This year farmers across the country have faced problems with weather they haven’t dealt with for at least three decades as the drought continues to hang on in 78% in the “lower 48”. For farmers in Alaska, dry weather hasn’t been a problem this year but they have faced other challenges. On a recent farm tour to our 49th state, a group of western Wisconsin farmers got an up close look at what it takes to farm in Alaska with their short growing season and perma-frost ground that only gives them a few inches of top soil to work with every year.
The heart of Alaskan agriculture is in the Matanuska Valley located near Palmer, just north of Anchorage. Another big production area is near Delta Junction located southeast of Fairbanks. Until the 1970s that area was a vast wilderness area covered by miles and miles of spruce and pine trees. Then governor Jay Hammond put in place the Delta Junction project to encourage farmers, mainly from the continental United States to come to that area, clear the land, build homesteads and put the land in production. Many farmers did “take the bait” as one area Alaskan told us, as they loaded up their families and what equipment they could haul to move into the wilderness to start farming. The requirements were that the new Alaskans would have a certain amount of time, about three years, to clear the land, build their homes and barns and get crops growing that could be used in the state for livestock feed and other necessities so the state would be less dependent on imported grain. The project was successful in that it did open up a lot of land for crop production but very few of the original farmers could take the harsh conditions in Alaska and they gave up and went home. For those that stuck it out, the state of Alaska deeded them all the land they broke at a very reasonable sale price and turned into productive fields. The land that was abandoned went on the market for others to buy and try to make a success. The Delta Junction project also fell on hard times because the governors that followed Hammond in Juneau didn’t feel the project was a top priority and they pulled most, if not all, of the funding and support for the project.
One of the families that came late to the project near Delta Junction is the Pederson family from Missouri. They farmed for generations in southeast Missouri but became frustrated over high land prices and ever increasing rental rates as they tried to expand their cropping operation. In the late 1990s, Randy Peterson and his family were looking for an alternative farming situation and after a lot of looking, they decided “Alaska was probably our best choice,” he told the Wisconsin group. He added that they haven’t regretted their decision either although there were things that they had to deal with that they didn’t expect. They own 3,600 acres in the Delta Junction region and lease another 1,400. On their land, they grow oats, barley and some hay.
Peterson said after moving to Alaska, he and his family soon found out the conveniences of farming in Missouri didn’t exist in their new home. He found there were no implement dealers or parts stores near him so “I probably have a bigger parts inventory on the farm than most mid-size implement dealers back home”, he said. Ordering replacement parts, including motors and engines usually means buying at least two at a time. That also has meant that he and his father have to be their own mechanics as well since the nearest local mechanic could be hours away.
As for growing crops, Peterson says the season is much shorter and with the extended sunshine during the summer, his grains can grow very tall but don’t suffer many disease problems in their isolated growing area. His biggest problem is having a crop to harvest at the end of the year, which is right around Labor Day. That’s because the wild bison, moose and grizzly bear like what he grows and there is only so much he can do to protect his crop. A wild bison herd introduced back into his area in the 1920s has grown to about 500 animals and they travel the area eating and destroying whatever is in their way. The state protects the herd and only allows about 40 animals a year to be taken during a special hunting season. The moose and bear also wander freely through the area and all he can do is “try to scare them out of here somehow.”
Finding good equipment for his “Insanity Acres” is another challenge for Peterson. He told us that he and his dad spend most of the winter trying to find the “right pieces and then we drive thousands of miles back to the outside (lower 48) to haul it home.” In the last couple of years he has come as far as Baldwin and Hammond in western Wisconsin to find some of the hay tools he needs in Alaska.
While Alaska will never challenge the corn belt for food and fiber production, Alaskans appreciate anything they can grow themselves since they only have enough food in the state for three days and enough fuel for one day. They are reliant on a constant flow of imports from the continental U.S. and the Pacific rim.