Many Alaskans are interested in eating local, but eating local isn’t just about the food we put on the table. It’s also the seed that food is grown from. In Alaska, there is just one certified seed laboratory in the state — the Plant Materials Center in Palmer run by the Division of Agriculture.
The center is hardly a tourist destination, but much of the work that goes on there is fascinating.
Director Rob Carter said the center is home to more than 180 varieties of potatoes. But if you’re looking for the familiar spuds you buy in the grocery store, you’ll have trouble finding them here. That’s because the center stores it’s potato plants in test-tubes.
“We maintain all our 281 varieties of potatoes in vitro, which is in a test-tube,” said Carter. “It’s clonal propagation, they are maintained in a medium that is very much similar to tapioca pudding with all the nutrients a plant would need to survive.”
Carter said farmers and seed growers can order potato starts from the center, in fact they have to.
Under Alaska law, commercial potato growers can only use the same seed stock for a period of eight years before it’s considered a risk for disease. Carter said cloning the starts is one way to assure they remain disease free. But there’s another plus — storing the plant material indefinitely is a form of food security.
“This is Alaska’s seed bank and so if ever there was a failure in the Outside, and we couldn’t access a potato, we could always start here,” said Carter.
The center stores native seeds including grains and grasses, flowers, trees and, of course, potatoes. It helps provide seed for restoration and landscaping projects around the state.
Another major part of the workload is cleaning seeds and grain.
Machines at the center sift through grass seeds grown in-state, making sure no invasive species have hitched onto the mix. They also pour through grain. This is where farmers bring their wheat, barley and rye to be cleaned so that it can be made into flour, brewed into local beer, or distilled into spirits. Carter said they are cleaning twice as much grain as last year, as well as selling more potato starts.
“It’s because we have new growers, younger growers, who are getting into agricultural production in Alaska,” said Carter. “The best part about agricultural production in Alaska, and the industry, is that it has the potential to do so much more.”
Carter said an interest in eating local is helping spur the growth and having access to local seeds is an essential part. He said Alaskans are reaping the benefit.
“I think it should be exciting for every Alaskan that they are going to have access to healthier, fresher, closer food,” said Carter.
The Alaskan Plant Materials Center is helping the state’s agricultural industry to grow.