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Valley farmer named director of Alaska Division of Agriculture

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 11, 2016

PALMER -- Arthur Keyes, a Palmer vegetable and strawberry grower who founded a popular Anchorage farmers market, is the new director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture.

Gov. Bill Walker last fall ousted then-director Franci Havemeister, an appointee of former Gov. Sarah Palin. Walker at the time said he sought someone with a more aggressive vision to market Alaska-grown produce. Havemeister married into one of the last dairying families in the Matanuska Valley but had little personal farming experience.

Walker announced his choice with a video posted Wednesday night on his official Facebook page.

The governor can be heard praising Keyes for teaching him more about carrots than "I ever knew in my entire life" -- Alaska's are apparently seven or eight times sweeter than California's -- and said he's excited about new marketing efforts to come.

"One of the silver linings to where we are with the price of oil is that we have the opportunity to let other industries sort of shine," Walker says. "It's a great opportunity to broaden our diversity in Alaska."

The new director takes the post as state lawmakers debate the closure of the state-run, inmate-staffed Mount McKinley Meat and Sausage slaughterhouse operated by the agriculture division.

Keyes, who starts the job next week, said Thursday that he needs to get started before he can say what his priorities will be.

"There's a lot on the table," he said.

He's still deciding who will run Glacier Valley Farm, his 18-employee business near the Alaska state fairgrounds that supplies produce for several farmers markets in Anchorage.

There are no Division of Agriculture-specific regulations for what business interests a director can have, but the State Executive Branch Ethics Act governs how a state official must limit their outside personal and professional activities to avoid misuse of their official position, according to an email from Elizabeth Bluemink, spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources, which includes the agriculture division.

State ethics staff and the state Department of Law will work with Keyes to review his business and investment interests to determine what disclosures, recusals, and if necessary, divestments or withdrawals are necessary when he assumes his new position, Bluemink wrote.

One of the people who helped select Keyes for the position was his father-in-law Ben Vanderweele, a Matanuska Valley potato grower who chairs the Alaska Board of Agriculture and Conservation.

The board selected five candidates for the position and interviewed four, state officials say. The board recommended two finalists to the Walker administration -- Keyes and Lucas Knowles, son of former Gov. Tony Knowles.

Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Myers, in consultation with Walker, made the final decision.

Vanderweele said Thursday that he got repeated advice from the state law department that his status as Keyes' father-in-law didn't pose a conflict of interest in the division director selection process. A father-in-law isn't considered a family member for the purposes of the ethics act and the general requirement of not misusing one's official position for personal gain is what applies, Bluemink wrote in her email.

The board met to discuss finalists for the position during a January meeting that included applicant interviews conducted during a private executive session. The law department told Vanderweele that he could participate in the closed-door interviews and vote on names to be included in the list of acceptable applicants forwarded to the DNR commissioner.

Vanderweele said Thursday he disclosed his potential conflict to no opposition and sat in on the private session but didn't actively participate.

"I listened to what he had to say," he said. "I didn't make no comments, no questions. I knew this was going to be a touchy subject."

Vanderweele said he did vote on the two finalists to emerge from the process.

"We just felt the two were just head and shoulders above the other two, so we decided to only nominate two," he said.

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