Agriculture is all about planning. The best farmers and ranchers have figured out the importance of making plans that lead from one step to the next. Farming is complex. Farmers have to worry about myriad details, and there is always the chance that a weather event (early freeze, drought, flood, etc.) will make those plans difficult to achieve in any given year.
As an example of the planning, imagine you have an acre of farm land. You know that a school will buy all the potatoes that you can produce on it. In the autumn before you plant your potatoes, you need to test the soil to determine if you have a good balance of nutrients and you may need to prepare the field so it is ready to plant in the spring. Next, you must determine what variety of potato will be best for your soil and climate and then find a source of Alaska-certified seed potatoes.
Once the soil has warmed up in the spring, the real test of your planning becomes evident. The seed potatoes must be cut into pieces a day or more in advance of planting and the field must be fertilized and planted. Throughout the summer, you must weed and control other pests, hill the rows, irrigate, continue to manage pests and then remove the stems before harvest can begin. After harvest, the potatoes must be prepared for storage and eventual sale, and the fields are prepped for the following growing season. If all goes well, the school will be provided with potatoes, the farmer will be paid, and the students will be eating locally grown produce.
The State of Alaska has a Farm to School Program that was started in 2010. The idea is to connect schools with local producers in order to serve healthy, local meals and increase the use of Alaska-grown food. The Farm to School Program accomplished this by providing incentives to schools for purchase of Alaska-grown food, encouraging development of school gardens and increasing agriculture education in the classroom. This program has continued to grow over the past four years, now reaching every school district statewide. In a recent Farm to School conference, it was obvious that our farmers and schools want this program. As in the planning process described above, many Alaska farmers added crops to their operations to meet the needs of the schools this coming autumn. The Farm to School Program keeps our dollars in Alaska, helps farms grow and gives better quality food to our children.
Farming and ranching are a use of natural resources and we all know that one of our natural resources (oil) is suddenly not as valuable as it was a year ago. This devaluation has led to less tax revenue, and our state legislators and senators are trying to cut expenses. The Farm to School Program may be cut for a savings of $181,000. If funded, it would bring in an estimated half a million dollars of additional leveraged funds.
The farmers and ranchers have already made their plans and they have already spent money up front. We have millions of acres of good quality farm land in Alaska that could be farmed and it would increase the economy of the state. If you are concerned about the status of the Farm to School Program, contact your legislator. Support our farmers and our children by supporting the Alaska Farm to School Program.
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.