Alaska: Food Producer for the World I don't claim to have come up with this moniker for Alaska. In fact, it was the title of a talk given by Dr. Glenn Olds, former Alaska Pacific University president and former commissioner of the state departments of Commerce and Economic Development and Natural Resources. Anyone who has been exposed to Dr. Olds know he's a big picture kind of guy.
My limited experience with Dr. Olds always resulted in him giving me a list of things to accomplish. I wasn't a student or employee of Dr. Olds, but I always felt compelled to write them down and be accountable for carrying them out. I was intrigued by his clarity of vision and his view of Alaska's global role.
Since that presentation, I have studied, traveled and talked to people from around the world, becoming more engrossed in this particular vision. As the Monkees' song so enthusiastically conveyed, "I'm a Believer!"
Food can be prosperous for Alaska and Alaskans and, at the same time, play a strong role as a contributing global citizen. It is not only an economic opportunity; it is a leadership opportunity that can bring people together locally and globally. There may not be a more important time in the world's history to do so.
Here are only a few experiences that have had convinced me that Dr. Olds' vision is correct since his presentation in 1997.
I was introduced to a global food ingredient manufacturer who was visiting Alaska and interested in locating farmers interested in growing mustard. Later, this same individual explained the growing disaster of reduced water tables in the Lower 48 for agricultural products used in large production operations.
Alaska Airlines sent Larry Jacobs of Del Cabo, an agricultural food cooperative, to Alaska to discuss in detail the success of this co-op and how Del Cabo had worked with Alaska Airlines from the start to develop the highest quality standards for product and delivery. Alaska Airlines said this was one of its largest cargo customers. Del Cabo began with eight farmers and has 250 members of its co-op in Baja. Larry visited with local food producers and commented that our carrots were "gold." At the time, he stated that he might have interest in mentoring a co-op similar to Del Cabo in Alaska.
During a visit to Alaska, meat and seafood buyers from Costco relayed a story of their work in New Zealand with a lamb producer association. Costco was approached to work with them from the start on designing a product and business that could grow with Costco the same as the Chilean salmon farmers did successfully. Now, I see New Zealand lamb in our local Costco stores. At the time, Costco was here soliciting suppliers of Alaska food products.
The government of Japan generously hosted me on a 10-day itinerary of my own design to meet with seafood processors, traders, retailers and wholesalers. They were consistent in their message of looking for new partners, new technologies, new products and new ways of doing business to supply food to the world. They welcomed Alaska partners to create a new generation of food producers recognizing the land and oceans that have such great sustainability and potential.
This was not an export-only market anymore. These individuals were interested in technology transfers (two-way), investment and third-party market development. I see today that Japan already has done just that by investing in development of the growing demands for sushi in the European Union and China. Are we suppliers? Are we partners? How are we capitalizing on our past and current relationships in seafood?
So what has transpired with these food buyers or potential partners? To my knowledge, nothing has happened. Why?
Marketing is not selling, as Nicki Marks, a specialist in agricultural economics in New Zealand says.
"Marketing is growing the product you can get rid of. Selling is getting rid of the product you've got," she notes.
The seafood industry is demonstrating examples of this direction, by listening to customers and modifying the product and raising the quality. However, I believe this is only a small part of the capacity that Alaska has to be a major food producer.
Food buyers want to buy from Alaska. They want to be heard on how and what they buy. From Chile to Japan to the Lower 48, business owners and operators have stated too often that "we did not listen" when they talked about the changing trends in food and their concerns.
As a result, these businesses made investments elsewhere. We must grow products that consumers buy. That means the obvious of pink salmon, halibut, cod, pollock, seed potatoes, vegetables, fiddlehead fern, etc.
However, the bigger picture may be asking buyers what they want and how they want it. I don't think we have a clue of what the food industry in Alaska could realize.
Yes, I remember the grain, dairy and seafood processing stories. Don't get me wrong, I don't believe realizing Alaska as a food producer for the world requires Alaska or the U.S. government to commit its own equity to further politically driven rather then economically driven projects. I think we've gone down that road way too many times.
What it will take to realize this vision for Alaskans to listen. Listen to buyers and investors in the food industry. Some of those global players are right here in our own community food service companies such as Eurest (Compass Group) and NANA-Marriott (Sodexho); distributors such as Sysco, Food Services of America and Alaska Commercial Co.; food producers such as Nichiro, Maruha and Trident; and supporting businesses with strong reach within a growing global food industry such as Agrium and Lufthansa Airlines. Getting to know more about the components of a successful food industry, you will note the rapid offshoots of business such as packaging, transportation, cold storage, primary processing, private labeling, marketing, technologies, inspection, information technologies, education, construction and, maybe most importantly, greater diversity in the foods developed.
High protein diets, new tracing and tracking regulations, obesity, awareness about healthy foods, consolidation of industry, challenges within traditional natural environments, food security, the Internet, pharmaceutical product sourcing and the medical-insurance crisis for quality health care are all good reasons for Alaskans to take a hard look at this industry.
We should not be isolated and ambivalent about these trends. And don't think that someone in Alaska is taking action on these trends. Some are taking action on a few, but, it is my view, that as stakeholders in Alaska, it is all of our responsibility to play a positive role in our economic future.
Alaska can be the "kick ass" food producer for the world. But first, we must listen to the world.
Robin Richardson is a lifelong Alaskan and former executive director of World Trade Center Alaska. She has served as an advocate for food product development on the Kenai Peninsula over the past 10 years. More recently, she has started her own company and is attending the University of Alaska Anchorage's master's program, Global Supply Chain Management, where she is engaged studying food.
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