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Econ 919 — Bumper costs for local farmers

The costs of some farming materials — including fertilizer and hay — have shot up in the last year. Local producers are feeling the squeeze.
Elizabeth Earl
The costs of some farming materials — including fertilizer and hay — have shot up in the last year. Local producers are feeling the squeeze.

Farming in Alaska can be an art as well as a science, being on the edge of land that can be cultivated. But in the last two years, the cost of doing it has increased, stretching farmers.

The price for fertilizer has drastically increased in the last year—in some cases, it’s doubled. The price for gasoline and diesel has also climbed across Alaska, which farmers rely on to run equipment and transport crops and livestock. International pressures like the war between Russia and Ukraine and ongoing supply chain issues from the COVID-19 pandemic seem to be driving the inflation, but according to experts, it shows no sign of slowing in 2022. That means higher food prices for customers at the grocery store, but in some cases, farmers have limited room to pass that cost on.

Allison Gaylord owns Willow Drive Gardens, a peony farm near Homer. On the first weekend of July, as most people were getting ready to celebrate Independence Day, she was getting ready to harvest about 25,000 flowers. The weather has been hot and sunny, which means the peonies are bursting out now.

"It’s a labor challenge, too, and COVID has messed with that, too," she said. "I can tell you right now that half of the folks I was relying on to help me catch my harvest are sick, so there’s that challenge, and folks just don’t want to work more than two or three days a week. I’m getting folks that want to work two or three hours, so that’s been really interesting."

Peonies are one of Alaska’s newer agricultural products, and one of its only commercially grown flowers. The big, colorful buds are popular as wedding flowers and gifts, and their prime season is between July and August, which reaches a slightly different market than peonies grown in the Lower 48. They command fairly premium prices — a box of ten flowers is $99 through the Alaska Beauty Peony Cooperative, which represents 11 farms in the Homer area.

This year, Gaylord said she paid about double the usual rate for her fertilizer. That’s in addition to more expensive shipping, and this year, labor has been harder to find. She said she has limited workers to draw from and was likely to going to end up harvesting a large number of those peonies herself. But at the same time, there’s only so much price increase the market will tolerate for flowers before they look elsewhere.

Flower and other crop farmers aren’t the only ones feeling it. People who raise animals have likely noticed increases in the costs of hay as well, which makes feeding livestock and providing their normal supply of hay for chickens or rabbits might have more sticker shock with it this year.

Cassy Rankin with the Kenai Peninsula Cooperative Extension oversees the 4-H program and its popular junior livestock program. She said the kids in the program are definitely noticing the increase in hay and feed prices this year, and she expects it to have more of an impact next year. Kids this year that may normally have chosen to raise two animals instead are raising one, and only one in the central Kenai program is a steer.

"Typically it’s our goats, our sheep, pigs — we don't use hay for pigs," she said. "We typically have a lot of pigs, but pig numbers this year have remained about the same. But our sheep and our goat numbers, they have gone up a little bit and we do just have the one steer for auction."

There isn’t really a good way to get around the cost of hay and feed — an animal needs what it needs to be healthy, she said. They can graze, but for Alaska livestock, hay is a staple.

Rankin said the families that are part of the program and have regular hay suppliers definitely noticed the increase.

"It has increased substantially—in some cases, almost up to as far as 50 percent," she said.

Alaska is in the thick of its farming season, with the warmth peaking this month as the days gradually begin to shorten. Starting this coming weekend, Homer is hosting its second annual Peony Celebration, a three-week event highlighting the area’s growing peony industry. The events include farm tours and workshops, which the farmers hope will bring more attention to the industry. Alaska’s peony industry is growing, but still dwarfed by world markets. Gaylord noted that last year, Alaska shipped just about 1 million stems compared to the Netherlands’ more than 100 million peony stems.

Gaylord said Alaska’s peony industry is very small, both in total output and in footprint, and can’t compare to the larger and more developed markets in Europe, in part because of the terrain in which the state’s farms operate.

"They’ve got equipment like tractor-trailers and conveyor belts, and we’re operating with wheelbarrows and four-wheelers and tarps and lots of buckets," she said. "We’re just not at that scale, and I don’t know that we ever will be."

The Cooperative Extension also wants to highlight the growing interest in agriculture on the Kenai Peninsula, and is planning to do so with its second annual Kenai Peninsula District Agriculture Expo from August 5-7 in Soldotna. The event features animal shows, a petting zoo, a horse show, and the popular livestock auction, when the 4-H members auction off the animals they’ve been raising. Rankin also said the organizers are adding workshops this year, including how to raise potatoes and another on feeding livestock.

"We have a great lineup this year of ag classes," she said. "We have Sarah’s honeybees that she’s going to be doing an introduction on beekeeping classes. I have the state vet coming in and he’s going to speak on avian influenza, which has been a scare nationwide and we’ve had a scare here in our state. Everybody who was raising poultry in our state is on high alert for that, and so he’s going to do a class on that."

The event took the place of 4-H’s participation in the Kenai Peninsula Fair. Rankin said the group had been talking about hosting its own agriculture-focused event in Soldotna for more than a decade, and decided to pull the trigger in 2021, after the pandemic threw wrenches into everyone’s plans in 2020. The event went so well that they hope to continue it into the future, bringing more attention to ongoing agriculture efforts across the peninsula.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a typo, reflecting that producers don't use hay for pigs.

Elizabeth Earl is the news reporter/evening host for summer 2021 at KDLL. She is a high school teacher, with a background writing for the Peninsula Clarion and has been a freelance contributor to several publications in Alaska.
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