PALMER -- A combination of horticultural savvy and community service earned a Palmer couple the title of 2013 Alaska State Fair Farm Family of the Year.
Vern Stockwell and Becky Gardner's Stockwell Farms produces eight kinds of carrots, 18 different varieties of potatoes, sweet onions, colored cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes and strawberries, not to mention Gardner's locally famous red currant jelly and ginger-rhubarb jam.
The farm also partners with Colony Next Step, a Mat-Su Borough School District program that serves young adult students with disabilities. Gardner said their 25-year-old son has Down syndrome, so his Palmer High School class was the first to come out more than five years ago.
Palmer and Colony students still come out picking and doing other farm jobs, including weighing and bunching carrots, a big favorite.
"They're very proud of what they do," Gardner said. "I'd rather focus on what they do."
Stockwell grew up on a 600-acre farm in South Dakota and put most of his Anchorage yard into vegetable production before the couple and their three children moved to the Valley in 2001. He's a longtime member of the Mat-Su Chapter of the Farm Bureau.
Gardner grew up in the Midwest but her farming experience ended with the tomatoes her father raised. The couple met in Anchorage. When Stockwell told her he had a garden, she figured he was just trying to impress her. She called his bluff and asked for some Brussels sprouts.
"The next day he says the moose ate 'em," she remembered. "I'm like, 'Riiiight.' "
These days the couple is so busy shuttling between farmers markets they don't even drive to Anchorage together, she said. Stockwell Farm sells at the Northway Mall Market, the South Anchorage Farmers Market and the Anchorage Farmers Market.
Gardner hopes that news of the award will spur more interest in Alaska-grown produce.
"It benefits everybody," she said. "Any word that can be spread is good."
Farm Family of the Year winners are selected from nominations by an awards committee chaired by the Alaska Division of Agriculture based on "production of quality Alaska Grown products, community and agricultural organization involvement, and overall image," according to a state press release. The Alaska State Fair established the award in 2000.
The couple received the award Thursday at opening day of the fair.
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 257-4317.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER