Floating out of boom-bust cycle on waves of grain

It's not the type of place you'd expect to find amber waves of grain.

Right now, in fact, you won't. But come this summer, these snow-blanketed fields--less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle--will be transformed into green, fertile acres yielding thousands of tons of high-quality grain and seed.

Although farming in permafrost may sound far-fetched, this 60,000-acre, state-supported project is serious, scientific, and potentially big business for Alaska, which may have 500,000 acres of land in agricultural production by 1990.

Delta I, as the project is known, is part of a long-term state effort to lift Alaska out of its traditional boom-bust economic cycle. By using oil revenues to help build an economy based on renewable resources, state officials say they hope to ease the bust that might otherwise occur when the current oil boom ends.

''We're not going to raise bananas, casabas, or oranges here in Alaska,'' says James V. Drew, director of the University of Alaska's agricultural experiment station, which has provided much of the research for the state's agricultural program.

''But they don't grow those in Iowa, either,'' he continues. ''You have to find crops that are adapted to the climate. Here that means barley and oats, possibly buckwheat, potatoes, and cool season vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower.''

Farming in this sprawling state dates back to the arrival of the first Russian settlers in the 18th century. Agriculture developed around the gold mining camps of the Klondike rush days, and grew even further during the 1930s when the federal government established a farming project in the Matanuska Valley, just north of Anchorage. Alaska's farm acreage, however, didn't amount to much more than a minuscule 20,000 acres in 1978. Even today, the state imports 90 to 95 percent of its food.

Although state and federal estimates place the amount of potential agricultural lands in Alaska at some 20 million acres, more than half of that land belongs to the federal government and another 5 million acres to native Alaskans.

Still, the state estimates that the 4 million acres of potential agricultural land under its control would be enough to make Alaska virtually self-sufficient in beef, pork, feed grain, dairy products, and fresh vegetables, with enough crops left over for export as well.

The problem, of course, is getting those lands into production. So far, the state has sold about 100,000 acres of land to private farmers, only 16,000 acres of which, all in Delta I, will be in production this year.

The challenges to agriculture are numerous, not least among them the task of carving a 2,600-acre farm out of a chunk of wilderness. Vitally important is the establishment of an infrastructure: the machinery dealers, grain handling facilities, and transportation and marketing systems which make an agriculture industry possible.

The fledgling project has had its share of setbacks. Bison, which roam freely in the Delta I area, have snacked freely on crops--at great expense to farmers. An early freeze last Aug. 15, the earliest one in 52 years, didn't help much either. Although some farmers had begun to harvest 80 to 90 bushels an acre--nearly double the average yield in the ''lower 48''--the early freeze took its toll. The harvest averaged out at 27 bushels an acre. Only three farmers broke even or made a profit.

Such failures have been seized upon as proof that common sense dictates you can't farm in Alaska. Critics contend that the state's agriculture projects are gobbling up precious oil revenues. (The state finances the purchase of the land for farmers, and provides low-interest loans for clearing timber.) Agriculture proponents, however, including Gov. Jay Hammond, contend that ironing the kinks out of a new industry takes time.

''People in the lower 48 have been in farming for 100 years and more,'' says Dr. Drew. ''We simply do not have that backlog of research or practical experience. So that, at the same time this is a development, it's an experiment, too.''

Barney Hollenbeck, for one, is sure it's an experiment that will work. A longtime farmer in the Matanuska Valley, he sold his farm operation there when urban sprawl made it increasingly difficult to expand his acreage. Since starting from scratch in Delta I, Mr. Hollenbeck has been one of the project's most successful farmers.

''If I didn't know you could farm, I wouldn't have come up here,'' he explains.

Other farmers agree. Although the Delta project poses a number of pioneering problems, they say, it also has great advantages. The cold--as low as 70 below in the winter with the wind-chill factor--keeps the area virtually free of insects.

In addition, the soil, once tilled and thawed, ranks among the best agricultural soils in the world. And although the time between planting and harvesting covers a few short months, Alaska's long summer days--with up to 221/ 2 hours of sunlight--ensure that crops grow bountifully.

''This is a place to expand,'' says Scott Schultz, who left his family's farm in Iowa to buy an 1,800-acre farm in the Delta II project last month. ''It's hard to expand a farm in Iowa.''

''I always liked the sound of Alaska,'' he continues, explaining why he came to pioneer here. ''I've always liked the outside, and doing things that are different.

''This is about as different as you can get.''

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