PALMER - Michael Ableman farms on an island in British Columbia but said Alaska is more of an island than where he lives."Your food insecurity is as bad as I've ever seen," he said to no one in particular Saturday as he toured the Arctic Organics farm. "What happens when the planes and trucks stop moving?"
Not an insignificant question as the cost of fuel continues to go up with little hope for relief in the near term.
"That whole concept of a global food supply is based on cheap fossil fuel. It's no longer a left-wing, radical theory" to understand that shipping food all over the world is no longer a viable way to feed people, he said.
"We're augmenting a totally unsustainable diet."
And the worst of it is, Ableman said, the most vulnerable people - elderly and poor - will be the first to suffer when food supplies go wanting.
Ableman spoke that day in Anchorage at the annual UAA Sustainability Fair. He took time out to talk farming with Sarah and River Bean, who grow organic produce and some fruit on a small acreage near the Butte.
FARMER, AUTHOR, ACTIVIST
A farmer and author of three books on his favorite subject, sustainable agriculture, Ableman came to international note several years ago when he fought to save his small farm just north of Santa Barbara, Calif., from development.
Amidst some of the most expensive real estate in the nation, Ableman's 12.5 acres are now the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens.
The Goleta, Calif., center describes itself as "a model for small-scale urban food production, agricultural preservation and farm-based education."
About 10 years ago, Ableman parlayed his international fame to enable a move with his family to Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia and to create The Center for Art, Ecology and Agriculture.
"You have to feed people," Ableman said as he sat in the Beans' farmhouse munching on sweet carrots. "We must make it absolutely sure that we protect farms."
But land ownership itself is overrated, he said, because owning land inhibits farming.
With land prices forced up by development, a young farmer can't afford to pay for land, he said.
"If the food system is to work, ownership is not necessary," but there must be landowners who don't want to farm to make that land available for growing food.
He mentioned a national land trust in England where leases are available for as long as 100 years.
"The key," he said, "is tenure. You need at least 25 years because it takes eight to 10 years to get established."
His experience on the island started with "six acres of chocolate cake bottomland. Incredibly rich soil." Now he's working 120 acres.
Still, he doesn't blame farmers, including Alaskans, if they give way to homes and businesses.
"It's hard to fault them for selling land for development if they can get 100 times the value for what they produce. The system has commodified land. I saw it in California.
"But that thinking will change," he said, "when the cost of food goes up. When energy goes up and they're forced" to think about how people will eat.
"It's way worse than we recognize. It's precarious. We're losing 47 acres an hour to development. We don't realize what we're losing."
SUGGESTIONS FOR ALASKANS
Ableman offered some suggestions for improving sustainable agriculture in Alaska:
• Develop models that produce food year-round by building more greenhouses, for example.
He lauded the Beans for installing a wood-burning stove in one greenhouse to cut down on fossil fuel use.
• The general population needs to rediscover what he calls wild-crafting: hunting, fishing, berry and mushroom harvesting.
• More ranching, because people need protein as well as fruits and vegetables. More beans would help.
• Be more creative. "Everywhere rural communities say, 'We've always done it this way.' " He thinks egg and poultry production should be investigated.
• Ableman was unaware of the difficulties the dairy industry faces in Alaska. Still, he thinks there's room here for some kind of livestock. Maybe sheep.
• Alaskans should use some of the Permanent Fund to develop a food system. "There'll be a time when people will prefer that (food) to getting a check in the mail."
• Farmers and their kind need to be more proactive in getting their message across about how important their work is to people. "At the moment, the attitude (among non-farmers) is: Why bother when I can go to the store?"