Much was made of the day in November 2008 when former Gov. Sarah Palin took the trip to a poultry farm in Wasilla, Alaska, to pardon a turkey. As the cameras rolled, and as Palin chirped about her mission, in the background a man was busy doing what poultry processors do. He was slaughtering a turkey, and it wasn't pretty. When broadcasters aired the footage, many -- though not all -- chose to blur out the bloody scene taking place behind Palin.
What followed for Anthony Schmidt, the owner of Triple D Farm and Hatchery, was not fun. Emails and phone calls and letters poured in, much of them abusive. It was, he said, "a horrible circus." But at least there was a circus, one replete with birds. Now, even if Gov. Sean Parnell feels compelled to act presidential this Thanksgiving, there will be no turkeys to pardon. No birds to free from slaughter. None, at least, that were commercially farmed in the 49th state.
In fact, unless Parnell is willing to root around some back yards, he'd have a darned hard time even finding an Alaska-grown chicken to save.
Alaska once had as many as 81,000 chickens on farms. Now, Triple D was the last commercial poultry farm in the state. It might be best known for its turkeys, but it only sold about 400 of those a year, dwarfing its chicken business. The farm sold about 10,000 dressed chickens a year. Save for some leftover product in the freezer, all those chickens are gone. All the equipment is for sale. All the hard work, years of toiling, "up in smoke."
Schmidt said that he simply couldn't make ends meet. His poultry prices are too high, he said, for what people are willing to pay. It's a bad economy, he said. He had gotten ahead of himself in 2008, right before the crash -- bought more birds than he could sell -- and has been making up for it ever since, even though his turkeys and chickens are widely hailed for their taste.
Alex Davis with A.D. Farms in Palmer, for one, is considering picking up where Schmidt is leaving off. Davis is, as they say, "vertically integrated," a necessity for small farmers, Davis said. He already has a thriving vegetable farm, sells eggs, and is always selling more and more locally grown pork --often at twice the cost of what you'd find at a grocery story. His customers, though, are willing to pay.
They find Davis on his farm, or visit him twice a week in the parking lot of the Sears Mall in Midtown Anchorage. Unlike many farmers, Davis knows how to market his products. He's got a website which is continually updated; he collects emails and sends out weekly market reports.
"That one thing that rings most true about my business," he said. "I can never compete with a grocery store on price. But they can never compete with me on quality."
Presumably that would hold true for poultry. But chickens are harder animals to raise for harvest in Alaska. This time -- unlike so many of Alaska's economic impediments -- weather isn't entirely to blame. Neither is the small market. In the Lower 48, small family farms, chicken operations included, are growing rapidly. Locally-grown food is all the rage.
The problem seems more a maze of regulations, coupled with a risk-adverse insurance industry in Alaska, making small poultry farming in Alaska nearly prohibitive.
And then there's also a lack of entrepreneurial flame in Alaska. It's one that's been slowly dimming since the big oil strike in 1968, which provided the state a plethora of high-paying jobs, ensured Alaskans ridiculously low taxes and promised us a check every year just for breathing Alaska air. A check that allows those of us who live near a city to pay $2 a pound for packaged chicken on the way home from work.
Where have all the chickens gone?
Through the 1960s and 1970s, Alaska was home to anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 chickens, according to statistics kept by the USDA. Then oil arrived, and the state invested millions of dollars in developing an agriculture business in Alaska. By 1982 Alaska was home to about 81,000 chickens, 57,000 of which were classified as "layers" and used primarily to produce eggs.
In 1986-1987, when oil prices plummeted and the farm crisis hit the Lower 48, Alaska's chicken population plummeted, too, from from 58,000 to 6,000.
And just like Outside, Alaska farmers went broke. They pleaded for help from the state, and the state, in deep financial troubles, all but shrugged its shoulders. Its citizens, after all, weren't going hungry for lack of food. By then, transportation and the country's food costs, in part due to low oil prices, were in steep decline. Farmers might have been hurting, but grocery store shelves were stocked. Food was abundant. The state didn't need to subsidize farmers to feed the masses.
The number of chickens in Alaska hasn't recovered. By 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, Alaska's 6,000 chickens amounted to the smallest poultry population in the United States. Even Wyoming, a state with fewer people than Alaska, had about 18,000 chickens on farms in 2007. Vermont had about 270,000. North Dakota, which saw a rapid decline in its chicken population between 2002 and 2007, still managed to have about 125,000 birds.
As the locavore movement has grown over the last decade, so too have the numbers of local birds likely increased in those states.
With Triple D Farm's operations, there might have been a spike in birds between 2007 and now. But that number is bound to fall now that Triple D is gone.
Daniel Consenstein, the state director of the Alaska Farm Service Agency, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, works with local farmers to try to help them be better local farmers. He sees a large demand for locally produced foods, particularly if locally produced foods can be marketed as successfully, for example, as Alaska's seafood industry has marketed fresh salmon -- even though fresh salmon is wildly more expensive than yard bird.
"Do you know any Alaskan who would buy farmed salmon even though it's half priced?" he asked. "When it comes to chicken or eggs or potatoes, why should Alaskans choose cheaper?"
Indeed, Alaskans might pay more for a locally grown chicken, and many of them did choose Triple D's chickens, even Schmidt didn't market extensively.
But the problem, in Alaska at least, is greater than a market.
Will Alaska's chickens come back home to roost?
Alaska has three slaughterhouses, but partly because of strict USDA regulations, none of them slaughter poultry. (Davis gets his pork slaughtered at Mount McKinley Meat & Sausage in Palmer). A small farm that produces fewer than 20,000 chickens a year could have its own slaughterhouse without having to be inspected by the USDA. In fact, neither the USDA nor the state Department of Environmental Conservation will bother to inspect a farm that processes fewer than 20,000 chickens a year.
And there's the rub.
The small farm exemption might help small farmers in the Lower 48, but in Alaska, it's an impediment. Blame insurance. In Alaska, it isn't economically feasable to have a farm that slaughters more than 20,000 chickens. And because no small poultry farmer in Alaska with a slaughterhouse can get their farm insured without a USDA or DEC inspection, no poultry farmer who processes chicken on site can get insurance.
Schmidt was willing to go without farm insurance. Alex Davis isn't. If something happened -- if someone got sick -- he would lose his house. He thinks that with his vegetable and pork operations, he could make money in poultry. But without insurance, it's too great a risk.
Former Alaska farmer and long-time insurance agent Pat Mulligan understands the problem. He's an Alaska farm booster, but he's had to deny insurance to local farmers who wanted to process their own chickens. And he doesn't see any solution over the horizon. It is, he said, "so hard to get the USDA to do anything in Alaska."
The state could fight, he said. It could incentivize more local farms, maybe, so that a mobile USDA slaughtering house could be brought in. But that would take time, energy and money from the state. Currently, the Division of Agriculture is under the Department of Natural Resources.
DNR, Mulligan said, has always been more interested in oil and gas than in agriculture.
Consenstein is more optimistic. For one, he said, there are all sorts of federal programs available for farmers, and perhaps he could help them through the regulatory mazes. If there was enough call for it, they could figure it out. But they would have to come to him and ask him for help.
"We can't create entrepreneurs," he said.
Eventually, though, someone will harness that pioneer spirit and step up, he said. It might be Alex Davis. It might be someone else. There's money to be made in the poultry market in Alaska. Alaska-grown chickens will, he's certain, someday again come home to roost.
Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com