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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.

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Agriculture thrived here even till the 1960s, suggest promotional brochures from that era.

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Recent changes reflect farming's neglect. Topsoil is covered by sprawling subdivisions. Roadside espresso stands seem to sprout faster than crops. Legal complications nixed farmers' plans to sell products in school vending machines. They also lost a battle for control of the ,"Alaska Grown" label that once adorned sweat shirts sold to fund agricultural programs.

When the industry is so tiny – just 0.3 percent of total state employment by one measure – why bother with it?

Local farmers and environmentalists say that small as it is, agriculture provides diversity to the state economy.

Growing food locally also has ecological advantages. There is little or no use of pesticides because most Lower 48 pests are not present here. Getting food locally also means consumers leave a smaller carbon footprint.

Concerns for food security and safety are reduced, too. With 90 percent of Alaska's consumer goods passing through Anchorage, a shutdown in the supply chain could leave just three or four days' worth of food on the shelves, according to the state division of homeland security. And there has been a recent spate of contamination outbreaks and recall involving food supplied from afar.

Amid the challenges facing Alaska agriculture, signs of a farming renewal are emerging.

Just days before Mat Maid auctioned its assets, River and Sarah Beans and their small crew of workers planted the first crops in the cold soil of their Arctic Organics Farm in Palmer, the heart of Alaska farm country. The Beans, who converted a gardening hobby into a vocation two decades ago, have managed to succeed in one of the toughest businesses in Alaska.

"When we first started here in Alaska, we were told it couldn't be done," Mr. Beans recalls.

Vegetables from their 20-acre farm are sold directly to the people who eat them. Some customers have their specialized orders picked up at delivery points around Palmer and Anchorage. Others buy at a weekend Anchorage farmers' market. When winter hits, generally by October, Arctic Organics delivers from its stockpiles of potatoes, carrots, and other produce with long shelf lives.

The Beans are not the only ones driving change. Milk is now appearing on grocery shelves from a new dairy, Matanuska Creamery, that set up shop in Palmer earlier this year. The creamery operates at only a fifth of what had been Mat Maid's volume. "We're only going to produce 100 percent Alaska milk here," said Rob Wells, a partner in the creamery, as he mixed the its first batch of ice cream.

Meanwhile, there is new demand for local food.

At least 300 people or families hold shares in the region's various nonprofit cooperative farms, and have an interest in growing, says Susan Willsrud, director of the Calypso Cooperative and Educational Center in Fairbanks.

Calypso's members range from people on public assistance to affluent foodies, she says.

Even if the produce is pricier than supermarket offerings, members like knowing where their food comes from, helping to cultivate it, and being part of a community, Ms. Willsrud says. "Beyond that, I think the food speaks for itself."