Farming family plants seeds of innovation

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

Always interested in plants, Allan Baldwin stopped by a nursery in Wisconsin while he was traveling and got to chatting with the owner. The man, upon hearing that the visitor was from Alaska, asked if he had ever heard of an Alaska horticulturist named Dick Baldwin.

"It never ceases to amaze me," the younger Baldwin said with a chuckle, "that people know about my father all over the place."

The Baldwin family is now raising its fourth generation of Alaska farmers and, in the process, demonstrating how agriculture here must evolve away from traditional, Lower 48 roots to survive and grow.

Dick Baldwin runs Seeds of Alaska, a well-known supplier of wildflower seed packets. Two of his sons, Allan and Roy C., run Alaska Harvester, which specializes in landscape reclamation. His brother, Roy B. Baldwin, sells diamond willow in Sterling.

"Traditional agriculture is really difficult up here," Dick said. "You need to specialize in order to make it here."

"Traditional agriculture is really difficult up here. You need to specialize i order tomake it here."

Dick Baldwin

Dick's parents had been involved in farming in Oregon before they moved to Alaska in 1941. Two years later, his father started the Alaska Seed Company in Sitka and sold farm supplies.

In 1953, Dick moved to Cohoe. He fished a bit, but that was only a sideline.

Before he was even out of high school, he had Seeds of Alaska going, collecting and cultivating native plants and selling their seeds in packets.

"I've always been involved in agriculture," he said.

He married Ann Mosquito from the Seward Peninsula village of Deering. In a way, her background was agricultural, too; her father was chief herder at a reindeer ranch. She and Dick raised seven children.

Self-taught, Dick has garnered an international reputation as an expert in native crops, shrubs and flowers of the far north. He does consulting and business with Europe and Canada and has made three botanical trips to Russia.

A scientist there cooperated with him in writing a book on ethnobotany -- the traditional uses of plants. It was published in 1994 by Vladivostok University, but because he doesn't know Russian, Dick cannot read it.

Three years ago, he helped Allan and Roy set up Alaska Harvester.

The Internal Revenue Service classifies it as a landscaping business, but Allan explained that the firm is far more specialized. It reclaims land around industrial or construction sites, replanting native vegetation and hydroseeding grasses.

Hazardous materials and contaminated sites may require specific plants that tolerate salt, heavy metals or oil.

Much of the Baldwins' work has been outside the Kenai Peninsula, but last year they were particularly proud of a project they completed for Unocal at Swanson River.

It involved digging up thousands of plants before construction, preserving them, and putting them back when the earth moving was finished.

"It turned out absolutely magnificently, if I do say so myself," Allan said.

He serves as the office and business manager; Roy is the field manager. The brothers also are starting to take over the packet seed business as Dick edges toward retirement.

The Baldwins operate out of several locations, as their seed testing and cultivation requires space.

They have five acres with a greenhouse and pond for water plants at Roy's home in Kasilof. They lease 16 acres from the city of Soldotna at the airport, where Dick grows wildflowers for seed. And Allan and his wife recently bought 40 acres near Anchor Point.

In the peak growing season they hire help for planting and harvesting. Seeds of Alaska and Alaska Harvester are primarily family businesses, but the Baldwins anticipate hiring eight to 10 people this summer.

The year promises to be a busy one for them.

In September, Gov. Tony Knowles appointed Allan to a seat on the Alaska Board of Agriculture and Conservation following a major restructuring. The position involves commuting to Palmer for meetings and review of major regulatory changes planned for Alaska's agriculture sector.

After a slide, farming in Alaska is stabilizing and starting to grow again, Allan said.

Although farms failing is still a major concern, recent developments at Palmer, Delta and Point MacKenzie give him cause for optimism, he said.

"A lot of those farms failed, but we're seeing some of those farms coming back into production."

He pointed to an emphasis on quality and to opening markets in Asia as two factors working in Alaskans' favor.

"Alaska potatoes are the finest in the world. Export to Asian markets has always been looked at longingly," he said.

Dick also is taking a global view.

He is working with state agronomists on trials of a grass from Norway that may improve grazing and hay yields. He plans to attend an international conference this summer in Iceland on circumpolar agriculture.

Experimentation is essential to making agriculture work better in the north, he emphasized.

Allan said the willingness to try new things is one of his father's legacies.

He is considering raising Christmas trees and berries on the Anchor Point property. Although it has not been done before in Alaska, he hopes to get blueberries and salmonberries to grow and yield under cultivation.

"If anybody in Alaska can grow blueberries and salmonberries on a piece of land, it would be our family," he said. "So we are going to work on it."

Helping out will be his own four young children, who already are showing signs of having inherited the Baldwin green thumb. His 12-year-old son has his own garden of native plants and is experimenting with creating Alaska bonsai trees. The children also are enthused about Christmas trees and blueberries.

"They are going to work out very well," said their grandfather.

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