Did you know that Alaska blueberries produce more antioxidants than blueberries grown elsewhere? Did you know that our barley and wheat grains are plumper than those grown elsewhere? Surely you know that we can grow huge cabbages and pumpkins? Did you know that many of our flowers have bigger blooms than elsewhere?
All of these things I know about, but I do not know why they happen. I can hypothesize that it all has to do with our long summer days and the assumption that plants must do something with all those sugars they are making while the sun it out. Alaska grown carrots and potatoes are sweeter and cook up faster. Anyone who has eaten or cooked with locally grown food knows this. But what makes this occur?
Plant physiology is a field of science that studies the processes that occur in plants. These processes are typically grouped into three areas: nutrition, growth and response to environment. The first two areas are very well studied and, if you are interested, there is quite a bit of information about how nutrients are taken up, moved around the plant and transformed. There is also a very good understanding about the processes concerned with plant growth, such as cell division, reproduction and cell development.
The third area, plant response to the environment, is actively being studied in crops around the world. However, in Alaska, we do not have a plant physiologist to conduct the studies needed to understand why our crops are different (more antioxidants, bigger seeds, bigger blooms, etc.). Our crops do develop differently in very economically important ways, and we should be able to take advantage of this by developing a global export economy.
Certainly high-end restaurants would be willing to pay top dollar for the sweet carrots and potatoes we produce here. Our Alaska grown peonies are superior in so many ways to other peonies and they do get top dollar, thanks to the hard work of the Alaska Peony Growers Association. And what about our plumper grains? Is there a market for them?
At present, our farmers mostly sell all they produce here in Alaska. What happens if New York City wants all the carrots we grow? I think if there is a demand, there will be farmers who will fill the production gap.
I am somewhat bothered that I do not understand the plant physiology that makes the crops grown here different from those same crops grown elsewhere. I am even more bothered that we are not taking advantage of those differences. But I am most bothered that I do not know how to do the marketing to make our crops a desired product around the world. The peony growers are making important inroads, and it helps that our peonies have a timing advantage so that we have blooms when no one else does and that our peonies are larger in size and more brilliant in color.
The Alaska Division of Agriculture, with its tiny staff and budget, has accomplished many things with its Alaska Grown campaign, Farm to School efforts and so many other valuable projects. But where do we go from here? How do we make the world know we have better produce and they can have some if they are willing to pay? And how do we increase the number of farms needed to produce the quantities the world will demand once they taste our produce?
All of this will need some investment. Agriculture could be an amazing economic resource for Alaska — and it is an economic resource that is renewable. In this time of economic uncertainty, why not invest in industries that will build Alaska’s economy? Bottom line: I am bothered that people do not understand the importance and potential of agriculture in Alaska. So, how do I educate the public and our government representatives so that they understand the potential? It looks like I have a lot more work to do.
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.