JUNEAU — The administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy is seeking $5 million for a 100,000-acre farming project west of the Interior town of Nenana. It’s one of a series of agricultural and land-development projects proposed by the governor in amendments to the annual capital budget, which funds construction and renovation projects across Alaska.
Land sales in the new Nenana-Totchaket farming district could take place as soon as fall 2022, said David Schade, director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture, and if the project is fully developed, it would be the largest state-funded agricultural venture in Alaska since the failed Delta Barley Project of the 1970s and 1980s.
Other parts of the governor’s capital budget proposal include $7.5 million for the Ambler Road project, $10 million for a proposed road in the western portion of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, $10 million for maintenance of borough-owned roads in the Mat-Su and $7 million for lawsuits fighting portions of the Endangered Species Act.
Senate lawmakers met Saturday to consider the governor’s proposals, and the Senate Finance Committee is expected in the coming days to decide whether to accept or reject the individual items.
If the Nenana-Totchaket project goes forward as planned, it would be a step toward goals Dunleavy set in his State of the State speech earlier this year. During the speech, Dunleavy said he would seek to open more state land to farming and seek to make the state more self-sufficient. Alaska currently imports about 95% of its food.
Schade said he expects about $21 million in costs to open the 30,000-acre first phase of the Nenana-Totchaket project.
“That includes the surveying, building the roads, and a couple million dollars to get electric service,” he said.
Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, asked why the administration believes this project and a smaller development on the Kenai Peninsula make sense.
“Are both of these projects sort of — we’ll build it and hope they come?” he said.
Decades ago, the state of Alaska spent up to $120 million to encourage barley farming in the area of Delta Junction and dairy farming in the area of Point MacKenzie, but both efforts flopped.
Schade said the division of agriculture receives “constant requests for agricultural land,” and when it comes to the Kenai development, which will take place near Anchor Point, “we get calls on that daily. Folks really want to get on those.”
With $5 million for the Nenana project and another $7.5 million line item to be split between that project and the Kenai Peninsula one, the state would have about half the money it needs, Schade said.
“However, we fully intend to look at federal funding. We think there’ll be other rural grants and rural USDA money coming that we can use to leverage these forward,” he said.
The Nenana-Totchaket area has been under development for years in a combined effort by municipal officials, the local tribe and Doyon Limited, the regional Native corporation. The main problem has been a lack of transportation across the Nenana River.
The state approved $9.5 million in 2012, but the bridge was only half-built when funding dried up in 2016. The Nenana Native Association saved the project when it obtained a $9 million federal grant, and the bridge opened last year. That connected roads on the west side of the river to the Parks Highway on the east side.
Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, is the state senator in charge of the capital budget and said he thinks the farming project is a good idea. Nenana has growing season 30 days longer than the one at Delta Junction, he said, and Nenana is on the Alaska Railroad, which could lower transportation costs.
“If you’re looking at food security, that project is … you can see the infrastructure’s already in place,” he said.
Schade said a federal agency will be conducting soil surveys this summer on the 30,000 acres that will be put up for sale next year.
“It is up and running, and our first sale is looking to be next fall,” he said.
Correction: The initial version of this article misspelled the name of the director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture. It is David Schade.