Harvesting Alaska: The trials of growing grains in the Last Frontier
On a cool mid-August morning, the fields in Delta Junction showed signs the growing season was coming to a close.
“I spend a lot of time just biting grain this time of year,” said farmer Bryce Wrigley. “It's one of those things you can't help yourself. You take a grain off, bite it just to see how close you're getting.”
He’s savoring the last few days of summer before harvest time. His family has been growing barley for animal feed for 30 years; now they grow it for people, too.
Wrigley wanted to put the grains to good use and started the Alaska Flour Company to provide food security.
“We wanted to do something if there was an emergency then Alaskans would, for a period of time, still have access to flour and cereal and those products until transportation could be reestablished,” he explained.
With the long, sunny days of the interior, Wrigley said “grain crops are kind of a natural fit.”
The sunshine hull-less barley variety he uses was created by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
UAF GRAIN TRIAL
At the Mat-Su Experiment Farm outside Palmer, researchers are growing 19 varieties of barley, oats and wheat.
UAF research associate Bob Van Veldhuizen said wheat is especially temperamental.
“If it hits 40 degrees after it emerges then it no longer wants to make a head and you get a big field of grass,” Van Veldhuizen said.
He said they’re constantly figuring out how to grow grains better in Alaska. That’s been a mission since the first experiment station was set up in 1898.
“What we’re trying to do is come up with something that will withstand colder temperatures as well as reach an earlier maturity,” he said.
It takes nearly two decades of cross-breeding trial and error before strains like the sunshine hulless barely are ready to release to farmers.
Van Veldhuizen said many of the varieties currently growing at the experiment farm are in year seven or eight. They have to make sure the grains are suitable for Southeast, Southcentral and the Interior and they have to taste good.
“If it makes a lousy bread, it’s not any good,” Van Veldhuizen said.
Back in Delta Junction, barley has become so profitable the Alaska Flour Company is expanding.
“Because of the increase in our market share, we've had to double our operations,” explained Milo Wrigley, Bryce’s son and the company’s marketing manager.
Milo said it’s a dream come true to be able to do what he loves in a place he loves.
“For me and my wife to come back here and help out with the family business and for it to support a family that's pretty amazing,” Milo said. “And, for it to happen here in the town I grew up in, a little town in rural Alaska.”
They’ve moved beyond basic barley flour and created ready-made mixes for brownies, cookies and pancakes-- and even barley couscous.
“People are resonating with the flavor, the story behind it,” said Milo. “They love the fact it was grown in Alaska.”
It’s a labor of love that feeds the body and the soul.
“It is very much a lifestyle. I tell people, 'you don't farm to make money,'” Bryce said. “You farm because you can't stand not to.”