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Cold Alaska summer hurting farmers and fresh produce lovers

Cold weather in Southcentral Alaska isn't just affecting people's moods. It's seriously hurting vegetable crops in the Matanuska Susitna Valley, one of the state's major farming regions.

Most crops are several weeks behind schedule, according to farmers, the result of a chilly spring and a summer that's nearly breaking cold-temperature records.

Pyrah's Pioneer Peak Farm, a popular pick-it-yourself destination near Palmer, would normally see five times as many people as it has, says owner Ted Pyrah. There's just not much for customers to pick right now, he says, and most vegetables are small.

While farmers can handle cloudy weather and a good amount of rain, there's not much they can do when temperatures dip. Plants simply aren't maturing fast enough, putting many farmers in a lurch.

The yield's way down, the production numbers are not there," says Arthur Keyes, owner of the South Anchorage Farmer's Market and Glacier Valley Farm in Palmer. "It's so cold, we need heat. We don't need rain, we need the sun."

Everybody affected

How many Mat-Su farmers are affected by the cold?

How about everybody?" says Duane Clark, co-owner of the Central Market in Anchorage. Name a plant and it's probably behind schedule. Cabbage, potatoes, beets, broccoli, cauliflower. Greens are about the only plant that's consistent, farmers say, and they've been small.

Even peas, normally a stable cold-weather crop, are lagging. Pyrah says his pea plants just started producing pods. Normally, he would have been harvesting them by July 20.

If you haven't seen any giant zucchinis in the farmer's market, there's a reason. Keyes, whose farm mainly produces flowering crops like zucchini and strawberries, says he usually produces one pound of zucchini per plant, per day.

But he didn't even begin harvesting the plants on time. Normally peak production is July 1, and Keyes didn't start harvesting until mid-July. Even then, with the ability to produce up to 2,000 pounds of zucchini a day, he only harvested 75.

His problems aren't unique. Keyes says many vendors that signed up sell at the market in June didn't show up until July. They just didn't have enough crop to sustain a booth.

Even the bees have had trouble with rainy, cold weather, Keyes says, another issue when dealing with flower crops.

The Mat-Su Valley is one of Alaska's best locales for growing a specialty crop because of its rich soil and long daylight. But when you add low bees, a late start and cold weather, problems arise.

You keep pulling links out and eventually, even with our incredible location here for crops, you pulled too many links out and you just can't catch up," he says.

Palmer Produce, a 300-acre farm that's one of the largest in the valley, has had the same problems. Cabbage has been growing particularly slowly. It's a crop the farm can usually sell into the winter, but this year Jerry Huppert says he hopes the farm doesn't run out.

There is a bit of a bright side to some of the production problems, though. Huppert has noticed less "tip burn" and slime on lettuce. Insects seem to be down, too.

Not enough degree days

While cold is slowing plants in Alaska, the opposite is happening in the Lower 48. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor about 53 percent of the nation is experiencing moderate to extreme drought. More than 1,000 counties in 29 states have been declared disasters areas. Record hot temperatures are being set all over.

Not in Alaska. Alaska's biggest city of Anchorage just posted its fourth-coldest July on record.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics through July 29, Palmer has only had 325 "degree days" this year, 112 days below average. A degree day is not an actual 24-hour day, but instead a unit of measurement defining ideal growing periods -- periods that are neither too hot nor too cold.

Sue Benz, with the USDA Alaska Agricultural Statistics Service, tried to put that into perspective. In 2004, a great growing year by most accounts (Benz grew full-size apples in her apple trees), there were 640 degree days through the end of July. In 2010, when Anchorage set a record with 28 consecutive days of rain, the degree-day count was still higher, with 372.

The latest data from the USDA shows that 4.6 million pounds of vegetables were grown statewide in 2010. Alaska also saw 15 million pounds of potatoes, which is counted separately from vegetables.

Effecting Alaska's food system

Danny Consenstein works with farmers across the state in his role as state executive director of the USDA Alaska Farm Service Agency. The agency is in charge of assisting farmers through programs that offer loans and other financial assistance. He's heard from many farmers how the cold weather is stunting the growing season.

He pointed out that many small operations, the ones that sell mostly to farmers' markets, have already missed opportunities in what is already guaranteed to be a short selling season.

If you've (the farmers) lost that revenue, you're not going to get it back," he says.

That revenue is money that could be staying in the local economy, he notes, that will now go elsewhere when grocery stores have to purchase more produce from Outside.

With the Midwest drought expected to increase food prices, Consenstein said Alaskans should be concerned. Alaska won't be immune to price hikes. And with less local food around, grocery bills could be painful.

"This bad weather (may) be a bit of a wake-up call that we need to pay attention to Alaska's food system," he said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)

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