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Commercial Farming Thrives Well in Certain Parts of Alaska - 2003-08-12


When you think of Alaska, chances are you think of snow capped peaks, calving glaciers, salmon filled streams, and dog sled races. Dairy cattle and potato fields generally don't spring to mind. So you might be surprised to learn that there are places in Alaska where commercial farming thrives.

Riding around in an old pickup truck, local farmer Brad Lewis is giving me a tour of the Matanuska Valley. "I wanted to drive down here and give you an idea where things started for my family in the valley in farming," Mr. Lewis said.

I'm having trouble concentrating on Brad Lewis's running commentary, however, because the scenery beyond the truck's windshield is breathtaking. The town of Palmer rests in a lush valley, carpeted by emerald green grass, dotted with white-barked birch trees, and surrounded on three sides by snow-capped peaks. The Matanuska River meanders by to the east and on clear days the Knik glacier can be seen to the south.

Mr. Lewis takes me to visit one of several plots of land he farms in the valley, a field of about twelve hectares planted in lettuce and potatoes. He has just 100 days to get his crop in and out of the ground, but there are compensations for the short growing season. The summer sun stays in the sky 21 hours a day.

"Our extremely long days allows us to do what we're doing up here in our relatively short season and relatively cold soils. And also, another thing that I think is unique is, we're not faced with near the insect and disease problems as a lot of places are. I suppose that has a lot to do with our climate, especially in the winter," he explains.

The winters are cold enough to keep the valley disease, and pest-free perhaps, but they're still mild by Alaska standards. The average low temperature is only 14 degrees below freezing. On the other hand, a much deeper cold in the surrounding mountains is what actually makes farming in the valley possible. According to Allen Mitchell, Associate Director of the Agricultural Experimental Station in Palmer, over the centuries - glacial silt washing and blowing off the nearby Knik ice field provided some of the richest soil in the state.

"As you go into the valley proper you'll see twenty feet of silt loam, very good soil for farming. Of course, the other reason that agriculture is here in the valley is we're forty miles from Anchorage which has almost half the state's population. So, you know, it's a no-brainer," Mr. Mitchell said.

One quarter of a million people live in Anchorage, and every one of them is happy to have fresh produce. Most everything else found on Alaskan grocery shelves has to be shipped all the way from Seattle, if not further. While some milk and meat products are produced in the Matanuska Valley, Mr. Mitchell said the most common commodities are a few hardy vegetables.

"In terms of commercial production, we're talking about very few. Potatoes are probably the largest one. Broccoli, cabbage, and things of that nature. Then lettuce different types of lettuce; iceberg lettuce, leaf lettuce, Romaine lettuce. …and carrots! I'm sorry. Forgot carrots," he said.

One thing Palmer residents never forget is the area's unique history. Beginning in 1935 the United States government transplanted 200 families from the American Midwest into the largely uninhabited Matanuska Valley. Each family received a house and ten hectares of land to farm. Gerry Keeling was the first child born to one of those pioneer families. I spoke to her as we sat in one of the original colony homes, now serving as a museum for the Palmer Historical Society.

"When those 203 families traveled to this valley in 1935, that was only 68 years after the United States had purchased the territory from Russia. And somehow that seems all the more mind-boggling now since that 68 years is going to be my next birthday!" she laughs.

No one was laughing in the mid-1930s when the Great American Depression made millions destitute. The federal government initiated a number of programs designed to get citizens back on their feet.

"And one of the concepts they came up with was to relocate over 11,000 families particularly hard hit by the depression and to relocate them into communities where they could be self-sufficient to the area in which they had relocated," Ms. Keeling said.

The Alaskan colonists expected to move into a working town when they arrived by ship from Seattle. What they found instead was a tent city and muddy streets with moose wandering through the camp. Some families went home immediately. Still more headed south after the first winter. But most stayed and proved that it was possible to farm successfully in America's last frontier.

"I remember that farmers tended to plant oats with peas and we kids liked to get in there and always eat the peas. That was a big deal. We had pigs and turkeys and chickens and cows and the horses and whatever," Ms. Keeling said.

Back in the pickup with Brad Lewis, we drive past the Palmer nursing home where the last six original colonists are now cared for. Mr. Lewis is a direct descendant of one of those first families and a third generation Matanuska Valley farmer, but he may very well be the last of his line to till Alaskan soil. Palmer is fast becoming an Anchorage suburb. Lots of new homes are being built, leading to ever-higher land prices and taxes. Farmers are slowly being squeezed out of the valley. Still, after a lifetime of farming in Alaska Mr. Lewis says he has few regrets.

"You know, I've done a lot of traveling, seen a lot of places, been around the world. At least in the summer time there's no place I'd rather be. Winters are they're definitely taking their toll on me and I don't enjoy them as much. But no, I certainly have no regrets of livin' up here and growin' up here. This is absolutely beautiful country," Mr. Lewis said.

There is some reason to hope farming will continue in the valley. In a recent meeting with federal officials, local farmers requested permission to lease government land at reduced rates as is done in several western states. If you'd like to learn more about the Matanuska Valley farming community and its unique origins, type the expression, "Palmer Alaska history" into your favorite internet search engine.