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.

Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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.

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One of two dairies in the state, Mat Maid's main problem may have been its outdated large-scale model.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.

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

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."

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