State looks at opening more land for farming

Posted: Monday, December 02, 2002

WASILLA (AP) -- State officials are looking at two new projects to spur farming in Alaska, one near Kenny Lake just south of Glennallen and another near Big Lake.

The two areas would open up thousands of acres. Both projects are enthusiastically backed by farmers, who say potential farmland is scarce.

''It's incredibly critical,'' said John Devens, a Kenny Lake hay farmer who helped push for the project there. ''Alaska has a lot of agricultural potential, but we need the land.''

But opening access could cost millions of government dollars.

The state already has spent $400,000 for the Kenny Lake project over the last two years, putting in a gravel road near Mile 90 of the Richardson Highway and building a bridge across a buried section of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

The road provides access to 3,000 acres of spruce and aspen forest that has shown promise for farming because of its soils. State agriculture officials hope to begin selling the first of nearly a dozen lots ranging from 80 to 360 acres starting next year.

Near Big Lake, state officials have bigger plans. They want $2.5 million in federal funds to extend South Big Lake Road 1.5 miles west and build a bridge across the Little Susitna River.

That would open 16,000 acres of farmland in what is called the Fish Creek area. The initial $2.5 million was included in a federal transportation bill this year and should be reintroduced next year, according to a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Beyond that, putting in a basic road system was estimated at $20 million in a 1984 state plan.

The land has long been considered for agriculture because of its good soils and proximity to Anchorage. Thousands of acres there also could be developed for timber and recreation.

In the past eight years, the state has sold about 57,000 acres of farmland, most of it in Mat-Su and Delta Junction, according to the Division of Agriculture. Much of that had been returned by farmers who went bankrupt on big state-sponsored barley and dairy projects.

Alaska's high-profile farming failures have put the lid on big projects in recent years.

But state officials say they need to open new land to give farmers opportunity and keep agriculture expanding.

''We know there's interest out there,'' said Division of Agriculture Director Rob Wells.

Despite the past failures, state officials and farmers defend the latest agricultural projects, which they note are much smaller.

Devens compares the money spent on developing the land with the money the state spends to market oil and gas leases.

''This land is worth something,'' he said. ''But they're going to have put some money into it to get something out of it.''

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