Agriculture industry frets over budget plan that could end Alaska Grown and loan fund programs

Some of the cuts in Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s budget would fall hard on Alaska’s farmers, even as they try to grow their sector into a larger part of the state economy.

Farming is nothing new in Alaska. However, as Sen. Lisa Murkowski noted in her address to attendees at the Alaska Food Festival and Conference in Homer on March 8, most of the nation has no idea that there is any agriculture at all in the state.

Farming in Alaska dates back to at least the 1920s, with people keeping their own gardens before and after that. But in the past three decades, farmers have been pushing harder to innovate and increase their presence with an eye toward providing more of Alaska’s food supply locally and toward exporting their goods. Farmers now grow everything from peonies to massive tomatoes to oysters in the state.

However, Dunleavy’s budget includes a number of cuts to programs that would affect the industry. One of the major items is to significantly reduce funding to the state Division of Agriculture, which includes the highly visible Alaska Grown program.

The budget would also zero out funding for the Agriculture Revolving Loan Fund, a state-administered fund issuing small loans to farmers for business-related expenses, and would eliminate the state agricultural veterinarian.

Dunleavy campaigned on the promise that he would cut the state budget to match revenues without raising new broad-base taxes. His proposed budget cuts more than $1.2 billion, forgoing a number of federal match programs.

“It was difficult to arrive at these decisions and it is certainly not easy news to share,” wrote Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige in a Feb. 13 letter to staff. “However, it speaks far more to the state’s very significant fiscal challenges than it does to the good work performed by each of you.”

The Alaska Food Policy Council, a group of food policy advocates, has been working on policies to advance food safety and local food availability for the past eight years. This year, members of the council were working on a farming pilot plan when the governor’s budget came out, at which point the focus shifted toward the impacts.

“This year, I think everyone’s priority is the budget,” said Amy Seitz, a member of the Alaska Food Policy Council’s board and the executive director of the Alaska Farm Bureau.

With significant cuts to the Division of Agriculture, the industry would lose an important link to creating opportunities to export its goods. Because of its geography, Alaska has long relied on trade partners in Asia; individual farmers may not have the ability to create those partnerships on their own, especially as foreign government entities may only deal with other government entities, Seitz said.

Similarly, the Alaska Grown program is an important go-between for farmers to get their produce onto local grocery store shelves. Large grocery chains like Fred Meyer and Costco may not work with individual farmers who want to put their products on shelves there, and without that shelf space, farmers won’t be able to reach as many consumers.

Alaska Grown has been an important partner to talk with the grocery chains and to help farmers with the paperwork, Seitz said.

The “farm-to-institution” program would also disappear, as would the federal-state Crop Block Grant program. Accepting federal grants coming to the state would be difficult, as the Division of Agriculture usually accepts and distributes those — and with $16 million over the next four years provided to the state through the most recent farm bill, who would handle those funds will be unclear.

The state dairy certification program would also be cut, affecting some operations already ongoing. The only operations that could then distribute local milk in the state would be through herdshares, which are fairly limited in scope. Essentially, the industry would be pushed back from its movement toward professionalism.

“It would go back to hobby farming,” Seitz said.

Outside the landscape of the proposed state budget, there’s optimism in the farming sector. The conference, attended by about 200 people from all over the state, featured items like connecting farms and consumers as a community food system, marketing, accepting food stamp benefits at farmers markets and food business financing. Discussions focused on opportunities to increase consumption and awareness of local foods and value-added products.

The Alaska Food Policy Council advocates for state law changes that make food more affordable and available across the state, preferring local when possible. Bills like HB 16, which would allow for the sale of raw milk products in the state, would further the distribution of local foods, and the council is working on a farm pilot project that would allow farmers trying to get going to have access to shared kitchen facilities and other resources.

The greatest obstacles aren’t necessarily getting people into farming, Seitz said, but rather “logistics and changing the attitude of people who are making policies.”

The most recent farm bill, a sprawling piece of federal legislation passed in December, provides some other reasons for optimism. The reauthorization of the specialty crop grant program provides more funding for farmers in Alaska, who often grow crops like fruits, vegetables and tree nuts. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who gave a brief speech at the conference Friday, said his office supported that provision and hopes to continue facilitating farming in Alaska.

“There’s a lot going on, and it’s positive, really positive,” Sullivan said. “We’re working on a lot of sustainable food security, but there’s a lot of areas where I think we’re just scratching the surface, particularly if you look at not just the farm on land but also … our oceans.”

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at