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.

Erik Hill/The Anchorage Daily News/AP
Customer Johnna Minemyer, left, is waited on by Monica Seldovitsch at the farmers market in Anchorage, Alaska.

Martha Stramp can't remember exactly when she began visiting Anchorage farmers' markets, but she remembers why. It was the Alaska-grown strawberries.

One day Ms. Stramp was driving around town and saw a sign advertising the ruby-red fruit. She pulled over for a taste test.

From then on, she was hooked.

"There's nothing like it. They taste like strawberries all the way through, not just on the outside," says Stramp.

She and her daughter, Robin, will drive from their south Anchorage home to a farmers' market on the north side of town just to get some, she says.

On Wednesday afternoon, the mom and daughter team walked the farmers market at the Northway Mall, searching for strawberries. They bought them, as well as some Mat-Su vegetables.

The Stamps' passion for locally grown strawberries helps explain why produce stands are sprouting like weeds in Alaska. In the past two summers, the number of farmers' markets in Alaska has burgeoned from 16 to 27, according to the Alaska Division of Agriculture.

Anchorage has seven markets. Just a few years ago, the city had only two.

"There's still room for more, if we had more produce to sell," says Bill Webb, who 17 years ago started the granddaddy market, the Anchorage Downtown Market & Festival, which attracts tens of thousands of tourists on weekends and some locals, too.

That market offers fewer vegetables these days, but has spun off several other markets around Anchorage, including a Wednesday midtown market at the University Center that opened last month.

Why the growth? Trend-conscious magazines in the Lower 48 have been touting the health and environmental benefits of locally grown food for some years now, and farmers markets have been propagating in the Lower 48 at a fast clip.

In recent interviews with customers at Anchorage markets, most cited the flavor of fresh, local produce and their interest in buying something grown in Alaska instead of barged up from Seattle.

"I started going because everything tastes better," saysd Susanne DiPietro, who scours the market at 15th Avenue and Cordova Street about once a week. She says she tries to buy something from every vendor — whatever looks best — because she wants them all to do well.

She cooks differently with market produce, to take advantage of its freshness. Broccoli, for example. She roasts it in the oven, without adding any of the seasonings she'd usually use on store-bought broccoli. She doesn't want to mask the stalks' fresh flavor, she says.

It's no secret – Alaska-grown produce costs more. Depending on which farm stand you buy from, a bunch of broccoli can sell for $2.99 to $4.99 per pound, more than at the grocery store.

Still, the markets aren't the exclusive domain of upscale foodies. People from many demographics were evident during recent visits to markets around town: stay-at-home moms, Alaska native elders, young professionals, baby boomers, immigrant families.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Betty Leonard, who grew up in the village of Koyuk, brought her $25 senior food coupon to the Northway Mall market, where she bought carrots and turnips, planning to use them in soup.

Coming to the market reminded Leonard, in her 60s, of growing up in Koyuk, where her mother had a large garden filled with rhubarb, cabbage, and other vegetables.

"It's good to see a variety of fresh vegetables," she says, resting on a bench, waiting for a ride home.

Alaska farmers have noticed a change in people's attitude toward local produce and they are responding by opening up the new markets, says Patricia O'Neal, a specialist for the state agriculture division.

Her office recently led a daylong shuttle bus tour of Valley farms to give residents, mostly hailing from Anchorage, a chance to learn about local food production. All but one of the farms visited during the tour, which cost $45 per ticket, sell their produce at Anchorage farmers' markets.

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

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.

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