News-Miner opinion: Eating local has always been a goal more aspirational than practical for Alaskans. While the midnight sun in summers leads to bumper crops of many vegetables, a relatively short growing season followed by a long winter makes it nigh impossible for stores to offer local produce year round, aside from root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and onions that have long storage lives. But a new awareness of the importance of food security and the development of new techniques to extend the length and range of the growing season could be at least a start down the path toward a less imbalanced agriculture ecosystem for the state.
Producing all the food residents need within Alaska’s boundaries would be unrealistic. Although the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and parts of the Interior have suitable land for farming, there are many crops requiring a longer growing season, as well as livestock, that are either impossible or at least very uneconomic to produce. Leafy greens and other vegetables, as well as tomatoes and peppers, are available throughout the summer and fall, while root vegetables that can be maintained through the winter are often available year-round. Berries such as raspberries can be grown in abundance, though larger fruits such as apples often require a longer growing season than is possible in Alaska, at least for commercial purposes. For meat production, though Alaska has a relative abundance of wild game, large-scale commercial ranching would be a difficult affair upon which to turn a profit, since cattle can’t overwinter outside in many locations.
It wouldn’t be hard, however, to do better than Alaska currently does at producing our own food. State and federal estimates peg the amount of food consumed in Alaska that is grown within the state at approximately 5 percent. An increase of even a few percent to that figure would provide millions of dollars in revenue for the state economy that would no longer be flowing Outside. It would also mean many jobs for those helping grow local food, and it would ease the state’s dependence on transportation corridors that are easily disrupted by severe weather and natural disasters.
Fortunately, the tide is beginning to turn on awareness of local agriculture’s importance in Alaska. Around Fairbanks and the greater Interior, several farms have been established or expanded in recent years to help sate demand for local produce. The long-running Tanana Valley Farmer’s Market is busier than ever, and several other markets have been established around town.
Even brick-and-mortar grocery stores have stepped up their embrace of local produce, with the Co-Op Market downtown carrying a wide array of local produce and meat and even large-scale retailers such as Fred Meyers carrying Alaska-grown vegetables. Many farms offer community-supported agriculture shares for purchase that provide year-round supplies of produce for local families.
More recently, a wave of agriculture startups have begun to explore possibilities of indoor, year-round farming. Although electricity and heating costs in the state are high enough that large-scale indoor farming isn’t price-competitive for larger cities such as Fairbanks or Anchorage, the high cost of transporting food to remote villages means it may be possible for solutions such as shipping-container farms built by Vertical Harvest Hydroponics to not only save residents money on groceries, but also provide far fresher produce than options shipped in from far away.
There’s still a long way to go before Alaska’s food-buying ecosystem can reach a healthier, more local blend. But every purchase of locally produced food helps, and every dollar spent on Alaska crops is a dollar that stays in the state, enriching and helping our local economy. The more local food community members purchase, the more will be produced — and that path leads to food security and economic diversification, two desirable goals.