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Growing the market for Alaska-grown produce

Zaz Hollander
Ivy Beck picks strawberries at Arthur Keyes' Glacier Valley Farm after a farm tour for legislatures, commissioners and staff on Thursday, August 22, 2013.
Bob Hallinen
Arthur Keyes shows off flats of strawberries picked at his Glacier Valley Farm after a farm tour for legislatures, commissioners and staff on Thursday, August 22, 2013.
Peggy Hunt, an agronomist at the Alaska Plant Materials Center in the Butte area, talks about the uses of devil’s club during a farm tour.
Ivy Beck picks strawberries at Arthur Keyes’ Glacier Valley Farm after a farm tour for legislatures, commissioners and staff on Thursday, August 22, 2013.

PALMER -- Move over Vidalia. There's a new onion in town.

And it's fresh from the fields of Palmer.

Arthur Keyes grows Yensis sweet onions, compact bulbs with leafy green tops named for the unique silty soil blown down to his farm from nearby glaciers.

Like all Alaska produce, the bulbs carb load during long summer days and then turn sugary in cool nights.

But unlike those other onions from Georgia or the Walla Walla variety from Washington state, Yensis sweets don't have far to travel.

"We have a special place here," Keyes told a high-powered tour group on his farm Thursday. "Everything we grow and produce is sweeter."

From his mouth to the halls of power.

With the first day of the Alaska State Fair under way just up the Glenn Highway, nearly 60 state legislators and high-level officials tromped around farm-oriented properties in Palmer and the Butte on a tour aimed at getting more local food into state institutions like schools and prisons.

Along with Keyes' Glacier Valley Farm, the tour also stopped at Palmer Produce and Pioneer Farm and Equipment in the Butte as well as the state-run Plant Materials Center, which conducts native plant seed cultivation and research to help farmers.

Rep. Bill Stoltze organizes the farm tours every year to show his fellow legislators the bounty of Mat-Su fields. The Chugiak Republican is known to hand out Palmer carrots in Juneau.

But this year's tour hinged around Gov. Sean Parnell's recent creation of the Alaska Food Resource Working Group to "recommend policies and measures to increase the purchase and consumption of locally grown and harvested foods." A Stoltze-sponsored House resolution urged formation of the group, which includes eight state agency commissioners or their designee.

Thursday's tour group included commissioners and deputy commissioners representing the eight agencies. Eleven legislators plus other elected officials attended, as did several members of Future Farmers of America.

Under Alaska statute, any state institution that buys food is supposed to be Alaskan if the cost is within 7 percent of the out-of-state price. But no agency has authority to enforce it.

Agriculture officials say buying local is good for the economy, good for health and good for what's called food security -- if Alaska gets cut off from the regular food shipments that come in from the Lower 48, what will we eat?

"The idea is that these heads of state, these important commissioners, need to be thinking more about Alaska's food security, and what each commissioner can do to encourage production of all kinds in the state," said Amy Pettit, Alaska Grown program manager for the Alaska Division of Agriculture.

It might seem like the Alaska Grown label is everywhere these days.

The stickers mark heaping mounds of locally-grown cauliflower, greens, potatoes and carrots at grocery stores like Fred Meyer, WalMart and Carrs Safeway. They pop up at farmers markets throughout Southcentral and in the Interior.

Despite all appearances, Alaska Grown is just getting started, agriculture officials say.

There are only about 10 growers in the Mat-Su with the capacity to sell to big retail grocers, according to Pettit. The large farms typically employ 20 to 30 people -- many growers say they struggle to find labor - and need to buy million-dollar product liability insurance that isn't actually that expensive but seems daunting, Pettit said.

Another 70 Palmer and Wasilla farmers fall into a "truck farmer" category who sell their goods at farmers markets in the Valley and Anchorage.

Stoltze asked farmers at each stop on Thursday's tour what challenges they faced.

"I want to stress the importance of the soils, this place," Keyes said. "My emphasis would be do whatever it takes to help preserve these soils. I'm not anti-development but I am pro-ag soils for ag."

Paul Huppert, who wholesales a huge variety of Alaska vegetables through Palmer Produce, echoed the thought.

"Ag land preservation - it's not that we need it today or tomorrow but we're going to need it in the future," Huppert said.

Palmer Produce is biggest short-term problem, he said, is labor.

"I can't get enough help," Huppert said.

The governor's working group got more traction in the Mat-Su than another state-level proposal to help farmers.

Parnell in mid-July signed into law a bill sponsored by Palmer Republican state Rep. Shelley Hughes that lets local governments give farmowners a break on valuable food storage and production buildings.

In early August, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly defeated a proposal to put before voters a 50 percent exemption for farm structures built or converted for farm activity after July 1.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com