Lawmakers Tour Valley Farms
One rarely thinks of strawberries in connection with our state, but Palmer producer Arthur Keyes realized the potential for growing the sweet berries on his farm years ago.
”There’s about eight thousand strawberry plants, and I think this is our fourth or fifth year now producing strawberries.”
Now this summer’s strawberry crop is being harvested. I pick a ripe one from a plant loaded with them
”..yeah, it’s like eating an apple”… “OMG.. look at the size of it, and it doesn’t get all hollow in the center.”
The berries are huge – and delicious.
”I’m producing on about three acres here. It’s pretty intense. I have about fifteen employees on this three acres. [when] You get into the bigger farms, you are going to see twenty or thirty employees working on those farms. And they are using mechanized harvesting. Everything we do here is by hand. “
Keyes says Alaska’s long summer days, and unusual soil, combine to make his berries not only larger, but juicier and sweeter than berries grown in California. Keyes gestures toward another acre, this one planted with onions
“I call em Yensis sweet onions. YENSIS. And I get that word, because this is the only place in the world.. this Palmer region.. that has yensis soil. And it’s a silt soil derived from the glaciers that we have. Off the Matanuska glacier and the Eklutna glacier. It’s a combination.”
It’s the Yensis soil that gives Palmer vegetables their sweet juicyness compared with vegetables imported from outside.
” Our Alaskan carrots, up to eight times sweeter than a California carrot. Strawberries, potatoes, name a crop and it’s going to to be sweeter.. Broccoli…anyone like Alaska brocsoli?” “Yeah!” ” I mean, is there any other broccoli you would rather eat? No. So these crops during our long days are developing carbs all day long and then we get a cool night, because of our latitude, we get these cool nights that come in and those carbs convert to sugars. And then you end up at the end of the season with these crops that are phenomenal.”
Keyes Glacier Valley Farm was the first stop on a farm tour organized by Representative Bill Stoltz, a Republican from Chugiak, who is urging state lawmakers to recognize Alaska’s agricultural potential.
Agriculture has long been a low priority for the legislature . Stoltze wants to remedy that. (Stoltze) *He* sponsored House Resolution #1 which creates an Alaska Food Resource Working Group. The move got gubernatorial approval to develop state policies aimed at increasing the purchase and consumption of Alaska grown products.
“We got the ball in the air on elevating agricultural issues and food issues to the cabinet level.”
The farm tour introduced lawmakers and department commissioners to Alaska produce literally from the ground up.
A USDA agricultural census last year puts total receipts from state agriculture from 2011 at 31.7 million dollars. No threat to big oil, but, then, there’s no real comparison. You can’t eat oil. Food security is a growing issue in Alaska. Stoltze warns that if transportation to our state was interrupted by a national disaster, Alaskans would have only a few weeks supply on hand.
“We have a lot more capacity, especially on the cold root vegetables, potatoes and carrots, to grow a lot more of our own.”
Few farmers in the Valley mass market their produce. One who does is Paul Huppert, who sells at four major supermarket chains [ Carr's WalMart, Fred Meyer, Three Bears ] and to restaurants and the military under the Gold Nugget and Palmer Produce brands. Huppert has a warehouse near Palmer, where semi trucks haul away boxes of lettuce, kale, carrots and broccoli destined for other areas of the state. Getting produce to markets far away in top condition starts with cooling, he says, pointing to a huge machine near the door
”If you folks don’t know what it is, it’s a vacuum cooler. For years and years and years they tried every way in the world to ship lettuce, head lettuce, leaf lettuce and stuff like that to the East Coast, because we had the field heat, we never took it out. That machine, we can fit 150 cases of headlettuce in it. “
Huppert says one of the big problems for growers is a labor shortage. But one of the perks – pesticides are not needed in Alaska because our state’s isolation keeps pests out. Huppert says agricultural land should be kept that way.. by law.
“It’s not like we need it today or tomorrow, but we are going to need it in the future, and that’s all there is to it. You know, it’s kind of selfish to think we need to use it all today.”
Legislator Stoltze says consumers have the power to demand more Alaska products in local stores, then retailers will comply.
”My resolution is not a mandate, it’s a roadmap of how we can do better for agriculture in Alaska. “
Stoltze says it’s time state agencies helped to do that.