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In Alaska, farmers' markets sprout 'like weeds'

In the past two summers, the number of farmers' markets in Alaska has grown from 16 to 27.

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One Mat-Su farmer featured in the tour, Mark Rempel, sells all his organic produce at farmers markets.

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Another farmer, Carol Kenley, recently began selling most of her produce to the markets. She says it's less labor-intensive than her previous business model, which involved filling cardboard boxes with vegetables and delivering the boxes to drop-off locations for customers who signed up for the deliveries. She likes the face-to-face time with her customers.

Mr. Rempel agrees. "I get to know many people by their first name," he says, showing off his squash rows to more than 20 visitors.

The division might host a second farm tour next year, Ms. O'Neal says.

Valley farmer Ben VanderWeele has built a solid business relationship with Anchorage grocery retailers. His potatoes, carrots, lettuce, and cabbage — proudly blazoned with the Alaska Grown logo — are all available in local stores.

But he has also cultivated a connection to local farmers' markets, which can net a couple thousand customers on a good weekend.

"We always felt there are a lot of consumers out there who do not know what Alaska grown is about and what's available. The market is also a nice outlet to try out some new items and get consumer input," Mr. VanderWeele says.

He's amused that high-end food magazines are touting kale and root vegetables, which grow well in Alaska's climate and were staple crops for older generations.

After years of neglect, a lot of people don't know how to cook them, he says. "It's probably hard to get those questions answered in a produce department, but one-on-one (at the farmers' market), it works pretty well."

Even in smaller towns like Juneau, Haines, Willow, and Dillingham, farmers' markets are sprouting.

The oldest farmers' market in the state is the Tanana Valley Farmers Market in Fairbanks. It opened in the 1970s.

The Sitka and Juneau markets both started up within the last year or two. The market in Haines began about four years ago on the state fairgrounds as a volunteer-organized community service project.

"With the rising price of fuel in our small community, we wanted to revive having access to produce and seafood, and to be an incubator for small businesses," says Sid Moffatt, who helps organize the Haines market roughly twice per month during the summer.

"In the 1930s, Haines was a net exporter of certain crops, like strawberries. Now there's only one farm in the whole area," he says.

Volunteers in Juneau organized the first market there last year and plan to do it again this year. Because there are no farms in Juneau, the market's produce offering is scant.

A few Juneauites brought vegetables from their own yards to last year's market. "The stuff just disappeared immediately," says Eva Bornstein, an organizer.

The market functioned mostly as a showcase of what local gardeners can grow in Juneau's soggy climate and how to process local wild foods, such as berries, mushrooms, and fish.

"We had an overwhelming turnout, we lost count at about 1,200 people," Bornstein says.

Editor’s note: To read more about Alaska's local food scene, see  this article,  In Sitka, Alaska, 'food not lawns' takes hold on the state's giant vegetable harvest.For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page. Our blog archive. Our RSS feed.

You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos — and possibly win a prize. Deadline is Aug. 11. Join the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions.