Alaska Farmers Build on Billion Dollar ‘Buy Local’ Concept
Producers cash in on growing cottage industry
ANCHORAGE – In the corner of a Midtown mall parking lot, piles of deep red potatoes and dark purple carrots sat piled in plastic bins, waiting for the first customers of the day.
Despite the overcast skies Saturday morning, a steady stream of shoppers filed through Center Market’s single white tent, selecting knobby French fingerling potatoes, bulbous organic parsnips and cardboard crates of creamy fresh eggs for $7 a dozen. A green garbage bin was filled with dyed purple carnations, and Duane Clark gave each customer a single stem with their purchase.
The flowers marked a big milestone for the family-owned farmer’s market: Clark said the market he managed with fellow Palmer farmer Alex Davis of A.D Farm had been operating year-round for two years now. They sold their fresh produce, grass-fed beef and pork, locally produced jams, goat cheese and organic eggs alongside Benson Boulevard in the summer, and moved inside the Mall at Sears when the temperatures dropped.
It was a major business move, because Clark said the market was the primary sales source for his family and several other Valley farmers. Goods from Rempel Family Farm, Stockwell Farm and Northern Lights Mushrooms were all sold at Center Market, and according to a 2011 United States Department of Agriculture estimate, farmer’s markets nationwide pulled in roughly $1 billion annually.
“We’re very much trying to grow local and support local businesses,” said Clark, who raises his own chickens in the backyard and purchases his beef from his father-in-law. “I’m an entrepreneurial addict.”
Dressed against the chilly spring breeze in a worn fleece jacket and battered cowboy hat, Clark said he was very much a businessman: After working as a builder in Pennsylvania, he said he moved his family to Alaska 12 years ago to capitalize on the open horizons he saw there.
“I saw a lot of opportunities for farming and marketing,” he said.
Across the tent, a woman toting a reusable hemp shopping bag sidled up to one of the big aluminum coolers, perusing the product list taped to the top – briskets, short ribs, tongues, soup bones and every cut of steak imaginable. She told Clark she took every opportunity she could find to buy meat locally.
It was one of the market’s biggest draws, he said. While the five other Anchorage farmer’s markets were stocked with fresh produce and other goods, Clark said Center Market offered one of the largest selections of grass-fed beef and barley-fattened pork in town. It was a far cry from the market’s beginnings.
Clark said his partner, Davis, had started the business as a produce-only establishment in the Northway Mall years ago, supplementing his main business with local restaurants. “He’d stay open as long as he had carrots,” Clark said.
Now, the market included products from half-a-dozen local suppliers, and Clark said the growth had prompted some necessary changes to the way he did business.
“I saw opportunity in the farmer’s markets, but I couldn’t focus on production and marketing and do both effectively,” he said.