A different kind of thick, viscous liquid may be part of the answer to the Kenai Peninsula's economic dependence on oil. A new sweet crude, if you will.
Birch, and more importantly birch sap, is readily abundant on the peninsula. Southcentral Alaska is home to some of the largest birch forests in the world. And that could mean new revenue for the area.
There are already at least six commercial businesses operating in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys that specialize in birch syrup and sap-related products. The market for the syrup is small, but diverse and worldwide, according to Marlene Cameron, who owns a Wasilla company which specializes in the unique product.
"Our largest contract is to a company in Canada," she said Tuesday. "We also sell to a company in Italy that sells it as a nutritional supplement."
Cameron will be in Soldotna Saturday to teach others about the process of making the syrup. The Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development District is sponsoring the workshop, to be held at the Kenai Peninsula College. Deb Holle, director of the development district, said the idea is to entice area residents to pursue new economic business ideas in the area.
"Economic development is what this is all about," said Holle.
Birch holds exciting potential because of the peninsula's abundant supply and the high demand for the sticky stuff inside.
"Since the industry started, demand has always outpaced supply," said Cameron, noting that the syrup can fetch more than $100 a gallon on the retail market.
However, getting started isn't cheap. Cameron says a reasonable start-up cost for materials is in the $7,000 to $10,000 range. However, people don't need to start a syrup business to get involved with syrup making. Sap can be gathered using a cheap tap, and the sap can be used by syrup producers.
Cameron said the primary producers of syrup are in Mat-Su, but Kenai Peninsula trees could supply sap to those producers right away.
"Maybe we should build a sap pipeline," Cameron joked.
People can make the syrup themselves, but it takes a little know-how.
That know-how is just what the development district is hoping Cameron can bring to this Saturday's workshop, says Mark Weatherstone, who is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and coordinator of the district.
"The response has been overwhelming. We're already full. We may end up doing another one," he said.
Weatherstone said the district is currently looking at several other ways to use the area's natural resources. The idea is to support and cultivate small industries on the peninsula in order to diversify the economy. A report was compiled by the group in July of 2000 to identify and study possible small agricultural and non-traditional resources projects on the peninsula. The birch syrup idea is just the first the group is looking at promoting.
State forester Mitch Michaud points out that there are many uses of the peninsula's natural resources.
"Shiitake mushrooms can be grown and delivered fresh to local restaurants," he said. "People can grow mushrooms, make jams, there's even commercial clamming," he said.
In fact, the peninsula supports a wide variety of marketable products many people may be unaware of. And those products could mean extra money during lean times. That's what makes birch syrup such an enticing idea. People don't have to actually make syrup to earn money off the trees.
"It fits well with the lifestyle in Alaska. (Sap gathering season) falls at a time when things are kind of slow. People can go out with their families and make some money," he said.
Gathering sap from trees may not sound like much, but that sap can be worth big money to syrup producers like Cameron. She said she pays "tappers" 25 cents per gallon of sap they bring to her at harvest time in the early spring.
"Some people do it just for fun. Some families bring in five hundred gallons," Cameron said.
Hardly enough to start talking about a new pipeline, but more than just a drop in the bucket.
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