Kenai Peninsula residents want more agricultural use out of their public lands, according to a recent Kenai Peninsula Borough land use survey.
Of the 1,172 surveys the borough received, 158 residents responded that they wanted public lands to be allocated for agriculture uses, said Marcus Mueller, borough land management officer.
“It’s very significant,” Mueller said.
Mueller spoke at Saturday’s Kenai Peninsula Ag Forum about what the survey’s findings could mean for the Peninsula’s farming community. At the forum, hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation & Development District, farmers, city officials and state agencies looked at methods to foster greater agriculture development and how to market farm produce on the Peninsula.
“I think if we had more agriculture land, that would be great,” said Michelle Lavigueur, manager of O’Brien Gardens & Trees.
Lavigueur said more agriculture land would benefit everyone. It would generate more locally produced food for an area that relies heavily on outside avenues, she said.
Also, it encourages a healthy lifestyle, she said. “I enjoy farming and I know it’s a good down to hearth thing to do,” she said.
As the borough finalizes its land grants through its municipal entitlement program, Mueller said it will need to form a comprehensive plan to address how it will divide the land’s uses. Currently, the borough does not have such a plan, he said.
The program entitles the borough to 10 percent of the state lands, or 155,780 acres, within the borough’s boundaries, he said. But the state grants the land in stages. The borough is in its 40th year in the program and has a final 27,000 acres to receive, he said.
“It’s like the chicken and the egg,” he said. “We get the land first and then figure out what we do with it.”
The borough is currently speaking with the public and state agencies as how best to allot the lands, he said. The borough assembly will take action on a proposal addressing the issue in July, he said. It will also update its Comprehensive Plan in 2015.
At the forum, Mueller gave some recommendations to help the agriculture community voice its message.
He said it is critical that the community explain why agriculture is important to the Peninsula.
Also, he said, the goal of public policy is to achieve goals, so “refine those goals to their least common denominator.” For example, he said, if a community wants chickens within city limits, they could remove roosters from the request for a more effective message.
Now, he said, is a good time for the agriculture community to advocate for their slice of public lands.
“People relate to them, people rely on these lands and people have a lot to say,” he said.
But there is a challenge, he said: the majority of land in the borough is not available to the borough.
About 65 percent, or about 6.8 million acres, of borough land is federal land, and another about 21 percent, or about 2.2 million acres, is state land, according to the borough’s comprehensive plan. The borough cannot regulate the use or management of those lands, according to the plan.
The majority of the remaining land is privately owned, according to the plan. That is where the borough and its residents can find leeway, Mueller said.
For example, he said, there is a “considerable amount” of vacant private lands. He said neighbors can make agreements with the owners of those lands to lay down a field or plant crops, for instance. Private land owners can also lease the land to those seeking farm land, he said.
A stipulation, however, is that Peninsula farmers may need to redefine “farming,” he said.
In the 1950s and 1960s homesteading era, when large lots were common, growing hay or raising cattle on 160-acre lots was possible, he said.
“Now we’re seeing vegetable growing and things like peonies,” he said. Small-acreage farming is a more likely definition for most Peninsula farming, he said.
Dandelion Acres Co-owner Steve Albers said there is a market for more produce on the Peninsula, but currently there are not the grounds to boost production.
But “I do think that there’s the potential,” Albers said. “There’s a lot of people that don’t necessarily have the means to acquire property.”
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.