“In perpetuity” has sort of a final ring to it. And that’s how the rules are stated to those who are purchasing state agricultural land. Franci Havermeister is the director of the state division of agriculture
“Part of that statute also says that it is for the benefit of all Alaskans. So that would mean that land must be maintained in a way that future generations would be able to develop it. Therefore we have restrictions on what can be done with that land.”
But she says, there are rumblings that change could be coming
“I have heard comments from individual people who have voiced that opinion, yes.”
Havermeister says that regulations affecting agricultural land can be amended but any action toward changing the agricultural covenants on the state farmland at Point Mackenzie would have to come from the Alaska legislature. But the 1980s era state agricultural lands program did not envision the current spurt in Matanuska Valley population growth, nor the massive development projects now on the horizon there.
Stuart Davies owns state agricultural land near Delta Junction, and is the only member of the state’s Board of Agriculture and Conservation (BAC) that both owns ag land and farms it. He says the Port MacKenzie lands are in the cross hairs of any covenant repeal, because of their proximity to future development. He says he supports the agricultural covenants in general, but the restrictions on using the land need to change.
“They’re onerous and they restrict the value of the farmland.””
Davies makes it clear that he is not speaking for the BAC. Board chair Ben VanderWeele, who farms privately-owned land in Palmer, says doesn’t want to see the covenants changed at all
“And I’m going to fight it to the end that that should not be done. “
VanderWeele says agricultural land is at a minimum in Alaska, and those who bought state ag land need to honor their commitment to it
“They want those covenants off, they want to sell them on the open market. I’m firmly opposed to that. They knew when they bought these properties at discounted prices that they were supposed to stay in agriculture.”
But at an April BAC meeting, Stuart Davies threw the question on the table.
“They’re really not helping farmers. Agricultural covenants in Alaska are unique, in that no other state that I am aware of, has placed agricultural covenants on their land. There is agricultural zoning in an organized Borough, but agricultural covenants are unique to Alaska. “
Davies says farmers have only three assets: land, equipment and crops. Land is the biggest one, because a farmer hurting for cash can sell it, ut agricultural lands are assessed at less than market value, and sold at less than market value. Owners of some state ag lands may subdivide and sell, but only in 40 acre lots and only for agricultural purposes.
Wayne Brost, who farms at Point MacKenzie, agrees the ag covenants only hurt farmers.
‘They’re outdated. I think they should be amended. I’m not certain they should be completely eliminated. There’s been cell towers put on some farms and no objection to it, while other people put in their farm plan [a request] and ask to do it and get denied. I think that is totally unfair.”
Brost, who had to slaughter dairy cows when the milk market dried up, says he’s diversifed into hay and hog production to survive, but had to turn down opportunities to use his land in other ways because of the covenants.
” All of this development et cetera, will take place, and the farmers will be in a box, and we’ll be locked in a box and not be able to take advantage of any of this development, or progress or economic boom in this area.”
Davies says he’d like his children to have home sites on his land, but the covenants don’t allow it.
“I’d like to see my kids be able to manage this land without a whole lot of state intervention. All the farmers that I know are pretty dang old.. you know.. and I don’t.. where’s the next generation of farmers? I don’t see it, I just don’t see it.”
Davies says for now he’s backed off pushing for changes because he can’t find enough support from those who want to hold on to the ag covenants at all costs.
“I think their primary concern is loss of farm ground, that’s the way I read it. “
But others are asking similar questions. Rep Lynne Gattis and her husband Rick have two parcels of ag land at Point MacKenzie. They grow hay for their business. And last year, drew down the ire of the state because they had contracted with the Mat Su Borough for an easement through their ag land. That matter has been resolved, but Lynne Gattis has said the agricultural restrictions are overly protective.
And she says the death of the Mat Valley’s dairy industry has reduced her hay supply business’ customer base. Gattis, who has approached the BAC about changes to the covenants, contends that the state has strong restrictions on the land but no strong plan to develop agriculture. That’s something Franci Havermeister does not agree with.
“I believe that the state promotes ag production through our ARLF program, through our land sales program, through our inspection program, things like that.”
Some say 30 years is not giving agriculture enough time to take root (no pun intended ) in the state, and that it’s too soon to end the ag program, because the first 30 years are the hardest in any farming venture. I’m Ellen Lockyer