A burst of home-grown food, farming, in Alaska

The coronavirus pandemic underscores Alaska's vulnerability to food disruptions, renewing calls for local agriculture and inspiring residents to get down in the dirt.

Meghan Gervais is a commercial fisherman and mother of three who lives in Homer, Alaska, a town with a single highway connecting it to the rest of the state—and to grocery supplies from the port of Anchorage. While eating local foods has always been important to her, this spring, with Covid-19 on her mind, she bought a piglet to raise for meat and plans to expand her garden by about one-third this summer.

“I’ve kind of switched into my homesteader persona,” she said.

So far, Alaska has had 372 cases of Covid-19 and 10 deaths. Although grocery store shelves have been emptied, Alaskans are responding by harnessing the qualities of self-reliance and independence the state prides itself on. They are also questioning why the resource-rich state is so dependent on food from other time zones. “People have always known Alaska is food vulnerable,” Rachael Miller, the director of Food, Research, Enterprise, and Sustainability Hub of the North explained. “But in the last few months, those dormant fears are being revisited with a sense of urgency.”

According to a 2014 estimate, the most recent available, 95 percent of the $2 billion of food purchased in Alaska comes from out of state, brought in over a thousand miles or more by truck, container ship, or barge. (It also produces a lot of food, from its $5.4 billion fisheries industry, but only a tiny fraction of that remains in the state). Natural disasters and stormy weather disrupt shipments of groceries to Alaska regularly. But Covid-19 has presented new challenges.

Kristina Kinneeveauk runs a small grocery store in the Native village of Nanwalek, a community of about 200 people on the rocky shores of South-Central Alaska that is only accessible by boat or aircraft. Groceries arrive by single prop plane. “I can’t keep up with the ordering,” she said. With intrastate travel restricted due to Covid-19, residents who might leave the village to buy groceries at larger stores are heading to Kinneeveauk’s instead. She’s putting in about twice as many orders as usual to her suppliers and still has a hard time keeping eggs and other groceries on the shelves. In Alaska, it can take two weeks before food shipments arrive.

“When you get a volcano exploding or an avalanche on the road, all the dairy, all the meat, all the fresh stuff goes,” said Kyra Wagner, manager of the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District and a proponent of local food systems. These short-term disruptions quickly empty store shelves, but food supplies generally recover within a week or two. But Covid-19 is revealing larger structural weaknesses in the state’s food system.

Dale Marshall of Anchorage reacts to breaking the state record with his 2,051 pound pumpkin at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, Alaska. Photo by Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News via AP.

Alaska’s long summer days have long been renowned for growing enormous vegetables—last year’s winning pumpkin at the Alaska State Fair weighed more than one ton and the prized cabbage clocked in at 77.5 pounds. But climate change presents huge opportunities for growth in the agricultural sector overall. Temperatures here are rising twice as fast as in other parts of the United States, which means tragic consequences for many communities in the state. For farmers, however, global warming has meant an increase in the growing season by up to 31 days and the ability to plant crops, such as fruit trees, that thrive in a milder climate.

In response, the state’s farming sector has been blooming. Driven as well by a USDA program that subsidizes the cost of unheated greenhouses—called “high tunnels,” which can create a microclimate here similar to that in Kansas—the number of farms in the state increased 30 percent between 2012 and 2017, while the rest of the nation saw a 3 percent decline. And there is a lot of room for growth. The state has some 15 million acres—a land area the size of West Virginia—of suitable soils.

Farming has been budding from the fjords of southeast Alaska to the Arctic. In the Interior, where winter temperatures can dive deeply below zero, tomatoes are grown nine months of the year in greenhouses heated by natural hot springs. And there’s a growing movement to provide fresh produce to the state’s remote communities through local farming—on the tundra in the remote hub of Bethel; in Anaktuvuk Pass, 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle nestled in the Brooks Range mountains; and in northwest Alaska’s Kotzebue, in the soils above permafrost.

Lettice plants on VanderWeele Farm in Palmer Alaska. Photo courtesy VanderWeele Farms LLC.

But the state hasn’t seized the opportunity. Two years ago, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy—a conservative Republican—announced draconian state budget cuts that nearly wiped out the Division of Agriculture. Half the employees were laid off, support for research was slashed, and funding for the popular “Alaska Grown” program, which promotes produce from Alaska farms, disappeared. Although some of the funding was reinstated after negotiations with the state legislature, lack of investment in agriculture, Miller says, means the state is “not setting ourselves up for the future.”

Ben VanderWeele checks seedlings prior to planting on the
first day of planting in May 2020 on VanderWeele Farm in Palmer Alaska. Photo courtesy VanderWeele Farms LLC.

Transportation of goods is another barrier to growth of the agricultural sector in this state. The majority of Alaska communities aren’t connected by roads, and state budget cuts have gutted the ferry system, which many coastal communities depend on for deliveries of groceries and agricultural products. And earlier this month, RavnAir, one of the state’s largest rural airlines, grounded planes and declared bankruptcy in response to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

But the novel coronavirus has made clear that Alaskans want to eat locally grown food grown, and that Alaska farmers can respond to crises such as the pandemic. As dairy farmers in the Lower 48 dump milk because of plummeting demand with the closure of restaurants and schools, demand for local milk in Alaska has exploded. The Havemeister Dairy, one of only two dairy farms in the state, is located in Palmer, a community 40 miles north of Anchorage that has been the seat of farming in the state since a New Deal project set up an experimental community here of transplanted Midwestern farmers. “It was crazy,” Ty Havemeister said of the frenzy of sales during March, when panic-shopping was at a peak. His milk sold out hours after delivery to major grocery chains in the region. Even now, as hoarding has eased, he can’t keep up with demand.

Potatoes and carrots from Vanderweele Farm in Palmer also have been selling briskly, about triple previous levels. For the first time, Alaska grown potatoes were the only type available in some stores.

Then, there’s the rise in self-sufficiency. “The interest in backyard gardens is exploding,” Darren Snyder, an agriculture and horticulture cooperative agent based in the state capital of Juneau, said. Nearly 500 people recently registered for a regional online gardening course that offers basic tips.

Anchorage’s Alaska Mill and Feed—a go-to for gardening and livestock supplies in the state’s population center—has seen a surge in demand for seeds, seed potatoes, and backyard chicken supplies. “Some people were freaking out thinking ‘I might not be able to get groceries. I’d better grow my own,’” says Brooke Shortridge, the store’s marketing coordinator.

Despite the glimmers of good agricultural news, David Schade, head of state’s Division of Agriculture, remains concerned about how Covid-19 will impact Alaska’s food supply in the coming years. The closure of numerous slaughterhouses in the U.S. and Canada and disruptions to the labor force that many U.S. farms depend on could mean scarcities ahead.

“We’re at the end of the food chain in Alaska,” Schade says. “If there’s a shortage, we’re likely to get impacted.” He used to recommend that Alaskans keep two weeks of food on hand in case of emergencies. Now he recommends a month.

Lead image: The first day of planting in May 2020 on VanderWeele Farm in Palmer, Alaska. It grows about 100,000 plants, such as lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli, each season, and ranks as Alaska’s largest potato producer. Photo courtesy VanderWeele Farms LLC.

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