Pandemic stirs greater demand for local meat and produce as Alaskans head into summer

Allie Barker is one of the owners of Chugach Farm in Chickaloon. (Jed Workman)

Summer is right around the corner. In Alaska, the season typically brings a greater abundance of locally produced food.

Right now, demand for local food is ramping up, in part, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Farmers and other industry leaders think it could stay that way. But that growth comes with some challenges too.

“The best way to describe it is we’ve been up, down and sideways, all in the last few months,” said Jason Pyron, one of the owners of the Alaska Meat Company on Sitkinak Island near Kodiak.

“And I think we’re all trying to figure out still where we’re at,” said Pyron. “You know, it’s always hard to know where the local economy is going to be.”

Pyron sees opportunity because of uncertainty in the meat market in other parts of the country.

“Starting to play into that over the last couple of months has just been issues in the food supply chain across North America and other parts of the world, because of the COVID situation that we now find ourselves in,” said Pyron. “And now local beef processors finding themselves being in the greater demand because of these food security concerns that I think a lot of people have in Alaska and beyond.”

It’s still really early in the season for the Alaska Meat Company. They harvest beef annually, taking orders in the spring and throughout the summer. But, Pyron says he has noticed a few things already. For instance, people seem to be ordering less expensive styles of meat, like ground beef.

Meanwhile, Alaskans say they’re getting into gardening, buying big cuts of meat, and signing up for produce and egg shares.

David Schade is the Director of the Division of Agriculture at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. He says demand for local goods is increasing.

“Farmers are selling everything they can get slaughtered right now,” said Schade. “I think you’re going to see quite an uptick in the amount of produce that’s coming out this year. People have stepped up. I know that people have imported a whole lot more chickens.”

Schade says he expects increased demand to last for the next few years.

“As there are going to be supply chain interruptions and that’s going to keep the people focused on the more we can grow, the more we can hunt, the more we can fish, the better we are as a state,” said Schade.

Still, he says there are challenges. For one, people are watching their spending. And, while Alaska has a lot of potential for increased production, Schade says there’s a lot of work to be done on the retail and marketing side.

“We produce such a small percentage of the food that we use,” said Schade. “The reality is, we can’t grow up fast enough to meet demand. At the prices that stores pay, farmers can’t necessarily afford to produce.”

Anchorage Greens is a mostly subscription-based produce business that opened in 2019. Rachael Posey is the business manager. She says sales have been strong, but it’s too soon to say why, since they don’t have any other years to compare to.

“There’s definitely been growth over the last several months,” said Posey. “But it’s hard to separate out how much of that is from the pandemic and the effects of wanting a local food source, verses natural growth that was already happening.”

For Allie Barker at Chugach Farm in Chickaloon, these last few months have been a mix of good and bad. The farm lost all of its restaurant contracts after pandemic precautions led to widespread closures. But, Barker says customer surveys show people are anticipating buying more local food, and that they trust local food more than the grocery store. All of that, she says, indicates there will be a higher demand for the farm’s products.

“People have been reaching out earlier than they usually do to secure their food source for the season,” said Barker. “We’ve been working as hard as possible to meet that demand. We’re kind of anticipating following trends happening across the country, which is, many farms are going online and they’re seeing their sales increase significantly.”

Chugach Farm recently launched an online store, and they’re gearing up for a season of farmer’s markets that will look a little different than usual.

“I think if there’s one thing we all know about farming, is it’s all about uncertainty,” said Barker. “You know, that’s one thing that farmers are good at, is, you know, I just planted my cabbage crop and, well the voles already ate half of it, right? So, waiting for the next round to come in.”

Pyron, on Sitkinak Island, says Alaska Meat Company will do what they can to meet consumer demand, but there is only so much beef. He says the company sells out every year. But this year, he thinks that might happen a little bit faster.