Alaska Producers Work to Keep Local Food Available
Alaska companies need customers to keep their doors open
FAIRBANKS/PALMER - Eating locally is a growing nationwide movement. But now, after they have been struggling to make ends meet, food producers in the Last Frontier are hoping it becomes sustainable in Alaska.
Alaskans spend about $2.5 billion on food a year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 5 percent of that is locally grown.
“The kids love the pea shoots because they are so sweet,” said truck-driver-turned-farmer Bill Johnson, the proud owner of Johnson family farms.
“In this facility here I can actually produce 600 pounds of micro-greens, and I can produce 900 heads of basil and 900 heads of lettuce on a monthly cycle.”
Johnson has been growing micro-greens for over 20 years in one of the coldest parts of the state. But he didn’t open his doors until 2009, after being inspired by culinary students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“The genetically modified foods really scare me,” said Johnson. “I think of how my grandchildren are going to be poisoned by the chemicals.”
He is part of a statewide “eat local” movement that’s gained traction in recent years.
“In the event there was some kind of natural disaster or something that would cut us off from the Lower 48, at least there would be plans in place or efforts in place so you can sustain life and not make everyone eat potatoes for two weeks.”
But turning his hardy greens into green dollars has been a challenge.
“Wheat grass, I can produce 15,000 units per week,” said Johnson. “I mean it’s just crazy the things that we can produce here. I have the facility – now I just need the business.”
And Johnson is not alone.
At the Matanuska Creamery in Palmer times have been tough. “We hit rock bottom a couple months ago,” said creamery president Karen Olson.
Olson said when she started dairy farming in Alaska in the 1980s, the state produced seven times the amount of milk with Matanuska Maid than the privately owned Matanuska Creamery does now.
“We are struggling to keep our current dairy farmers,” said Olson, dressed in a Carhartt sweatshirt and vest. “They made it clear that they need to have more money for milk and we need more money for more milk.”
15 people work at the creamery. Then there are three farms that produce the milk.
“We buy our jugs from here, and the labor is from here, and the fuel is from here.”
That’s why Olson and Johnson both said: What goes into your refrigerator determines whether the eat local movement grows or spoils.