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Peninsula farmers share concerns

Farm Service Agency looks for ways to assist local growers

Posted: September 14, 2011 - 9:00am

Central Peninsula farmers gathered Tuesday afternoon to talk about farming on the Kenai Peninsula.

Danny Consenstein asked the farmers to stop by the USDA Service Center in Kenai to chat about their experiences and needs as part of his visit to the Peninsula. Consenstein is the executive director for Alaska’s Farm Service Agency, an arm of the United States Department of Agriculture.

“My mission is to have successful Alaskan farmers,” Consenstein said.

The agency helps farmers by providing loans, and by providing other programs to help mitigate some of the risks of farming, like natural disasters. It also operates a reimbursement program that repays farmers for some of the extra costs they face as a result of transporting things to Alaska.

Area farmers weighed in on a variety of subjects — including how best to market their products, the next generation of farmers and growing techniques and tools.

One discussion was about the Community Supported Agriculture method of selling produce. Typically, that model allows a member of the public to buy a farm share, which provides them with a portion of the farm’s harvest each week throughout the growing season. Consenstein said it’s a way to help make supply match demand. Farmer’s markets and grocery stores are another option.

Consenstein also answered questions about how his agency’s programs could help meet local needs.

One farmer talked about her challenges as a hay farmer. She’s able to produce high quality hay and turn it into small round bales that store well. She even has a bale wagon to lift them up and into a storage facility. But she needs the building to store them in until people are ready to buy.

That building is something the farm service agency might be able to give her a loan for, assuming she meets their criteria, Consenstein said.

The agency’s loan criteria include things like a lack of access to a loan elsewhere. And the applicant can’t be a big corporation, he said.

“It’s for the family farmer,” Consenstein said.

Loans are also a possible solution to more universal needs, like cold storage for vegetables, which many farmers mentioned would be helpful.

A group of farmers might form a cooperative, and each apply for a small loan to buy a share in a cooperative. Then the cooperative could use the money to build a root cellar-type storage facility for them to use. That model could work for other projects, like a mobile meat processor, that multiple farmers on the Peninsula need.

“We’re in the business of financing agricultural projects,” Consenstein said.

The agency is also willing to help farmers find out about other programs — including those operated by other organizations, like the state government — that might be best suited to their needs.

“I want you to be successful,” Consenstein told them. “I want you to make money. I want you to produce more food.”

Making those things happen is crucial to solving a number of issues, he said.

Alaska’s food industry can create jobs, address health issues and make the state more secure, he said.

Alaskans spend about $2 billion a year on food.

“And most of that money goes outside,” Consenstein said.

Spending it in-state would boost the economy and provide food security. Imported food means that any sort of disaster would be more disastrous, because hunger could compound other issues. In 1955, Alaska produced 55 percent of its own food. Now that figure is less than five percent.

“We’re not self-reliant,” he said. “We’re vulnerable.”

Growing Alaska’s food production also provides a window to addressing health issues, like obesity. Alaska has one of the biggest problems with obesity among the 50 states, he said. Growing healthy food rather than importing junk food could help change that figure.

“We’ve got the land, we’ve got the techniques, we’ve got the people, we’ve got the resources,” he said. “We can do it.”

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