Last week, the annual Industry Outlook Forum took place in Seward. The Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District organizes the event each year to showcase the latest trends and players in the local economy. The typical industries like oil and gas and fishing are well represented, but the point of the forum is to see what else is going on. And this year, agriculture is high on that list.
The number of farms on the Kenai Peninsula is growing, whether it’s smaller, almost subsistence type operations or larger commercial ventures. The Kenai Peninsula Borough is working to accommodate this sector through its lands department, and increased efforts to identify those areas that are best suited for agriculture. Lands Manager Marcus Mueller says some 4,000 acres have already been marked as good for growing.
“(They’re) where the location would suit the neighborhood, have good soils, be in areas where people can access those lands.”
But those 4,000 acres are kind of all over the Peninsula, and steering them toward agricultural uses isn’t always a quick and easy process.
“For my part, (it’s) looking into how to put that into contract terms, how to make agreements that have the right structure to it, that carry a relationship between the land owner, the future user and the needs and expectations around that (area), and an offering method that works for the public. The borough is a public land owner; (there are) lots of expectations that the public has about how public land is offered up, and rightly so."
Mueller and his department have produced a white paper on this topic, giving a rough outline of what an expanded ag industry that’s rooted in available public land might look like. He says to that end, there are a number of specific goals and in order to reach them, it will take additional borough staff.
“What we’re looking to do is make sure our objectives as a borough are aligned with the objectives of communities and objectives of produces; to find terms that promote investment; and to steward public land and public interest around public land. To carry this out, we do need to have additional staffing levels, at least on a project-basis.”
An expanded ag industry would also help contribute to food security. Kyra Wagner is District Manager for the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District. She says they’ve been looking into some basic questions about supply of and demand for locally grown food. Because right now, they are not in equilibrium, as the economists say.
“I work a lot with farmers. I have people who come into my office and say ‘us down in Homer, we grow all of our own food’ and I think ‘no we don’t.’ And the farmers come in and I say we have so much demand down here, and they say ‘I went home with vegetables from the market this weekend and I had to throw them away.”
The explanation for that gap between supply and demand boils down to the fact that the Peninsula’s commercial ag economy, such as it is, is small. It’s made up mostly of hobby farms of less than an acre that don’t make a ton of money and aren’t usually a main source of income, and so never make it over the hump. And though the market is growing all the time, it doesn’t have the benefit of a more mature market where the customer base and infrastructure are all developed.
“I can tell you, those (farms) that are making $30, $40, $50, $60-thousand or more are putting in cold storage, and have that capital built into their business plan," Wagner said. "That means that they have got that economy of scale figured out, where they’ve figured out how to make enough money that they can grow that extra step. And that economy of scale is super important.”
And just as important are connections between buyers and sellers. Wagner says one of the biggest opportunities for growers is local restaurants, however, meeting the needs of a big volume business is a challenge without regular communication. And here on the Central Peninsula, the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District is trying to help make those connections with events like Farm and Food Fridays, which tries to bring together all the players in the local food scene to figure out how to make it work better for everyone.