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Late Alaska breakup creates hurdles for farmers

Jerzy Shedlock
Alaska’s cool spring is creating a mess for farmers, as remnants of late winter blizzards and slowly thawing soils prevent them from preparing various crops. Loren Holmes photo

Farming may not come to mind when you think of Alaska, known more for its steep peaks than flat fields. But hundreds of farms in the state trudge through a four-month growing season, fighting hostile weather and steep transportation costs. Alaska farmers practice patience: the ground must thaw before seeds can be planted. Most years, the transition from winter to spring is well underway by mid-May. But cold weather and a late winter are delaying Alaska's already-short growing season. Farmers have no choice but to wait to seed various crops until frozen topsoil thaws.

Arthur Keyes, owner and operator of Glacial Valley Farm in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, planned to start seeding a fraction of his farm’s acreage this weekend -- hopefully. The farm grows fruits and vegetables generally suitable for warmer climates, like strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers. This year, he’s nearly two weeks behind schedule.

Mat-Su farmers, as well as agricultural operations in Interior Alaska, are used to preparing their crops by May 1. For Keyes and others, that wasn’t possible this year; as of Tuesday, he hadn’t used his tractor on the farm’s three acres.

The problem is mud, he said. Spring breakup, when warmer temperatures, longer days and melting snow causes ice to break apart and float down Alaska rivers, create a temporary mires on farmlands. To start the season, farmers must wait until the snow melts, and when the white stuff disappears it creates mud galore. Then, the soft, watery fields solidify as soil thaws.

“Usually, we would’ve had a bunch of mud sitting on top of the frost back at the end of April,” Keyes said, “And this year it just hasn’t happened on schedule, so welcome to Alaska, huh?”

The Mat-Su is Alaska’s bread basket. Back in 2007, when the Department of Agriculture conducted its most recent nationwide census of agriculture, the area just north of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, contained 278 farms. At that time, croplands made up about 44 percent of the area’s farms, and dairy farms made up about 14 percent. But the Matanuska Maid Dairy was still in business. Statewide, there were 686 farms totaling 881,585 acres.

Despite the hostile climate and small, competitive market, Keyes said he’s optimistic about the rest of the season. Before the snow came Friday across parts of Southcentral Alaska, he was hoping to seed on an elevated portion of his farmlands, which stretches about half an acre. Because Alaska’s climate makes it harder to grow the warm-weather crops like strawberries, the work is labor intensive, requiring a watchful eye and long days. He’ll work the elevated land over the next week while the remaining acres thaw, he said.

But the late season start failed to stop all of Keyes’ sales. On Sunday, he’ll be selling cucumbers, which he grows in a 3,800 square foot greenhouse, as well as lettuce and sprouts with a fellow farmer at the South Anchorage farmer’s market.  

It’s too early to tell if most farmers will experience a lackluster season, said Danny Consenstein, who as the executive director for the Alaska Farm Service Agency spends his days speaking with farmers. The season could be fine -- warm temperatures, sunny days, balanced precipitation that result in high yields -- but business largely depends on unpredictable weather.

Produce and grain, as well as hay farmers are managing lands that are too wet, too muddy, Consenstein said. Livestock farmers are feeding their animals when they should be grazing. That’s increasing farmers’ costs, he said.

Alaska’s questionable season opener comes one year after a nationwide drought, the worst in at least 25 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 2012 drought destroyed or damaged portions of major field crops in the Midwest, particularly field corn and soybeans, which led to increases in the farm prices of corn, soybeans and other field crops.

Located in Interior Alaska, Wrigley Farms of Delta Junction, population 972, has yet to plant seeds. Wrigley grows grain, barely and some dry-soil peas for animal feed. It also operates a flour mill through Alaska Flour Company. It’s a large operation at 1,700 acres.

Owner Bryce Wrigley said his farm has been pumping out grain for three decades, and the flour mill opened at the end of 2000.

The deadline for crop insurance, which many Alaska farmers obtain through Mid-Columbia Insurance Inc., is May 25. Wrigley likes to have his crops planted by the deadline, which leaves him with less than two weeks to do so.

“The prognosis for the coming week’s weather doesn’t look good,” he said. “I don’t rely on the forecast too much, but I keep looking at it. I’m just hoping for good news.”

The major roadblock preventing Wrigley from seeding his crops is the cold weather. The soil remains cold, and patches of snow rest atop some of the farm’s acres. Arctic air swept across the Interior delivering record lows Monday and Tuesday morning; the city hit a record low of 22 degrees on Monday, breaking the previous record of 26 degrees set in 1928.

Wrigley refuses to throw in the towel, however. He’s seen fellow farmers plant as late as the first week of June and manage to have an OK season, he said. Currently, workers are cleaning seeds and making sure “all the kinks are worked out,” so the farm can move quickly when the time for seeding arrives.  

The average yield of Wrigley’s farm is about 800-1,000 tons of grain. This year, the farm likely will reduce the number of acres it’s producing on. Wrigley said he wants to avoid frost ruining crops with a late run. He also won’t reach 800 tons of grain, making it the first time in 10-12 years the farm may sell out its product. There will still be grain available at the Fairbanks Co-op Market, Wrigley offered.

Ultimately, Alaska farmers are creative and resilient, Consenstein said. New bloods -- Alaskans show a continued interest in joining the agriculture business, he said -- take to innovative technologies, like the prevalence of high tunnels on the Kenai Peninsula.

Alaskans generally apply for federal farm loans at the beginning of the season. They use the money to buy materials then make up the cost as the farming season moves forward. If the cold weather persists for much longer, farmers will find it difficult to cover the loans and make a profit, Consenstein said.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com