Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 9:00 PM on Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Food producers, policy-makers look to grow Alaska's agricultural industry

By Lindsay Johnson
Staff Writer

What's food got to do with it? Just about everything. We need food to live, and most of our daily activities are in some way connected with food.

Food was at the center of a discussion between scientists and community members at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center on Jan. 20.

The program title, "Community Resilience: What's Food Got to Do with It?" could have been: "How Alaskans can keep on being self-reliant and eating good food into an uncertain future" or "What we have in the pantry and how we can make sure it doesn't run out as the economy and environment change."

"Food security" is part of "community resiliency," a community's ability to maintain quality of life when outside factors, such as the price and availability of oil, change for the worse. Food security has to do with control consumers maintain over their food sources.

Phil Loring, one of the presenters, has been examining food systems in Alaska for the past few years and recently completed his doctoral thesis at University of Alaska Fairbanks on the topic. He defines three dimensions of food security: availability, access and utilization; in other words, how much is grown, how much it costs to get and how people use it.

Loring said 18 percent of Alaskans experience some kind of food insecurity, but for a lot of people, food security is not an issue.

"Most of our food is so easily accessible on a daily basis that 'food security' is not an easy concept to grasp," said Kyra Wagner, a community advocate who discussed Homer's situation at the Jan. 20 event.

Wagner and others agreed that the major security issue for Alaskans is that most food is petroleum dependent. With rising oil prices and a unstable international supply, access may be more difficult and expensive.

If it isn't grown in Alaska or Western Canada, food travels at least 2,000 miles to reach the grocery store in Homer, though some things come from halfway around the globe. The farther it has to travel, the more susceptible our food supply is to fuel prices and availability, mechanical failures and weather patterns across the nation and world. The farther our food travels, the less control a consumer has over quality, price and safety.

"It's all quite vulnerable." Loring said.

Loring, Wagner and Rich Seifert of UAF Cooperative Extension Services talked about how Alaska is becoming more self-sustaining in terms of nutrition, and other necessary steps to get all the way there.

According to Loring, Alaska agriculture currently provides 2-6 percent of Alaska's food consumption.

Policy makers and food producers are working to grow that number on a variety of fronts, from grants for farmers to bringing Alaska's harvest to school lunches.

In Fairbanks, the state's first food cooperative is in the works.

Last year, 55 growers on the Kenai Peninsula received hoop houses through USDA High Tunnel grants; these structures extend the growing season and could increase local production. More than 80 applications are in for the next two years. There's an agriculture forum scheduled for April in Kenai, where people who want to build supply can learn.

The Southern Kenai Peninsula Communities Project identified food as one of its major focuses and is working with organizations throughout the area to encourage production and consumption of local food.

Local food is addressed in the city of Homer's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy draft, which will be discussed at the Feb. 28 city council work session and meeting.

Homer has a VISTA volunteer, Ben Zimmerman, who is working on a variety of projects involving the future of food in Homer, including a directory of places to get local food year round. Starting this summer, the Homer Farmers' Market will be able to accept food stamp cards and credit cards.

Individuals, restaurants and organizations are picking up on the idea that local food tastes good and is good for the community.

From their different approaches, all three presenters concluded that the problem facing local food production and consumption isn't lack of demand, but lack of infrastructure.

If Alaskans are really going to be self-reliant and food secure, there needs to be more farmers, more processing facilities and more ways to obtain local foods.

Wagner described what exists in Homer as "a squeaky skeletal structure of what we need."

Currently in Homer, 20 fresh food producers sell crops at the Homer Farmers' Market and about a half dozen Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) businesses provide weekly supply of vegetables to families. There are 14 shellfish farms and an apparently endless abundance of other ocean edibles. At least four beef cattle ranches exist in Homer area and a person can even buy a share of a milk cow to get fresh, raw milk.

This array is wonderful, Wagner said, but is simply not enough to supply everyone on the peninsula.

Nor is there enough processing capacity to convert summer harvests into winter stores, she said.

McNeil Canyon Meats has a functional slaughterhouse, but it can't sell the product it butchers on site because the facility isn't USDA approved. Nancy Hillstrand at Coal Point offers up her USDA-approved kitchen and industrial duty food processing equipment (vacuum packers, canners, etc.) for locals to process their fall harvests for the winter, but her place doesn't have the kind of certification USDA requires to sell to schools for lunches. Schools have greenhouses and gardens in various stages, but struggle to make them a permanent part of education.

The infrastructure and policy climate of Alaska is not particularly conducive for local farmers, harvesters, processors and markets to make a good living feeding local people, but Wagner, Seifert and Loring gave an array of examples of how consumers can help grow food security in the state.

The biggest one is buying local, when possible. There are more opportunities in the summertime, but there is still one farmer at the market on Saturdays, and a few locally produced items are available in the grocery store year round. Supporting the efforts of local vegetable, meat, egg, and milk and tortilla (for example) producers will help those suppliers grow and continue to provide for the local population.

Wagner said that anything from planting a food crop to working on a policy change will help ensure a healthy, secure future for Homer.