A rancher’s hope for more farms and food security in a land of extremes
by Ruby Peck-Hollembaek
While reading all about Cornell University’s Small Farms Program in the Small Farms Quarterly, I decided that I should make a trip to learn more about the program. So, that’s just what I did. The trip gave me many new ideas, which I then passed along to my fellow farming advocates back home. For example, I love the idea of taking online courses and workshops, and in Alaska we have begun to initiate courses similar to those of the Cornell Small Farms Program through various Cooperative Extension Offices and Regional Training Centers.I hope to travel back east again next year to visit the Ithaca Farmer’s Market and spend more time with the vendors. I am so impressed with the efforts of the folks back east, who work long hours just to provide quality food for their communities. I hope that someday, Alaskan agriculture can provide the same.
It is my dream that local food production in Alaska will someday begin to address the needs of our state. My husband and I run a 2,000-acre bison and elk ranch in interior Alaska – 2,000 acres of 8’ fenced grass and timber land. Our ranch is located just north of the Alaska Range in the heart of Alaska, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. We are the second generation of a third-generational family farm and ranch operation, and our grandchildren also enjoy the lifestyle and bounty of Alaska harvests.
Our main mission is to provide an opportunity to harvest prime bison or elk in the heart of Alaska and to promote good etiquette and ethics for the bison and elk industry. Our family also grows herbs, berries, cucumbers, tomatoes and even corn in a high tunnel. We rarely have to make the 25-mile trip to town, since we’re able to produce all we can eat and store during the summer months. I try to share our adventures on Facebook and on my “We Can Grow It” blog (www.wecangrowit.blogspot.com).
Although gardening and greenhouse operations are fairly new to me, I grew up eating wonderful fresh produce. I was raised in Palmer, Alaska, located in the Matanuska Valley where great, giant vegetables are grown every summer. Our sons and daughter are great gardeners and also operate high tunnels. We make sure that our grandchildren “get” where their food comes from.
It is my understanding that Alaska is also home to the largest number of high tunnels per capita anywhere in the nation. The bulk of our high tunnels are located in the Homer area, the south-central part of the state. These high tunnels were purchased through the Natural Resource Conservation Program; their Facebook page allows participants share their successes and challenges at https://www.facebook.com/groups/205303872824772/. These folks are serious about growing their own.
I am also a rhubarb enthusiast, and maintain another blog titled “Rhubarb or BUST: A Source to Rhubarb Producers, Buyers and Users in and around the State of Alaska.” Many Alaskans utilize this easily-grown vegetable in any recipe that calls for apples. It is a great source of vitamins and fiber and given our climate, so much easier for us to grow. We do have some hardy northern varieties of apples that produce, but they yield nothing compared to rhubarb.
Alaska has a tremendous amount of unutilized and underutilized agricultural acreage – and only 1% of its land in private ownership. Alaska also has a real food security issue. We import at least 95% of the food that is consumed in-state. Farmers struggle with several obstacles: limited access to land, lack of agribusiness incentives and capital for grazing operations, uncertainty of the economics of non-dairy livestock operation and production and knowledge challenges involved in grass-based livestock systems. That said, we Alaskans have tremendous potential to grow and produce our own food, whether on a small scale or large scale, by use of CSAs or livestock ranches.
Through a grassroots effort, Alaska is moving towards food sustainability for our State. Up until the early 1960’s, Alaska had a cabinet level Department of Agriculture, which then became a division under the Department of Natural Resources. This transition took Alaskan agriculture off the discussion table, and it’s been an upward battle ever since. But given the grassroots efforts to encourage locally grown and increased food security, this may change. Last year, a House bill was introduced that would reinstate a Department of Agriculture, and there is testimony for this legislative session to establish a food resource development working group. We Alaskan farmers and local food advocates can only hope. We understand the need to feed ourselves, and that Alaskan agriculture, small and large, is vital to its peoples’ existence.
Ruby Hollembaek farms and ranches on Alaska Interior Game Ranch, Inc. outside of Delta Junction, Alaska. She can be reached at (907) 895-4008 or email at email@example.com.