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Farming works in Alaska, just not the way the government planned it

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 14, 2018
  • Published October 14, 2018

Saskia Esslinger of Homer and her son Rylan dig potatoes from the garden that helps feed them year-round. (Photo courtesy of Saskai Esslinger)

Saskia Esslinger realized she had miscalculated when spring came and she still had 25 pounds of kale preserved from the previous fall. It turned out living for a year only on Alaska food was much easier than she had expected.

"We worked ourselves up into a frenzy in harvest season, trying to put so much food away, and we exhausted ourselves. And we didn't need to do that," Esslinger recalled. "We're so disconnected from how much food we actually eat and need."

That was six years ago. Esslinger is no longer a purist — she gets lemons, nuts and coffee from outside Alaska — but her family in Homer does mainly live on Alaska food, much of it taken from her garden.

More people have figured out how to live, at least partly, on what grows here. Alaska has more than 50 farmers markets.

The Alaska agriculture industry remains tiny, by far the smallest of any of the states, producing less than 1 percent of what we eat. But after a century of repeated failures, it is finally healthy. And therein lies a lesson, as we envision the economy of the post-oil future.

Put simply: Keep the government out of it. Economic development projects can do more harm than good.

In three big flexes of government muscle, politicians tried to force into life farming communities like those they remembered from back home, in the American heartland. They invested in fantasies rather than businesses, and the farmers who got involved paid the price.

The federal government tried it with the Alaska Railroad construction project, in 1915, planning a network of roads to branch off into remote watersheds where they would build new towns, ranches and farms. Homestead farmers tried, but had no markets for their potatoes and root vegetables.

The federal government tried it again in the 1930s, with the Matanuska Colony Project, and the state tried in the 1980s, with the Delta Barley Project and Point MacKenzie Dairy Project.

All these projects proved that money, will and a government plan are not enough. In fact, government involvement saddled farmers with unsustainable debt and production that didn't match what markets wanted.

Alaska farmers generally can't compete on price with food produced by the extraordinarily efficient machine of corporate agribusiness worldwide. I don't believe they ever will.

But they can compete on quality. And they can make money in niche markets that allow them to expand slowly, without unsustainable debt.

Matt Hale is doing it. You get to his 40-acre vegetable farm on Point MacKenzie by driving past some of the abandoned state-funded dairies. (For the most part, those thousands of acres cleared in the 1980s grows only hay these days, which is by far Alaska's biggest crop.)

Hale quit working as a finish carpenter to be a farmer with his family. Essentially, they just expanded their vegetable garden by many times. He finally cut the cord to his day job a year ago.

"There's something about working with your kids and your family out in the field that is a reward unto itself," he said.

Mixed greens from Hale's Harvest Point Farms sell at Natural Pantry for a dollar a bag more than the outside competition, but he said his are 10 days fresher. The vegetables he sells at the South Anchorage Farmers Market are harvested the day before.

And they taste better, too. Alaska growing conditions produce extra-sweet vegetables, especially strawberries and carrots.

"The food in the grocery stores just doesn't compare with the food we were growing and eating," Esslinger said. "The carrots we're buying, that you buy in every grocery store across the nation, there just is no comparison to the carrots you can grow or buy in Alaska."

Thanks to this year's extremely warm autumn, Hale is still harvesting lettuce. But Alaska's short seasons will always limit what you can get compared to produce that comes in from California, Mexico, or even farther away.

Esslinger said the solution to that is simple. Learn to eat foods when they are in season.

"There's a delight in that, as well, when you don't have fresh strawberries all year, you really appreciate them more when they come ripe," she said.

The current director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture, Arthur Keyes, understands the limited role the state should play in farming here. He developed his own vegetable farm without relying on the state.

Arthur Keyes shows off flats of strawberries picked at his Glacier Valley Farm after a farm tour for legislatures, commissioners and staff on Thursday, August 2013. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Keyes expanded his farm slowly, without going into debt or losing track of market needs. He also founded the South Anchorage Farmers Market. It allowed him to get $2.50 a pound for zucchinis rather than the 50 cents he used to get wholesale from grocery stores.

But Keyes said the state can have an important role promoting local agriculture. He said if Alaskans spent just $5 a week on local food they would overwhelm our farmers with demand.

And the state can step in to help with agricultural problems. The division kept a local slaughterhouse operating until selling it last year. Without that support, Alaskans would have lost the ability to sell USDA-certified meat, Keyes said.

Now Mt. McKinley Meat and Sausage is more successful because it is in private hands, he said. And a second meat processor is starting up. While the state owned the only slaughterhouse, competitors stayed away.

Keyes preaches like an evangelist about the sweetness of Alaska vegetables and the simple rules for making it as a farmer.

"The number one thing I will tell people if they ask me, is stay out of debt," he said.

He also said to build production gradually, tracking the market closely to match products to customers, maximize sale prices, and develop channels for reaching directly to Alaskans willing to pay more for higher-quality local products.

It struck me that is a good formula for success for any Alaska business.

Alaska's many efforts to use oil money to diversify the economy failed. Instead, the economy diversified when Alaskans found good business opportunities and pursued them with hard work and intelligence.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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