Who will farm Alaska’s abundant farmland? This is a question that I have been grappling with ever since I arrived in Fairbanks about 10 years ago. It seems inevitable that with an increasing human population, the loss of farmland elsewhere and our slowly improving road and railroad infrastructure, the millions of acres of potential farmland in Alaska is going to be producing crops.
There are more than 750 farmers and ranchers in Alaska right now and the numbers have been increasing steadily over the last few years. Most are small operations with people working regular jobs to support their families, but there are a number that farm as their only source of income. And some of those have enough to sell to the large grocery stores in the state. Peony growers have established a growing export market and rhodiola growers may soon follow. There has been talk about a disease-free export potato seed market to Asia and other regions.
What will the future bring? Will more small farmers and ranchers continue to start up and slowly grow? Will there be new agriculture projects like the one that brought Midwest farmers to the Matanuska Valley and a state effort in Delta Junction? Will large corporations, (e.g. Simplot) or foreign countries buy up hundreds of thousands of acres to export products for their own profit or needs?
This past summer Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education state Professional Development Program directors held a meeting in Fairbanks that focused on projects to aid agriculture professionals. Along with the Extension agents, in attendance were board members who farm in the West. During farm tours in Fairbanks and Delta Junction, it was obvious that they were seeing potential that was novel to me.
One rancher, in response to a question about how he would ranch here, spoke about a cattle operation he could set up that would bring calves up in the spring to feed on pastures and send the carcasses out in the autumn for sale outside. There would be no expenses for overwintering animals and few jobs for Alaskans. Is that what we want for the future of agriculture on our millions of farmable acreage?
Another farmer spoke about advertising in colleges of agriculture to attract the sons and daughters of farmers to bring their expertise and money to expand agriculture in Alaska. Certainly we can teach them how to farm in our ecosystem. Should we do this?
My daughter and son-in-law, who just moved to Seattle, bought a large bag of fruit and vegetables for $7 from a nearby fruit and vegetable stand. At the same time I bought five smallish apples for $7.50 up here at a big grocery store. It seems to me that shipping all this food from elsewhere to Alaska is crazy. There is so much we can grow here and as farm sizes increase it seems food prices should decrease. Do we want more agriculture? And who do we want doing the farming and ranching — local startups, experienced farmers, big corporations, etc.? Should we be sitting back and watching things happen or should Alaskans attempt to direct the growth?
In speaking with many Alaska farmers and ranchers, and with people in the Division of Agriculture, Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and with scientists and Extension agents at UAF, no one seems to have an overall, well thought-out plan for what agriculture could be in the future and how to get us there. I am not sure how to even begin these discussions but they should be inclusive. Agriculture worldwide is always changing for a multitude of reasons. Can we guide that change into something that is beneficial to the people of Alaska or should we take a wait-and-see approach? As your local agriculture and horticulture Extension agent, I am eager to talk about the future of Alaska farms.
Steven Seefeldt is the Tanana District agriculture and horticulture agent for the Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He can be reached at 907-474-2423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.