I have just finished attending the 9th Circumpolar Agricultural Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, and I have some thoughts about local farms and the agricultural economy both in Iceland and Alaska.
When Iceland was first settled, the settlers were farmers. They had to grow and catch enough food or not survive their winter. These settlers knew how to farm and for over 1,000 years there has been agriculture in Iceland. When Alaska was first settled, the people were hunter-gatherers and they had to find enough edible plants and harvest enough game or not survive their winter. As in Iceland, these hunter-gatherers knew what plants they could eat and they knew how to hunt. In Alaska, over 12,000 years later, there is still a hunter-gatherer culture.
In Iceland there is still a very healthy agricultural industry that provides a large amount of food for local consumption and for export. This industry is supported by the government, ongoing scientific research, and by hard-working and well-educated farmers. In Alaska the hunter-gatherer culture was joined by settlers that arrived a bit over 100 years ago.
When these settlers first came to Alaska, there were farmers among them and they almost produced enough food to feed the population. The farmers who came already knew how to farm and there was good support from the government and university. Sadly, after World War II Alaska rapidly urbanized with new transportation methods and farm regulations putting many, if not most, farms out of business.
Once these farms were gone and we became dependent on Outside sources of food, we did not just find our food bills rising, we found that we no longer had enough experienced people to restart the agricultural economy in a meaningful way.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service has done its fair share to keep people informed about agriculture in Alaska with useful publications, training, educational programs and workshops. Many of the difficulties of growing crops in the far North have been studied and techniques developed to overcome those obstacles. Agriculture economists have proven that agriculture is a viable occupation for Alaskans, and the changing climate has only made it easier for farms and ranches to thrive.
So, where are the farms? If not for the burgeoning number of new peony farms that keeps our overall farm numbers around 750, the number of other farms and ranches in Alaska is in a steady decline. Many of us see the benefits of local food production and sales to the Alaska economy, so why are we not experiencing a growth of new food-producing farms and ranches on our agricultural lands? According to the Alaska Division of Agriculture, Alaska has 9 million hectares (22 million acres) of land with agricultural potential. The National Agricultural Statistics Service says that currently less than one-tenth of 1 percent of our agriculture-quality land is being farmed. What about that other 99.9 percent?
A couple months ago, I spoke with a farmer from the Pacific Northwest who needs to move off the family farm and he thinks Alaska is the place to start his new farm. Every year I get several requests from experienced and well-educated farmers from Outside wanting to begin a farm in Alaska. Is it possible that we could make this happen? Are there roadblocks that need to be removed? Is Alaska ripe for a third round of settlers? Settlers who are skilled farmers who can grow large enough amounts of food to compete for the export market?
All of us who have shopped at the farmers markets know the quality of Alaska-grown food. Perhaps now is the time to grow our agriculture sector. If the market forces are right, it could be a simple matter of opening the gates. For my part, I am ready to get started. If Iceland can do it, why not Alaska?
Steven Seefeldt is the state horticulture specialist for the Georgeson Botanical Garden, a part of the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension. He can be reached at 907-474-1831 or firstname.lastname@example.org.