PALMER — On one of the last days of the harvest season, Anne-Corinne Kell snipped rows of baby spinach to be sold at the South Anchorage Farmers Market. A shaggy Highland cow named Maybe grazing nearby has lived on this land since Kell founded Sun Circle Farm in Palmer 10 years ago.
The small organic farm sells a little of almost everything edible that can be grown in Alaska. Stalks of blue-green kale and broccoli poke through the earth; pink radishes ripe for picking sit just beneath the ground.
Kell said all things considered, she has had a pretty good season.
“It’s been just fine,” she said. “I don’t think I’m going to take a hit financially compared to last year.”
In Alaska and across the country, the overall economic picture is grim: The rate of job losses in-state since the pandemic began in March is historically high. And in Anchorage, one in six businesses fear they won’t survive the impacts of COVID-19, according to a recent survey by the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.
But there’s at least one sector that has been able to find ways to soften the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus. Farmers across the state say they’ve had a pretty good year financially.
In part, it’s because although restaurant sales have been down, more people want to buy local, especially via farm shares and farmers markets, they say.
This year, as in years before, Kell has been lucky enough to sell nearly everything she grows, she says.
She did have to change her business model slightly to make her staff and her customers feel safe in an uncertain time.
Sun Circle shuttered the farm stand that Kell said tended to be crowded most summers. In late spring, her team made a shift to a subscription-based model called a CSA, or community-supported agriculture, that allows customers to receive weekly boxes of the farm’s produce.
Preventing herself and her staff from getting COVID-19 and needing to quarantine was essential, Kell said. During a short season that yields most of the income she lives on for the year, every day counts.
Luckily, her customers responded well to the changes.
“We definitely had interest in the CSA that kind of blew me away,” she said.
The sign-up sheet filled up in just two days.
“I think early on people definitely were worried, and they wanted to secure their food source,” she said.
‘My best day ever’
Arthur Keyes, a former Division of Agriculture director in Alaska and the owner of the South Anchorage and Midtown farmers markets, said he thinks the pandemic has raised concerns about local food supply and potential food shortages that most Alaskans aren’t accustomed to.
Early in the pandemic, panic buying led to temporary shortages of staples like flour, yeast and pasta. And while crop shortages have not yet been seen in the U.S., Keyes said disruptions in national supply chains have caused many consumers to think more about where their food is coming from.
“People are kind of aware of something weird happening with our food,” he said.
Keyes also owns Glacier Valley Farm in Palmer. He said he and the farmers he knows have reported record sales this summer.
“I keep hearing, ‘This was my best week, or my best day ever,’” he said. “And then they’ll say the same thing a week later.”
Still, Keyes said, the last couple of months have been stressful.
“There were a lot of unknowns,” he said. “Early on, I had a lot of trepidation. The possibility that I could get sick to the point where I couldn’t work and I couldn’t plant, that scared me. That would have been devastating to my yearly income,” he said.
Restaurant demand down, but ‘everyone’s got to eat'
Other farmers are shifting the way they do business during the pandemic.
Three Ladybugs Farm in Palmer is on land that has been in one family for three generations. A rusty 6-by-6 truck built in 1942 that once carried troops during World War II is now used for hauling potatoes.
Garnet Knopp, co-owner of the farm, said the pandemic hasn’t changed day-to-day farm life too much. Farms are good places for social distancing, he said. The work happens mostly outdoors, rain or shine.
“We feel really privileged to already have been working apart from each other,” he said. “It’s a bit of a shock to me when I go into town and see people so close to each other.”
When the pandemic first came to the state in March, the growing season in Alaska — which typically runs from about May to October — had not yet begun, said Knopp. That gave him and other farmers some time to pivot.
“We knew restaurant demand was going to be way down,” he said, “so we were able to prepare for that.”
Luckily, he said, “everyone’s got to eat.”
This year, Three Ladybugs focused on bulk potatoes to be sold to major supermarkets around the state.
The first frost came a few weeks ago, Knopp said. The majority of his season’s harvest now rests in the barn — boxes and boxes of potatoes cleaned, sorted and ready to last the long winter ahead.
Miles away on the Kenai Peninsula, farmer Lisa Stevenson raises pigs, chickens, ducks and geese on her farm she named Lunachick. She too has seen a marked increase in sales since the pandemic began, and a huge increase in people interested in raising their own livestock.
She’s sold numerous pigs and chickens in particular, and received more advance sales on animals than ever before.
Stevenson, who grew up on a ranch in Montana, said she’s thankful for the spikes in sales, which she said have changed the way she does business. Instead of having to drive hundreds of miles to do deliveries, she’s been able to focus on her work on the farm, she said.
But she’s skeptical that the customers’ heightened interest in her animals will last.
“I think it’s a bubble, and it’s going to slow down once people realize the reality of raising your own food,” she said. Caring for livestock through long Alaska winters isn’t easy, she explained. Even seasoned farmers quit.
Still, she’s glad to see Alaskans making a shift toward growing and raising their own food.
Local delivery services like Arctic Harvest Deliveries, which collect and sell shares of local farmers' produce to restaurants and consumers, also made adjustments.
The company’s owner, Kyla Byers, said when this spring it became clear that restaurant sales would likely be down, her team also decided to ramp up their farm shares, focusing on season subscriptions.
It was a fairly easy pivot, she said.
“We’re doing really well,” she said.
This summer, with very little advertising, nearly 500 Alaskans signed up for their weekly or every-other-week produce boxes, with produce from a variety of local farms, mostly in the Mat-Su. A sample box from mid-September included optional add-ons like ears of sweet corn, handfuls of strawberries and local honey, eggs and meat, along with staples like potatoes, beets, onions and kale.
“I think the pandemic has definitely made people interested in supporting local,” Byers said.
That interest is alive and well too in Homer, where a farm called Blood, Sweat and Food LLC specializes in pastured pork, poultry, and lamb, all raised on “sunshine and a little bit of grain," said Aryn Young, one of the founders and owners.
The farm was founded about five years ago to fill an unmet community need for local meat, Young said. When the pandemic began in March, the team decided to launch a home delivery service.
“Because of the pandemic, we had to shift our model more direct-to-consumer,” she said. “We had several large restaurant or lodge clients that just decided to either scale way back or not operate this year, so we knew that we had to increase the number of products that we made available to direct consumers.”
Young too said making the switch to direct-to-consumer sales has been fairly easy because of high demand.
Meat shortages across the country probably played a role in locals looking for products closer to home, she said.
Kell, with Sun Circle Farm, is hopeful that the interest in buying, eating and growing local food will last even after the pandemic ends.
“I think everything fades and we all go back to what’s easiest to some degree,” she said. “But maybe at least the people who grew their very first garden this year will say ‘that wasn’t so bad,’ and they’ll try again next year with the crops they loved.”