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Idaho transplant finds farming success and happiness in Alaska

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Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2010 4:42 am | Updated: 1:13 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — Three generations of Wrigleys operate the family’s 1,700–acre farm, not so very unusual, but the fact that the family moved its entire operation from Burley, Idaho, and started over in Alaska is another matter.

Farming in the contiguous 48 states was getting too expensive, controlled and competitive in the early 1980s, so when Bryce Wrigley heard about opportunities in Alaska he decided to drive up for a look see, bringing his father Rex along for the ride.

They liked what they saw and by 1983 had settled near Delta Junction, intent on growing barley. In the meantime, Bryce and his wife Jan raised five children on the farm and now have five grandchildren. Wrigley said it was the perfect place to raise a family.

The Wrigleys’ main crop for the first 10 years was hogs; they also grew barley to feed the 2,000 animals. In 1999 when hog prices dropped to record lows, they exited the swine business. At the same time the market for barley had vastly increased.

“We phased out hogs and phased in barley,” Wrigley, 53, said. Buyers of his barley include feed stores, dairies and hog farms. The biggest share of his grain is sold in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

This year he grew 20 acres of Sunshine barley, a new variety developed by the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. “We’ve gotten the animal food taken care of; we’d like to expand to people food,” Wrigley said. Sunshine is a hulless barley appropriate for use in baking.

“My ancestors have always been farmers,” Wrigley said. “I can’t remember anything else I ever wanted to do.”

He said people don’t choose to become farmers because of the money. “You farm because you can’t stand not to.”

For him, one of the best things about it is planting something and watching it poke out of the ground. “You can see what you’ve accomplished; you can see progress. That’s very rewarding and gratifying to me.”

While Wrigley feels right at home in the field or barn he also works as the manager of the Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District and serves as the Alaska Farm Bureau president. These positions give him a broader, statewide perspective on agriculture, and the way he sees it, the state is at risk. He worries that food supplies could be cut off due to pandemics, natural disasters or transportation crises. “We’re spoiled with food coming in from Outside at a good price,” he said. “People are reluctant to pay more for Alaska grown.

“We need to become more self reliant,” he added. Debunking the myth that there are food warehouses for Alaskans located in Oregon, Wrigley laughed. “We need to consider our storehouses as the farms, feedlots, gardens and pantries of Alaskans.”

At home, the Wrigleys come close to feeding themselves in the summer f rom their abundant garden. “My dad has a green thumb,” he said. To help get through the winter, they can their beans, store their potatoes and freeze berries.

The challenges of farming are twofold: the short season and marketing the products, Wrigley said. Most farmers can simply sell their grain to an elevator or crops to a wholesaler but that isn’t an option in Alaska. He hopes the Division of Agriculture can help, but he also dreams of the day Alaskans become more agriculturally oriented and government, researchers, consumers and growers work together.

No matter the problems, Wrigley still sees the sunshine. “I don’t know how you can stay in this business and not be optimistic,” he said. “If I have a bad year I’m already looking ahead to next year.”

Asked for the secret to his success, Wrigley humbly replied, “The only thing we’ve ever done is work hard.”

This column is provided as a public service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station's public information officer. Contact her at ntarnai@alaska.edu.

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