Alaska leads nation in new farmers
Nearly half of people farming in Alaska are new to the industry with less than 10 years of experience. Alaska's percentage of new farmers, 46, is the highest in the nation.
That’s one highlight from the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2017 Agriculture Census released this month.
Garnet Knopp and his wife Kari Wiederkehr founded Three Ladybugs Farm last year, growing plant starts in their home garage and selling produce at farmers markets.
This year they plan to quadruple production.
“We are hoping for 18,000 beans and we’re going to cut back a little on the squash and do 3,600 because it got a little away on us having 9,000 last year,” Knopp said.
The land along Scott Road they’ll plant has been in Wiederkehr’s family since the 1950s and is primarily used for potatoes and carrots.
Knopp said he and Wiederkehr found an underserved market for veggies like peas and beans. He was surprised how supportive people are for Alaska grown products.
“I brought in 100 pounds and the next day they wanted 200 more pounds,” he said about his pea harvest last year. “So this year we’re growing 14 trellises, 300 feet long. So no matter how many people I have to hire, we’re planning to stay caught up and give people their peas.”
The latest census data shows there are even more farms trying to meet the demand for local food. There were 990 farms in Alaska in 2017, which is an increase of 30% from the previous census in 2012.
State statistician Suzan Benz said the data provides an insight into trends in agriculture.
“What's growing, what's changing? The face of agriculture, the demographics has always been huge and of concern to people because we don't want to not have enough farmers or food production,” Benz said.
Jennifer and John Sharrock are adding another farm into the mix. The rich soil on Lazy Mountain is perfect for what they have planned for a permaculture teaching area.
“Because we are a no-till, no-tractor [farm], we have to be a little bit more inventive on how we’re going to start farming on the land,” Jennifer said.
She explained they’re going to lay tarp over the land to naturally kill off any weeds before they begin planting next year.
The Sharrocks' love of gardening blossomed from their backyard to founding Seeds and Soil Farm where they teach others how to grow.
“We need to produce more of our own food. Farming and gardening is a beautiful way to connect with nature and I think people are really starting to engage with nature again,” Jennifer said.
She said it’s an exciting time to be a part of the growing industry, especially in an agriculture hub like Palmer. They’re absorbing knowledge from long-time farmers, but there are now more young people to bring innovative ideas to the table.
“The weather is changing, our climate is changing, we can grow earlier, we can grow later. Technology for farming has changed with season extension, so things that were unheard of that we could grow in Alaska now are becoming really quite popular,” Jennifer said.
Both Knopp and Sharrock said the region's 7.1 earthquake on Nov. 30 was a reminder of how important it is to keep striving for food security.
Alaska is above the national average when it comes to several other categories. Nationally, 9.4% of producers are under the age of 35; in Alaska 10.5% of producers are under 35.
Nearly half, 47%, of producers in Alaska are women, compared to 27% across the country.
One new category this year is how many producers and farmers have military service: 14% of Alaska’s producers have served, versus 11% nationwide.
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