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Ranchers get the blues

Area citizens consider branching out into berries

Posted: Tuesday, October 11, 2005

 

  Maureen McKenzie, founder and chief executive officer of Denali Biotechnologies, examines a blueberry bush Friday while a crowd watches. Denali Biotechnologies produces a dietary supplement called AuroraBlue from wild Alaska blueberries. Photo by Mark Quiner

Maureen McKenzie, founder and chief executive officer of Denali Biotechnologies, examines a blueberry bush Friday while a crowd watches. Denali Biotechnologies produces a dietary supplement called AuroraBlue from wild Alaska blueberries.

Photo by Mark Quiner

Tom Daulton, an Alaska resident of one year, lives on 8 acres in Kasilof and said he does not want to subdivide his property for more houses.

"The question is, what am I going to do with it?" asked the former Oregon resident.

Daulton thinks he may have found his answer Friday: become a blueberry rancher.

Needing millions of pounds of blueberries, a scientist and engineer put down roots in Soldotna with their new company, Denali Biotechnologies, and are hoping to inspire Alaska residents to grow blueberries so they can make more of their flagship product AuroraBlue.

At a meeting Friday, Maureen McKenzie and Scott Haines, the company's owners, held an informational meeting about how interested landowners can get started ranching.

"We were trying to show this is not just for the ma and pop growers," McKenzie, the company's founder and chief executive officer said. "It is a very professionally run operation and that is what we are trying to achieve."

That said, McKenzie said people with a small amount of acreage can get into ranching, but it is not just for a hobby.

McKenzie spent the last 10 years studying wild Alaska blueberries and believes they have super health qualities — way beyond the average blueberry — such as high levels of anti-oxidants, anti-tumor and blood glucose lowering properties, among others.

She said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified the blueberry as the number one fruit for health-promoting properties.

"These are the super of the super fruit," she said about the Alaska varieties.

Denali's main product, Aurora-Blue, takes Alaska grown wild blueberries, dries them and sells them in a proprietary dietary supplement.

To be specific, AuroraBlue contains primarily two species of Alaska berries: Vaccinium ovalifolium and Vaccinium alaskensis — both only found in large quantities in Alaska, according to McKenzie. Ovalifolium is commonly known as the Alaska early blueberry and alaskensis as the black huckleberry or the black blueberry, McKenzie said. She added that the common name for alaskensis is debated.

The rest of the product contains Vaccinium uliginosum, also known as low bush blueberries or bog bilberry among other names, she said.

But McKenzie, and her business partner Scott Haines, the company's president and chief technical officer, say the demand for their product is high, putting a high demand on these berry species.

This summer, they enlisted private and native landowners around the state to gather naturally occurring blueberries on their land for AuroraBlue. This year, they said they needed 50,000 pounds to meet customers' demands. In the future, they hope to have a steady supply through a network of blueberry ranchers and wild gatherers in Alaska.

Jack Brown, business development manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, has thrown himself into the middle of trying to build an industry of blueberry ranchers in the borough. He said he hopes to see a blueberry cooperative formed acting as an umbrella organization for blueberry ranchers.

The benefit?

"Developing a new industry" on the peninsula and in Alaska, Brown said.

Haines said at Friday's meeting that the benefit of a ranching cooperative is it can provide certified disease-free blueberry plants as well as giving ranchers an economic safety net in case their crop fails in a certain year.

In addition to ranching, Denali is waiting to receive an approved federal appropriation to build a drying facility in Alaska to process the berries. Right now, they have to ship the berries Outside for processing.

Brown hopes the facility will be built on the peninsula.

He said there are more possibilities for profit than just blueberries.

For example, he said, down the road there may be the chance for ranchers to make money growing other kinds of berries, as well.

Brown said he is meeting with communities around the state to start planning the co-op, with help from the Kenai office of the USDA, which he said he hopes will be formed in about a month.

As for Dalton, the Kasilof landowner, he said he saw people make money ranching blueberries in Oregon, his home state, and thinks it may be a good way to earn some supplemental income. Plus, he said, there is another aspect he likes.

"I like the idea of farming them."



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