More than 80 people, from commercial farmers to backyard gardeners, gathered in Haines over the weekend. The Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit brought together residents from around the region who have a common interest: increasing local agriculture in a state that is heavily reliant on imported food.
“Well, for one, everyone eats food,” said Lia Heifetz, with the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition and Sustainable Southeast Partnership, two organizations that helped organize this conference.
“Living in an isolated environment, we’re really dependent on resources that are brought into our communities,” Heifetz said. “And there’s a long history of communities and people wanting to be more self-sustaining and resilient.”
A 2014 report from the Crossroads Resource Center notes that 95 percent of the food Alaskans purchase is imported by barge, truck or air. Chipping away at Alaska’s dependence on Outside food is one of the main goals of the Farmers Summit. It began two years ago, when two farmers decided to get a group of commercial growers together to share ideas. Bo Varsano and Marja Smets run Farragut Farm north of Petersburg.
“We’re in like, the baby, baby stages of the local food movement here,” said Smets. “And it’s really important that since it’s so early on, we share as much information as we can to help push each other along and get to the next level. So I guess I hope an event like this shows people that there’s other people out there that are trying to do the same thing that they’re doing and that you can share in each other’s successes and failures and challenges.”
Farming in Southeast Alaska isn’t easy. There are a lot of challenges, including access to land, isolation, and of course, weather.
“It’s really exciting to be able to grow things like tomatillos, and winter squash, tomatoes, peppers, salsa crops, I still think I’m dreaming sometimes,” said Haines resident Laurie Mastrella. She was one of several farmers on a panel about one tool that makes farming in the region a little easier: high tunnels. The covered structures protect plants from harsh weather and extend the growing season, making it possible to raise veggies like tomatoes in abundance.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture program helps Alaska growers pay for high tunnels. Samia Savell, who works for the program, says there are 37 completed high tunnels in Southeast.
Several Southeast organizations are working on an online marketplace for farmers to sell their products to more people. Colin Peacock from the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition explained that pilot programs in Juneau and Haines are starting this summer.
“We’re a marketplace that allows other people to buy from you,” Peacock said. “They’re still buying your carrots branded with your name and from you and your growing practices. It’s essentially a pass-through that’s facilitating sales and connections.”
Peacock says they hope to eventually make it a region-wide online marketplace, where for example, a customer in Ketchikan could order produce from a farmer in Gustavus. But there are significant logistical challenges to work out. So for this year, the Haines and Juneau marketplaces will only serve local customers.
Meredith Pochardt is with the Takshanuk Watershed Council, which is leading the initiative in Haines.
“The more food that we can produce locally, the more money stays in our communities,” she said. “It’s healthier for the environment and the people.”
The Farmers Summit was also about one-on-one conversations between farmers who face similar challenges but live in different communities.
Bobbi Daniels from Sitka’s Sawmill Farm gave a presentation about the rollercoaster ride her business has gone through. She told the crowd, she wants to help other Southeast food entrepreneurs avoid the steep learning curve she encountered.
Organizers hope this conference and future Farmers Summits will do exactly that. The next one is planned for 2019.