Our agriculture industry small but fertile

Tim Bradner | Alaska Journal of Commerce

I got to tag along with a group of legislators touring Matanuska-Susitna Borough farms a few weeks ago and it was a real eye-opener. Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, organized this visit of a legislative delegation to several working farms to make the point to his colleagues in Juneau that agriculture is quite viable in Alaska.

Based on what I saw, I would say it is thriving. What was interesting to me is that these entrepreneurs/farmers have found market niches that really work for them.

It's a classic example of small business can-do that is happening without a lot of help from government other than very traditional programs of crop and soil research, small business-type loans and marketing assistance.

The days of the big state-sponsored agriculture projects, like the dairy farm project at Point MacKenzie and the state barley project near Delta, are long in the past. Our small agriculture industry has learned from those mistakes and moved on.

Unfortunately, the memory of those experiments remains with many Alaskans, particularly political leaders. Stoltze is working to change that.

Alaska agriculture is small. There are just over 300 farms in Alaska that generate more than $10,000 a year in revenue. Still, our group saw modern, high-volume produce handling and storage facilities and fields of lettuce, cabbage, and potatoes. Carrots and a variety of other vegetables are grown too, and farmers say they sell all they can grow to local grocery chains.

They are quick to give credit to Safeway/Carrs, Fred Meyer, Wal-Mart, wholesalers like Sysco Food Service and institutional buyers like the military bases for purchasing Alaska-grown products.

Some of these enterprises are now third-generation. Paul Huppert's family, for example, operates Palmer Produce, which manages wholesale sales of vegetables for the family's farms as well as other growers. Huppert's daughter, Paula Giauque, owns Gold Nugget Farms, a producer of green vegetables. Paula's daughter, Teri Bernowski, is involved in that. Jerry Huppert, Paul's son, and Josh Lutz, Paul's grandson, operate Butte Farms, growing potatoes.

What was most striking to me, however, was seeing Arthur Keyes' Glacier Valley Farm near Palmer, where Keyes and his wife, Michelle, are commercially growing vegetables and the sweetest strawberries you've ever tasted with a high-tech greenhouse and about three acres planted. Unlike most others in the Valley's small farming community, Keyes is a city kid who grew up in Anchorage and learned farming the hard way -- by just doing it. He's young, which makes the point that young people can make a go of this.

What's really driving this growth are the farmers' markets that are sprouting up across the state where growers are selling directly to the public. Keyes founded several of these in Anchorage. Visit the South Anchorage market on a Saturday morning and you can see this business is booming.

The local-foods movement is a national trend that is happening because of consumers' interest in healthy food and increasing worry about food safety, as a lot of our food is now imported from places with lax standards.

Alaskans have one other concern: food security. We're at the end of a long supply chain. It's prudent to have some local production capacity.

Amy Pettit, the state agriculture division's marketing director, points out that farmers' markets are also small business incubators, because a grower/vendor can start small and gradually expand as sales increase.

We talk a lot about how to spur economic development in Alaska. Here is something that is happening right in front of us and going largely unnoticed.

The economy benefits too. Danny Consenstein, Alaska director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, says farms have a substantial economic multiplier in the regional economy and U.S. small farms are actually increasing in number even as large farms decline.

But, here's one thing I learned on the tour that really blew me away. We have a budding -- no pun intended -- export industry in -- believe this?-- cut flowers. It's true.

I learned about this from Craige and Kathy Baker, who own Grey Owl Farm near Palmer. They're in the greenhouse business, selling plants and flowers locally, and are just getting into raising peonies for commercial sales. However, I learned that growers near Homer, Soldotna, Fairbanks and Nenana are selling peonies in the Lower 48 and are now getting calls from international buyers.

Peonies are those beautiful flowers beloved for weddings and it turns out that Alaska has a competitive advantage because we can grow, and ship, peonies in the summer when Lower 48 growing areas are past their season. Thanks to air shippers like Federal Express, this is working.

Peony growing is small-scale stuff now and it'll never duplicate the North Slope oil fields in economic impact, but it's a niche industry that could grow fast and we should, as we say, nurture it.

Interestingly, here's where government plays a proper role: Our mini-industry in peonies was launched after scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks botanical gardens did research and figured out the seasonal advantage. It's a classic case of government assisting the development of a new industry and the private sector taking it from there.

Clouds are on the horizon, however. Federal and state funds are being cut for the government crop research and technical assistance programs that would help this infant industry.

We may yet shoot ourselves in the foot on this one. Let's hope not.

Tim Bradner writes for an Alaska economic reporting service. He also consults for private clients and writes for business publications. His opinion column appears every month in the Anchorage Daily News.