Submitted by Val Dolcini, Administrator, USDA Farm Service Agency
As anyone who has visited the 49th State knows, Alaska is huge. It’s bigger than the next three largest states, Texas, California and Montana….combined! A land of extremes, Alaska’s rural communities face unique challenges: massive stretches of land that are permanently frozen (permafrost), long, dark winters, summer days where the sun never sets, 6,640 miles of coastline, majestic mountains, glaciers and rivers. Producers are challenged by vast distances and limited transportation networks, while also threatened by coastal erosion and the effects of climate change. In this environment, a small but increasing number of producers are working to make big changes in the way local food and plant materials are grown and supplied within the state.
Recently, I went to Alaska and learned a great deal about these challenges faced by farmers, both in southcentral Alaska and in the Interior. I met with beginning farmers at FSA’s State Office in Palmer (a community 40 miles north of Anchorage pioneered by Midwest farmers in the 1930s), celebrated our first Farm Storage Facility Loan (FSFL) in Alaska, visited an 8,000 acre grain farm in Delta Junction, and toured a hydroponic greens operation in Kotzebue, north of the Arctic Circle.
During my trip I saw extraordinary natural beauty, and a pioneering spirit that is evident all across the state, but I also saw substandard housing and sanitation conditions in rural areas, and significant logistical and transportation challenges, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to share how USDA programs can create transformative changes in these communities while empowering rural residents to strengthen their local economy.
During a meeting with beginning farmers and ranchers in Palmer, I found there is a great deal of interest in programs offered by FSA, and by other USDA agencies including the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development. About half of Alaska’s population lives in the Anchorage bowl, but only 5% of Alaska’s food is produced here. Through farmers markets, CSAs and partnerships with grocers, local producers are trying to change that. Our programs can help.
While at the Alaska State Fair, I saw Alaska’s giant vegetables! Long summer days produce pumpkins and cabbages that land in the Guinness Book of World Records. I also joined Governor Bill Walker, his wife, Donna and others in saluting Scott and Connie Plagerman as Alaska’s Farm Family of the Year. As residents of the Interior community of Delta Junction, they, along with their children, produce hay and bison. They also have established a therapeutic horseback riding program.
The fresh flower industry is in its infancy in Alaska, but shows great promise. Our first FSFL was made to Marji and Ron Illingworth of North Pole (which is driving distance from Fairbanks International Airport) for a cooler/packhouse. They have over 13,000 peony roots planted and they ship cut flowers by air freight all over the United States. They have established a growers association, a cooperative, and routinely lobby state and federal officials to promote the fledgling flower industry in Alaska. In addition to FSFL and other FSA loan programs, they utilize the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP), and the Reimbursement Transportation Cost Payment (RTCP) program which helps them compete with flower producers elsewhere in the world.
I went to Kotzebue, which, because of its location, experiences weeks of near-total darkness, along with extreme wind and cold in the winter. The community of 3,000 is predominantly Alaska Native, and there I learned how the Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation (KIC) is growing salad greens and herbs in repurposed shipping containers using LED lighting. Energy costs are high, but the technology is being refined at a rapid rate. Access to healthy foods is also a significant issue throughout the rural parts of the state and the year round availability of this crop will be important to the health of residents living off the road system. The native corporation plans to expand these container modules throughout the Arctic under the brand ‘Arctic Greens.’
From Kotzebue, we traveled about 70 miles further north to the village of Kivalina where we visited with elders, stopped at the school, and observed the impacts of climate change on this remote Native village of about 400. Kivalina is on a gravel isthmus, bordered by the Chukchi Sea to the west and the Kivalina lagoon on the eastern side. It’s about 1 mile in length and several hundred yards wide. Warmer winter temps are causing erosion on the sea side and while rock revetments have slowed the course of erosion, the last thirty years have seen dramatic local changes. Plans to relocate this village several miles inland are slowly progressing. Housing in this community is in dire need of modernization, most people do not have running water and use “honey buckets” for waste disposal, and, without road access, supplies such as vegetables are flown in at high cost from “air hubs” like Kotzebue and Fairbanks. Much of the meat in the local diet comes from subsistence hunting and fishing.
This trip allowed me, as Administrator of the Farm Service Agency, to see parts of Alaska that most Americans from the “lower 48” never experience. Now, with a better understanding of Alaska’s unique challenges, I am more focused on using our USDA programs in the future to improve food security, sanitation, and housing while diversifying the rural Alaskan economy.