Straddling scenic hillsides between the boundaries of Wasilla and Palmer is a swath of fertile land that plays an important role in Alaska's agricultural past and recreational present.
Framed by leggy cottonwoods and spruce trees, the fields of the Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension Center are quiet now, in stark contrast to the summer's rush to mow grass hay and nurture plants that might benefit students of Alaska's agricultural products.
The farm has been a fixture for more than 100 years, albeit a little-known one to many of us not directly connected to food and farms. I've known about it, but I thought the fields were off limits so I never took the time to dig deeper, if you will, into the acres and acres of fields, forests, lakes and, now, family-accessible trails.
The Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension Center (MEFEC) opened in 1917 as part of a formal pursuit of agricultural research in Alaska that actually began in 1898, when the federal government established research stations in Kodiak, Kenai, Rampart, Copper Center, Fairbanks and the Valley.
The Valley was already filling up with homesteaders, so interest was high to research, develop and share successful ideas related to Alaska's unique agricultural challenges. Territorial Gov. John Strong in 1917 accepted a federal land grant leading to the establishment of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, now the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The MEFEC facility is one of two remaining branches of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station in the state (the other, on the UAF campus, is also worth visiting).
By the time 202 farm families arrived from the Midwest in 1935 as part of a federal "New Deal" project, the Matanuska Experiment Farm was already a site for crop and livestock production "best practices" for the new Alaskans to adopt on their own farms.
If the farm played a vital role toward development of agricultural and research in the Mat-Su then, it may be even more important now as food security enters our everyday vernacular and home gardening and agriculture become de rigueur.
Today, thanks to cooperative efforts among Valley trail enthusiasts and progressive farm management, there exists another way to learn more about farming in Alaska: a system linking farm roads with trails in an effort to educate, inspire and provide opportunities to get the whole family outdoors.
The farm has 11 miles of road, said MEFEC director Jodie Anderson, a driving force for making those roads part of a broader effort for outdoor recreation.
The MEFEC is the western end of the Matanuska Greenbelt system, which is the largest uninterrupted public space in the core of the Valley. The system's more than 30 miles of trails are some of the only non-mountain, non-motorized pathways in the area.
Dot Helm, a stalwart figure of the Greenbelt trails and just about every other pathway in the Matanuska Valley, led the charge for community involvement from state, local and private entities and individuals.
The farm, she said, is "a very diverse system of trails — both flat and hilly, open and forested — supporting foot, bike and horse traffic as well as moms with baby-joggers and horse carriages."
"This diversity of trail and user types is a trademark of the system of which we are proud," she said.
It's pretty easy to find the farm, located just off Trunk Road. The buildings and offices, an area Anderson calls the "core," is closed to public trail access after years of vandalism and increased liabilities that made it difficult for the facility to maintain its status as a working farm. Guided tours and special events eventually will make the site more available, Anderson said.
Just up the road from the farm's main campus sits the new trailhead and parking lot. The area is still a bit sparse aside from a kiosk map, but the tractor-width trail follows the curve of a hay field, making the direction of travel pretty obvious.
It's mostly flat, too, just right for young hikers, skiers and bikers. I couldn't help but think what a nice place this would be for a group of kids and parents to congregate for the sake of outdoor activity. Anderson is thinking along these lines too, and plans science and agriculture-themed events, guided hikes, and historical presentations on the farmland.
The entire property is more than 900 acres, a mixture of farmland and forest, and the 11 miles of trails reflect years of use by man and machine. Each step reminded me of this, from the comforting scent of drying grasses to the plow marks along the edges of each field. It was still early in the day when I visited and no one else was ambling about save for a mother toting a toddler in a backpack, their trusty lab sniffing around and living the grand life of a temporary farm dog.
Trail system maps, as both Helm and Anderson told me, are a work in progress. The goal is the creation of online and print products to reflect more clearly the entire Matanuska Greenbelt system. Indeed, I had several directional stops and starts during my hike, but it didn't matter too much — the mountains were to the east, the Parks Highway to the west, and in true farm fashion, all roads eventually led back to where I started.
I spent a few hours among the scrabbly fields, listening to a stiff breeze rustle the leftover hay and trying to capture on my phone the vibrant contrast of Pioneer Peak's snowy top with the reddish-gold slopes in front of me.
Meandering back to the parking lot, utterly charmed by my morning, I was reminded of the line, "We reap what we sow. Choose what you nourish carefully."
Growing seeds and kids in this wild, beautiful place we call home? I'm in.
If you go
• Getting there: Travel north or south on the Parks Highway just past the Glenn/Parks junction to the Trunk Road exit. Head north and turn right at the traffic circle to Georgeson Road. Follow the road past the farm's main campus and uphill to the trailhead. Parking and access are free.
• Need to know: There are no toilet facilities, so be sure everyone makes a pit stop before heading out (I used the Mat-Su Medical Center restrooms). Pack out all trash, because garbage cans have not yet been purchased. The farm facility (buildings and office down the hill) is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, but the trailhead parking lot is open during daylight hours seven days a week.
• Bikes and skis are welcome on the farm's trails but users should stay on designated/groomed surfaces to protect fragile land. Dogs must be leashed.
Free presentations on most Wednesdays during the winter. Visit the farm's Facebook page for a list of events, including a holiday open house and tree-lighting on Dec. 7.
Erin Kirkland is a freelance travel writer and author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series.