage the settlement of its land and development of its resources by making them available for maximum use consistent with the public interest.”

Our division’s core functions under that mandate will continue to be fighting invasive plants and diseases on land and in water; providing inspections and phytosanitary export certificates; producing and cleaning foundation seeds; and helping put more agricultural lands in Alaskans’ hands. Here’s how these priorities help Alaska’s ag industry thrive and grow:

Our division tracks invasive species and develops and implements eradication programs to keep them from destabilizing or even devastating our native plants and animals, and their ecosystems.

Our phytosanitary inspection program builds on Alaska’s reputation for a clean, pristine environment by ensuring the logs and other products we export meet Asian and other world market standards, supporting important agricultural exports.

Our Plant Materials Center in Palmer produces Alaska’s foundational seeds, including the grass seed essential to stabilize and reclaim disturbed ground after construction projects, and the certified disease-free potatoes that are an important crop in Alaska, the Lower 48 and internationally.

Our division provides the research, consultations, and phytosanitary certification to help make peonies one of Alaska’s fastest-growing agricultural products, delivered around the world through our world-class air freight centers.

Other division priorities that help Alaskan farmers include administering federal or private grants for agricultural research and marketing efforts, U.S. Department of Agriculture grants to monitor and battle pests, diseases and invasive species; the Good Handling Practices / Good Agricultural Practices GHP/GAP) Audits; the “Alaska Grown” program that promotes sale of “Alaska’s local produce; participation in the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association that supports export of Alaska agricultural products to the Lower 48 and around the world; an Industrial Hemp Pilot program; and a multitude of smaller programs supporting specialized elements of the industry.

Our division will do everything possible to give Alaskans the opportunity to purchase locally grown produce directly from the farm, from vendors at farmers markets, and at retail grocery stores. We will also work to remove the barriers that limit Alaska’s farm products from entering larger domestic and international retail markets, and to promote the agriculture industry in its efforts to establish new markets.

Recently, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige shared her thoughts on our division’s new mandate: “As we approach the end of growing season and the harvest is in full swing, it’s time to look ahead to growing a robust agriculture industry in Alaska; one that attracts families to buy Alaska’s agricultural lands, develop family farms that will endure for generations, and provide Alaskans with the freshest homegrown meat and vegetables they can buy.”

I join the commissioner in this commitment and look forward to working with all of Alaska’s agriculture partners to provide a growing, thriving future for farming in Alaska.

David W. Schade is a lifelong Alaskan and director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture. He previously worked as chief of the Department of Natural Resources’ water section, and as a resource manager in its Public Access Assertion and Defense Unit.

David W. Schade is a lifelong Alaskan and director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture. He previously worked as chief of the Department of Natural Resources’ water section, and as a resource manager in its Public Access Assertion and Defense Unit.

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