It was Alaska Agriculture Day on Tuesday. Since 2007, the first Tuesday in May has been set aside to shine a light on the slowly, but steadily growing ag industry in the state.
That growth is tracked, in part, by the USDA for its ag census conducted every five years and since Alaska Ag Day was first recognized, that sector of the economy has only grown. For instance, almost three times as many farms are selling food directly to customers compared to 2007 and sales of that food more than tripled and is approaching a million dollars annually.
Flowers and other nursery crops are finding more customers, too, with sales at more than $1.6 million. In total, sales of Kenai-based ag products were $5.4 million in 2017, that’s the latest year for the USDA data. A lot of that is aquaculture, hatchery fish. But $3.2 million came from food, flowers and livestock.
And while sky might seem to be the limit right now for local ag, one key to that continued growth is getting more young people involved.
Heidi Chay is the district manager for the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District. They also track numbers and trends in the local ag economy. She says policy will play a role in determining how easy it is for those new, young farmers to get started.
“How do we make this transition from an aging farming workforce to getting young people involved in this dynamic industry. We’ve got millions of acres of land that need to change hands in the next decade from farmers retiring out to young farmers coming in… That’s one of the challenges we’ve been talking through as we consider this initiative on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s expensive when you’re starting with raw land. We’re in an unusual situation here compared to the Lower 48. They’re hundreds of years ahead of us as far as the development of agriculture. In many cases, starting a farm means taking down trees and very carefully building up some nutrient rich soil in which you can grow a crop or the livestock on which it feeds. It’s going to take some thought.”
Some of that thought is going into a new land use initiative here on the Kenai. The borough’s agriculture initiative project is looking to not only identify borough lands that would be best suited for ag production, but buyers for that land. Chay says it will be important to start viewing land use in a different way.
“Policy-wise, thinking what’s within the scope of the borough, things like how we value and tax ag land. Do we value and tax all land the same? Do we sell it to the highest bidder? What happens when you sell it to the highest bidder is you get a race to develop everything into house lots. And we’re seeing that in the Mat-Su Valley. There’s great concern there about very rapid loss of valuable ag lands that have been developed over a long period of time. We’re missing some fundamental understanding of the value of that land when we say we’re just going to sell it to the highest bidder.”
Because, to be sure, there’s an economic case to be made for ag lands. It’s just not as immediate and predictable as other uses. And, Chay says, the benefits for developing local ag go beyond hard numbers.
“It’s meaningful work. It’s a place for young people to learn new job skills. It’s creating export markets that do diversify the economy. It’s creating vibrant gathering places in the form of farmers markets and that’s benefitting the food bank, for instance. And, it’s creating much fresher, more nutritious food for all of us if we can grow it closer to home.”
And here are a few numbers from that local ag initiative; the borough would like to, over the next decade, develop 100 farm contracts, classify 4,000 acres as agricultural land and on those acres, see 60 new farm settlements, 100 new high tunnels growing 50 acres of berries and other specialty crops, 500 acres of hay and rootcrops like rhubarb and hemp along with 200 acres of grains and 100 acres of greens and vegetables, and one last number: four. That’s about how many week are left until local farmers markets open for the season.