Having just returned from a work trip that took me to two meetings, one for sustainable agriculture and the other for agricultural Extension agents, I have found myself thinking about food.
In the first meeting, there were visits to farms in Colorado that were family run, mostly organic and prosperous. In the second meeting in South Dakota, there were visits to farms in neighboring Iowa that were family run, mostly organic and prosperous. In Colorado, the farms were surrounded by mountains and urban areas. In Iowa, the farms were surrounded by many other farms that were largely producing corn and soybeans.
In Colorado, there was an excellent market nearby for the produce. In Iowa, the markets were farther away. The corn and soybeans grown on the surrounding farms in Iowa were not directly for human consumption. The corn either went for ethanol production, was used as an additive to gasoline or was fed to livestock (poultry, pigs and cows). The soybeans were mainly fed to cows. The cows and pigs were usually housed in metal buildings with big fans, and there were silos outside the buildings for storing all the grains to feed them. All the manure and urine was collected and would be spread back out on the fields.
I noticed that there was no fallow ground anywhere in Iowa; all the land was growing something, again mostly corn and soybeans. I mentioned this lack of fallow to an Extension agent from Nebraska as our bus was driving along. Her response was that land taxes were too high to leave the land idle. Then I got a lesson on land values and how expensive it was to acquire land. All those farms were tightly managed and efficiency was the key to surviving. All the farms looked identical.
That same Extension agent then gave me the talk about the danger of too much of one thing and how we are being set up for some disaster — be it disease or insect — and used the recent example of the bird flu that killed millions of chickens and turkeys in Iowa and other places this year. Amidst all that agricultural productivity, there was a sense that it was all a house of cards that could come crashing down if we do not keep up with evolving pests, a changing climate and uncertain economics.
As one of two Alaskans at the South Dakota conference, I was asked about our farms. I was able to speak to our diversity of crops and relative lack of pests, something I want to maintain. I also spoke of the opportunity that climate change is for us in Alaska and I challenged them to think of climate change in their regions in the same way.
I may have oversold the wonders of Alaska; we will see if there is a sudden influx of Midwestern farmers setting up shop here with our cheaper land, abundant water and increasingly longer growing season. If they come, they may all farm the same things in the same ways, although they will not be farming corn or soybeans. What they do decide to grow will be based on knowing they can make a living doing it. Remember, if you cannot make money farming, then your farm is not sustainable.
On a different note, the fair is upon us. Come to the Kiwanis Agricultural Hall at the Tanana Valley State Fair, Aug. 7-16, and see the best of all the produce that is grown here in Fairbanks. I am always amazed at how good the produce is this early in the season. Everyone’s crops always seem to be a couple weeks ahead of mine.
When you are looking at the displays, think about all the healthy and delicious produce you could be growing for yourself if you had the time and space. And also remember all of our crops when talking to Outside friends and family who sometimes think there are no farms in Alaska and we all live in igloos.
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.