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Despite Alaska's challenges, new farmers take root

The demise of Matanuska Maid Dairy reflects agriculture's decline here. But some niche farms are prospering.

By Yereth RosenCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 22, 2008

Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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Point Mackenzie, Alaska

After years of mounting losses, a venerable Alaska agricultural institution was formally dismantled this spring. At the bankrupt Matanuska Maid Dairy, a business that dates back to the 1930s, everything from delivery trucks to cardboard boxes has been auctioned off.

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The closure of the state-owned dairy is evidence of how tough farming is in this region. With a hostile climate and a small, isolated market, Alaska farming is better known for comical giant cabbages grown huge under the midnight sun than for being serious business. The state with the most land has the tiniest agricultural sector.

Yet some entrepreneurs are showing they have the creativity and marketing savvy to survive here.

"Dairying in Alaska is not for the faint-hearted, I can tell you that right now," says Wayne Brost, whose operation at Point Mackenzie, is one of only six dairy farms still operating in Alaska and one of four that supplied Mat Maid.

One of two dairies in the state, Mat Maid's main problem may have been its outdated large-scale model. Mat Maid's big plant pumped out large quantities of product, with 80 percent of its milk supply shipped in from the Pacific Northwest by the end – in contradiction of its longstanding motto, "Fresher By 1,000 Miles." Despite a loyal customer base, its products could not compete with cheaper imports on the shelves.

The company's demise forced the region's few remaining dairy farmers to dump milk onto their land as fertilizer, sell off cows, or even butcher some animals for meat. Mr. Brost, a veteran farmer from South Dakota, considers himself fortunate for emerging relatively unscathed from Mat Maid's downfall.

The difficulties of farming in Alaska reflect obvious physical realities. Brost's cows, for example, have to spend a lot of time indoors. "They get barn fever instead of cabin fever," he says.

But climate is a minor challenge, says Brost, who is used to the searing heat and bitter winters of his home state.

The real problem, he says, is the isolation. The market is tiny and unlinked to major population centers. There is almost no established support industry. "Here, you'd better be prepared to do it yourself, inventorying parts and expediting them if you don't have them," Brost says.

And the dearth of farm families means few dependable skilled farmworkers, says Brost, who relies on transients. "You get people who are hiding out or who are looking for some kind of utopia. I call them 'tundrabillies,' " he says.

It's a far cry from the heyday of Alaska agriculture. That started in the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt recruited 203 farm families from the upper Midwest to relocate to the promising Matanuska Valley, a swath of arable land between mountain ranges and cut by the glacier-fed Matanuska River. This New Deal program, part jobs creation and part frontier settlement, aimed to populate Alaska and help make it self-sufficient. It was during this time that the dairy cooperative that became Matanuska Maid was set up.

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