Farmers struggle to grow sector

Sowing seeds of success no walk in park

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

Farming on the Kenai Peninsula is a hard row to hoe.

The entire borough only has about 60 working farms, and the people who run them are torn between optimism and frustration. They see the peninsula as a place of great agricultural opportunity held back by an array of obstacles, some human-made. And they see 2001 as a critical year for setting agriculture's future direction here.

"We have the ability; we have the resources; but as a people we don't seem to have the will," said Al Poindexter, an agricultural and educational consultant with the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District.

Poindexter grew up on a farm in Seward that had thousands of chickens and produced most of the eggs for Anchorage.

In the decades from the 1920s through the 1950s, people came to the peninsula as agricultural homesteaders. But after they got patents to the land, they were not required to continue farming and most quit. In the 1960s and 1970s holdouts found they could make far more money working in the oil patch or subdividing their land for development. Decreasing freight costs made it easier to import food than to grow it.

The Matanuska Valley and the Delta area became the state's farm centers.

Now there are no commercial poultry operations on the peninsula. And the last dairy farm closed years ago.

But peninsula farmers still produce beef cattle, horse hay, some pork and lots of summer vegetables. In 1999, according to figures from the U. S. Department of Agriculture, on-farm production in the borough was worth about $708,000, including aquaculture.

Most land-based peninsula farms are small, part-time operations, and their numbers are decreasing. But, at the same time, serious farmers are finding new success pursuing specialized, niche markets.

"I think there is tremendous potential," said Tom Jahns, the Alaska Cooperative Extension agent in Soldotna.

"You don't see agriculture as you drive down the highway," he said. "But it's here. If you flew over, you would be amazed.

"It is real interesting. It is not agriculture as usual. It is 'Alaska-fied.'"

Alaska agriculturists of years past failed to reproduce the types of farms found in other states. Their modern successors are taking a new approach, experimenting to find plants and animals suited to the boreal region.

"The biggest challenge here is our environment. It is totally different agriculture than the Lower 48," Jahns said.

Now farmers are looking overseas, working with Russians and Scandinavians to investigate plants that respond to the lighting conditions and short growing season of this latitude. For example, they are testing a Norwegian grass that seems to grow well on the peninsula and may enhance future grazing and hay yields.

The peninsula at this time produces an odd array of farm products including hothouse tomatoes, reindeer meat, alpaca wool, elk and wild boar.

But most agricultural activity on the peninsula begins as home gardening, Jahns said.

Interest is always high for Master Gardener classes and sales of supplies are brisk. Enthusiastic gardeners, many using greenhouses to extend the season and produce more variety, increase yields beyond family needs and begin selling extras during the harvest season. The most profitable crops of all are ornamentals: flowers and shrubs, he said.

Jahns pointed to the farmers' markets as successful examples. Quality and freshness are key, and many gardeners sell out regularly, suggesting the demand still exceeds supply, he said.

About 22,000 acres on the peninsula are in use for hay or grazing.

Raising hay for the area's recreational horses can be lucrative, too. But bad weather can wipe out a year's product, and the peak harvest times align inconveniently with the Fourth of July and the state fair, he said.

Livestock growers face special problems.

"What is really holding us back, livestock-wise, is lack of a slaughterhouse," Jahns said.

To market fresh meat, producers must use a U.S.D.A.-approved slaughterhouse. Currently, they need to truck animals to Palmer, pay fees and truck the meat back. The time and expense are major stumbling blocks.

For years, the dozen or so peninsula ranchers have been working to get a certified slaughter facility here.

But now an even bigger problem looms.

Ranchers rely on grazing land leased from the state and the borough. Most of the leases expire this summer, and their future is in jeopardy. The long-term leases, most dating back to the 1970s, conflict with current land-use rules, making renewals questionable. Agriculture advocates now are negotiating with the borough about the fate of 11,000 acres.

Farmers say that is only one example of the lack of government support. Zoning, taxation and land availability are other issues.

"Our Legislature and local government are really not agriculturally based. They have no clear vision of the benefits," Jahns said.

Poindexter agreed.

Alaskans are used to the relatively high and quick returns of the oil industry and have been reluctant to invest in a renewable resource such as farming, which takes a long time to generate profits but can do so decade after decade, he said.

"It takes a generation, basically," he said. "Usually it is the second generation that reaps the benefits."

Agriculture is worth cultivating, not for short-term gain, but for other reasons, they said.

"Agriculture actually creates new money," Poindexter said. "If we are interested in diversifying the economy, that seems to me to be a good place to start."

In December, addressing the Kenai Peninsula Economic Outlook Forum, Poindexter pointed out that only 5 percent of the food area residents consume is produced here.

"If we experience an agricultural disaster in the south 48, or if we were unable to get food from other parts of the planet, I doubt that all the moose we have would sustain us for a year," he said.

Farming also fosters responsible stewardship of the land and a stable economy, he said.

Jahns agreed that agriculture has value beyond next year's bottom line. "There is more to farming than just raising crops and animals," he said. "It's a way of life."

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