The summer closure of the Interior’s last remaining dairy is a sobering reminder of the difficulty faced by agricultural businesses in Alaska — and a warning about how dependent we are on Outside food sources. It has never been a secret that Alaska is reliant on other states and countries for the vast majority of its goods, whether furniture, appliances, cars or groceries. But though the absence of Alaska-based manufacturing is an economic concern, the inability of the state to feed itself using local sources is an existential threat to its population if supply lines are disrupted by natural or manmade disasters. The Northern Lights Dairy in Delta Junction is just one example of Alaska’s decades-long difficulty in sustaining agriculture, but it’s an example that hits close to home.
Since territorial days, Alaska has never produced even half of the food its residents eat, but the statistics didn’t used to be quite so dire. In 2014, the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Social and Economic Research estimated that 95 percent of food purchased in Alaska was imported from Outside. The highest-profile example of Alaska’s quest to provide for itself was the Matanuska Valley Colony, a New Deal program that brought 203 farming families from the Midwest to Southcentral Alaska. Despite a staggering lack of infrastructure and poor support from those who were supposed to oversee the program, the families managed to establish an agricultural base in the region that still survives today.
But though agriculture in Alaska has survived, it has never thrived. Only five years after the Matanuska colony started, more than half the original colonists had left the valley. Those who remained, as well as farms in the Interior near Delta Junction, have held on despite harsh conditions and low profit margins. Even in conditions that favor dairy farming, the cost of many of the elements essential to farming — such as energy, equipment and grain — are substantially higher in Alaska than Outside. This makes local produce and dairy more expensive than items imported from farms in Washington. Coupled with local farmers unable to match the quantity supplied by Outside farms, it puts two strikes against them in seeking to get their food carried at local stores and purchased by residents.
There have been successes for local farmers, however, many of which have come in selling their food directly to consumers. This takes many forms — several local farms offer community-supported agriculture shares, which offer a variety of produce at intervals throughout the growing season. Other farmers who raise cattle or pigs will sell portions or whole animals directly to local families, which lets residents fill their freezers with fresh meat raised close to home. Farmers markets offer another direct-to-consumer sales opportunity, and local grocery stores such as the Co-Op Market, Safeway and Fred Meyer all offer Alaska-grown produce when available — and, in some cases, meat and dairy.
Given the challenges faced by farmers in the state, there’s little hope that Alaska’s extreme reliance on Outside food sources will turn around without a concerted effort by residents to purchase more locally grown food. And because residents already struggle with high costs in other aspects of their lives, such as energy and manufactured goods, that’s not always easy to accommodate. But the extra money spent on local produce, dairy and meat has benefits beyond doing a good turn for one’s neighbors and the local economy. Locally grown foods are often fresher, more flavorful and contribute to self-sufficiency.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, May 31