Written for Alaska Business Monthly
The Southeastern community of Haines was once known as the strawberry capital of Alaska. In the 1900s, Charlie Anway’s prolific red berries were shipped throughout the state—his largest berry measuring seven inches in circumference. During the harvesting season for more than two decades, Anway hired up to twenty pickers and grossed more than $700 a day.
“Charlie Anway wasn’t alone. During this time there were at least eight operating farms in Haines producing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for sale in the community, the state, and down south,” says Madeline Witek, who is the community coordinator of the Sheldon Museum in Haines.
Witek presented on the strength of Haines’ colorful agricultural history to a fascinated audience during the opening of the second biennial Southeast Farmers Summit in February. More than seventy-five fruit and vegetable growers and livestock farmers from across the region flocked to Haines to reinvigorate the entrepreneurial spirit of local agriculture.
Much has changed since the days of Charles Anway. When it comes to fresh produce in Southeast Alaska today, the Farmers Summit emphasized that there is ample opportunity for growth.
Southeast Alaskans spend $19 million each year importing roughly 96 percent of its fresh produce, according to the Current Potential Economic Impacts of Locally-Grown Produce in Southeast Alaska report published by the McDowell group and presented at the Summit. Consider potatoes, a crop that grows locally, as an example. According to the report, more than $3 million is spent on some 2 million pounds of imported spuds each year. Roughly 38 percent of Southeast households grew food last year, and about thirty commercial growers are cultivating in the region. While completely closing the import gap is unlikely, farmers are confident that improving local production is not only possible but important for our state’s food security and good for our wallets too.
The Farmers Summit was organized by the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition, Takshanuk Watershed Council, and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership to cultivate momentum in the industry. “While production in Southeast Alaska is currently limited, there are many individuals who are working hard to provide fresh food for our region and create livelihoods around local food production,” explains Lia Heifetz, the organizer of this year’s Farmers Summit. “This is a venue to nurture growth, to provide a space to share lessons learned between commercial farmers, connect farmers to resources, boost entrepreneurial know-how, and present research-based technologies pertaining to commercial agriculture.”
Emily Garrity runs a successful farming business in Homer named Twitter Creek Gardens. She journeyed south to this year’s Farmers Summit to share her experiences with farmers in the Southeast.
“One of the key opportunities with farming in Alaska is that it is pretty much an untouched market,” says Garrity. “We have lots of room to grow with very little competition and that gives us a lot of leeway getting started, starting small, growing, and being successful.”
During peak growing season, every week Garrity and her crew move $4,000 worth of produce through their farm to thirty Community-Supported Agriculture members, eight restaurants, two farmers markets, and one food hub. Since 2003, she’s escalated her business from growing in a 1,000 foot garden on borrowed land to cultivating on her 1.5 acre property equipped with raised beds, high-tunnel greenhouses, and one innovative greenhouse built into a hillside.
It’s been a long process for Garrity—exploring markets, seeking out proper loans, building partnerships with Homer’s fishing industry to save on shipping costs for inputs, and experimenting with different produce. Her advice for Southeast farmers working to build careers in farming: treat your garden like a business.
“We need to take the business aspect very seriously, which I think is one of the major hurdles for people first getting into farming. Newcomers tend to feel like it is a lifestyle, which it is for sure, but treating it more like a business as opposed to a hobby is a really important piece to being sustainable,” says Garrity.
What does that look like?
“Coming up with a business plan, looking at budgets, putting dollar per square foot values on all of your garden space, growing crops that can make you enough money to make a living from. You need to look at the high value crops and the markets that are available and tap into all of them,” she says. Garrity focuses on high-succession crops like radishes and salad greens that can be harvested and replanted several times during a growing season.
Many of the commercial growers in the Southeast did begin as hobby growers, and many of their farms are large vegetable gardens that reflect personal taste more than profit. Serious farmers are reevaluating what they grow and in what percentage and are seeing returns. Marja Smets and Bo Varsano run Farragut Farms off-the-grid, thirty-five miles north of Petersburg. What began as a home garden Smets and Varsano have nurtured into a farm that provides more than forty different varieties of vegetables to Petersburg, Juneau, and other markets.
“On average, our sales have increased each year by approximately 30 percent, so we are definitely growing a lot more than we did during our first years in business,” says Smets. “We continue to figure out which crops have the highest demand, and which crops grow most productively. Each year, we then try to adjust our crop plan accordingly for the upcoming season.”
Local growers are also investing in equipment and infrastructure such as high-tunnel greenhouses and aquaponics to improve production and profitability in this difficult climate. Farragut Farms is installing their fifth high-tunnel greenhouse this year.
