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Saving Alaska’s Farming Future with Amy Knapp Pettit, Alaska Farmland Trust

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Alaska Farmland Trust

In a state where there are only 830,000 viable acres across 750 farms, the need for Alaska grown produce has never been higher. As irony would have it, neither have land values for flat, well-drained soil that hungry developers have their eyes on. While some retiring or aging out farmers have no qualms about cashing out their property in exchange for neat rows of rooftops and garages, others struggle to sleep at night knowing that years – centuries, in some cases – of hard work and family legacies could be plowed over in an instant, putting Alaska’s agricultural economy at risk of dwindling even further. That’s where Amy Pettit, Executive Director of Alaska Farmland Trust, enters the conversation.

As a mediator between the state and national government, farmer, developer, and agricultural community at large, Amy and her team oversee the preservation of agricultural farmland for future generations through the use of voluntary conservation easements that ensure farmlands stay forever viable for farming and farming alone.

“About 95% of the food consumed in Alaska is imported into the state. Since we have so few farmers here and so little farmland viable for production, we’re at serious risk of being dependent on other states’ food sources if we don’t protect the land we do have. If there were a catastrophe at the port in Anchorage or Washington, or if bridges were to succumb to catastrophe, we’re at serious risk of food not being available within our own borders,” she explains. “That’s where Alaska Farmland Trust comes in. We work with willing landowners, folks who understand that urgency and who want to go down this path to preserving their land so it can continue to be the freshest, healthiest, most nutritional option for Alaskans.”

When the need for Alaskan grown produce is so high, why is the interest in farming so low?

“We’re one of the least populated states in the U.S., which already puts us at a disadvantage,” she says. “Farming is hard work, no matter what. When you add in a few trying ingredients like vicious winters, short growing seasons, temperamental weather, small infrastructure and ill-equipped mechanical dealerships, it’s no surprise that there aren’t farmers lining up at the door to break ground. However, those that do farm here are incredibly passionate about what they do – it’s our job to make sure that passion remains.”

While states in the Lower 48 have a major advantage in Class I soils that both drain and hold moisture well, Alaska’s soil begins at Class II, which requires more hands-on management in order to yield successful crops. However, what Alaska lacks in thriving soil, it makes up for in other areas like:

  • hay production
  • sturdy vegetables
  • “alternative livestock” such as yak, bison, and caribou best suited for rugged winter conditions

Abundant in number, scarce in nutritional value.

Since the dawn of the modern agricultural system, the goal for large, industrial working farms has been quantity over quality in seasonal crop yields. However, with abundance in number comes scarcity in nutritional value. Staple crops like corn, wheat, and potatoes now contain dramatically lower levels of iron, zinc, and calcium than they did a century ago.

At the same time, Americans are working longer and more stressful hours than ever before, an average of almost 47 hours a week, craving convenient meals at drive-through windows, pre-made meals, and washed and cut vegetables from big box stores that tend to sell them at their cheapest.

As Michael Pollan documents in The Omniovore’s Dilemma, there’s growing overwhelm about what to eat, further complicated by the mixed messages from the media about what constitutes “healthy” food. Is gluten to blame for the number of wheat allergies? Is fat really good for you, and if so, what kind? Is organic really better?

To Amy and other experts in land conservation, one thing is clear: there’s a strong link between the viability of farmland and the vitality of the consumers who purchase from it. In Alaska, a state which imports many of its greens from more southerly states like California, Mexico, and Arizona, time is especially of the essence. According to a study conducted by UC Davis, pre-packaged produce such as bagged and clamshell salads, have a 5 day window before 77% of its most life-sustaining vitamins and minerals are lost.

This Land Is Our Land

That’s why organizations like Alaska Farmland Trust are so vehement about protecting, preserving, and championing working farms. When a farmer looking to transition out of his property is approached by another farmer, the organization gets involved to do some of the heavy lifting of number crunching and appraisals, one at full value and one at agricultural value.

For a 40 acre parcel whose full value rests at $1 million dollars, its agricultural value is about $200,000. To compete with the developer ready to write a check, Alaska Farmland Trust will make up the $800,000 difference by drumming up matching dollars from the federal government, the USDA, and Natural Resource Conservation Service.

To further seal the deal, the organization encourages farmers to donate about 25% of its value in exchange for a bevy of tax benefits, and reminds them that the land still belongs to them – and that they can sell it or lease it to another farmer whenever the time comes.

“A huge goal of ours it to connect working farmers wanting to transition out of production and young farmers who are eager to get started working on the land,” Amy explains. “Helping young farmers find land is one of our goals, beyond the easements that follow the deed into the future.”

In order to help up-and-coming farmers find farms ready for production, Alaska Farmland Trust has built a directory through a pay what you can service called FarmLink, where interested buyers can search by location, acreage, and crop.

“There’s a great farmer training program at Alaska Pacific University here in Palmer, at the Spring Creek farm,” Amy says. “We’re really active there, participating in monthly meetings, being present at potlucks, or just offering our encouragement. Alaska Farmland Trust is out there to meet those who have a love for farming at a grassroots level, which is why we’re also active in hosting business planning meetings, estate planning meetings, and transition assistance.”

Growing Impact

In a recent report conducted by the Alaska Food Policy Council and rural economist Ken Meter, the long term impact of small investments in Alaska grown produce is massive.

“If every Alaskan spent $5 a week on locally produced food, it would have a $188 million dollar impact on the state,” Amy says, pausing for effect. “When we pare that down, Alaska’s current agricultural industry is only at around $32 million dollars. Given how few farms there are in our state, consumers think there isn’t enough farmland available to support everyone in the state. But if the demand were there, producers would no doubt expand their ranches and farms.”

During her previous tenure at the Division of Agriculture, Amy says she polled area farmers and asked them a single, telling question: if you had a guaranteed market, would expand production? Over 67 percent of the farmers they polled said not only that they would expand, but that they already have the land to do so.

According to Alaska Farmland Trust, the acreage needed to feed all Alaskans is about 5700 acres, with 4700 acres devoted to potatoes, 200 acres to carrots, 200 acres to cabbage, and 600 to lettuce.

For Amy and her team, that number isn’t completely unrealistic. It just takes a few mindset shifts.

“When you think about investing $5 back into your local farm, it’s not that much,” she says. “For what you could spend on a latte, you could make a monumental impact. I’m a huge promoter of approaching fellow Alaskans with simple messages like that.”

Amy says that households don’t have to make drastic changes or shop solely at the farmer’s market every week, especially if they’re prone to planning dinner at the last minute or buying for convenience’s sake. With just a simple swap of refrigerator staples – potatoes or lettuce, for example – shoppers can ease into the habit of buying and eating locally.

Eating Alaska grown veggies isn’t just for adults, either. Because of the state’s cool days and cool nights, starch converts more easily to sugars, making dinnertime dishes featuring broccoli, brussels sprouts, and baby chard sweeter and more delicious to younger kids.

“We were at a restaurant not long ago, and the waitress asked my daughter what she’d like for her side,” Amy recalls, laughing at her daughter’s “mini-me” traits. “She looked right at the waitress and said, ‘I’d like carrots, but are they Alaska grown?’ My husband was mortified because he’s known me to do the same thing since we dated, and now our daughter is doing it too. But you know, that’s the future of Alaska’s agriculture. It starts right there, with a simple choice like locally grown carrots.”

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