When it comes to being successful in agriculture in the Southeast, innovation and creativity are key. Colter Barnes, superintendent of the Southeast Island School District on Prince of Wales Island, is overcoming the high cost of labor and the limits of available land and soil by avoiding the two completely. Barnes and Damon Holtman, a student of Coffman Cove, traveled to the Summit to share the story of their island’s success. “I love working with dirt,” Barnes explained to a captivated audience of farmers. “But I challenge you to find soil on Prince of Wales Island.” The School District is managing a series of four biomass-heated aquaponic greenhouses that are providing hands-on entrepreneurial and agricultural experience to students while cultivating produce to feed students and sell in their communities year-round. The dynamic duo even brought twenty-five pounds of fresh lettuce (note this was held mid-February in Alaska) to share at the Summit and explained how this project is not only improving access to fresh produce on Prince of Wales, it is also creating new revenue streams for a financially struggling school district.
Tapping into tangential industries has also proven helpful for farmers. Ed Buyarski of Juneau is finding success by pairing produce with landscaping because the two require similar infrastructure and equipment. He also sells seeds and starts to growers, and this highlights another take-home from the McDowell report and Summit: home and commercial growers in the Southeast spend $1.8 million on growing inputs each year. Soil, seeds, fertilizer, supplements, lumber for greenhouses, and other inputs constitute a surprisingly sizable industry.
Nick Schlosstein and Leah Wagner founded Foundroot in Haines, a business selling open-pollination seeds that can withstand Alaska climates. Their station at the Summit was bustling non-stop with farmers eager to make purchases. Finding ways to tie agriculture into our booming tourism and fishing industries is important for maximizing regional benefits. For example, selling value-added products and fresh produce to cruise ships and restaurants during tourism season helps keep money in Alaska that was brought in from out of state.
Value-addition and more in-region processing were also discussed as opportunities for strengthening the vitality of agriculture in Southeast Alaska. According to the Southeast Alaska Commercial Rhubarb Feasibility Study, a report by the office of Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins which was simultaneously unveiled at the Summit, one acre of rhubarb could yield $170,000 in processed juice. While facilities and machinery would be required to master high-volume processing, the potential is lucrative. Others look to existing processing plants that are certified for value addition of commercial products. Fish processing plants are potential spaces that can be used for the commercial development of other goods during the off-season and churches and other community spaces often offer kitchen space that is certified for commercial processing.
While increasing agricultural production in Southeast Alaska is important, getting product in front of buyers is critical. Participants of the Farmers Summit explained that access to markets and the high cost of transport are notable obstacles. Participants were optimistic that Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) is a promising option for affordably accessing markets across the region. Southeast Conference is the region’s economic development organization. They are currently leading a statewide effort to refine the governance structure of the ferry system and are actively looking for options to make the ferry more profitable and sustainable with a dwindling state budget.
Robert Venables, the Energy Coordinator of Southeast Conference, is the chairman of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board leading the Alaska Marine Highway Reform Project. Venables agrees that the opportunity for the ferry system to ship more than just people and cars from rural community to community is key.
“The success of AMHS really is going to lie with the partnerships that it can make within the regions it serves. The state will always provide certain basic fund support, but there has to be other revenue streams. Partnering with businesses and communities is one component of a revenue stream that can be developed right now that is largely untapped, so there is a lot of opportunity to move goods, like produce, throughout the region using the AMHS,” says Venables.
A more dependable and consistent ferry service with options for shipping unmanned freight from community to community will not only be important for farmers in the region hoping to access new markets, it would help support the future of the ferry system and benefit intra-regional commerce more generally.
“Sometimes the ferry is the only mode for commerce in some of these more remote communities, because well, there are no roads. So, the ferry can play a very prominent role in the transport of agricultural products,” says Venables. “Maybe someone is producing something that they ship to a network in Juneau who is then adding produce that goes to Pelican, and then maybe they reload some seafood products that go back to Hoonah or Kake. There is a very multi-faceted opportunity for producers across the region to get together here,” says Venables.
Between active farmers’ markets across rural communities, Community Supported Agriculture memberships, and an upcoming food-hub called Salt & Soil Marketplace that aims to connect Southeast markets using an online marketplace and physical pick-up locations in Juneau and Haines, farmers are thinking critically about reaching consumers.
Growing a flourishing agriculture industry in Southeast Alaska is not simple. The hardy, enthusiastic, and inventive group that gathered in Haines in February indicates that the dedication and collaboration necessary to cultivate this industry is building.
“There are challenges like a wet and cool climate, scarcity of good agricultural land in our region, a distance between markets, and a lack of efficient and cheap transportation systems. But the opportunity is that our local food movement is in its infancy; it’s a real opportunity to step in on the ground floor and make a lasting impact on the future of small scale agriculture for our region,” says Smets, who hosted the first Farmers Summit in 2015 and was pleased by this year’s turnout. “There were over twice as many attendees at this year’s Summit! There’s a huge increase in interest and participation. I feel a groundswell arising.”