COVID-19 Could Make Small Farming More Competitive and Offer Plenty of Non-remunerative Rewards

Previously, I talked about how to scale up your garden to grow more food. Now I’m going to talk about scaling up even further. Just like with scaling up your garden, starting a small farm provides not only some food security for you and your family, but also for your neighbors and community members. It might add a few jobs and infuse money into the local economy.  

A colorful and well designed farmer's market display table.

Attractive displays go a long way to selling your crop.

While I’ll be the first to point out that as a small farmer it’s very hard to turn a profit, let alone make a livelihood, our current situation might make small farms more competitive with large farms. Food prices increased nationwide by 1.1 percent from a year ago, and current restrictions might work in favor of small farms with a short supply chain that minimizes handling and transportation needs. Also, COVID-19 brings into focus what’s essential and important in life – like food and having something productive and helpful to do.

This thesis, Assessing Food Security in Fairbanks, Alaska  is dated, but still provides insight into the demand for and challenges of farming in Interior Alaska. And, this market analysis also provides important information for Interior Alaska on the demand for local produce. Continue reading

Peony Farming—More Work and a Smaller Reward Than Many Imagined

In the last decade, peony farms in Alaska have increased tenfold. According to the latest Census of Agriculture, there were 100 peony farms in the state.

The growth has been propelled by headlines like these: Alaska’s peonies are the state’s new cash crop, ‘The industry’s about to explode’: Peony market flourishes in Alaska, Alaskan peony farmers aim to grow industry, and How Alaska became a center of peony cultivation.

Credit for the boom also goes to UAF Professor Pat Holloway who, 20 years ago, made it known that, because Alaska peonies bloomed at a time when they weren’t available anywhere else in the world–during the height of the wedding season–they could garner premium prices.

Notwithstanding the ebullient headlines, are Alaska’s peony farmers flourishing? Are they making money? That’s what I wanted to find out when I interviewed over a dozen farmers in Interior Alaska.

David Russelll is the president of the Alaska Peony Growers Association, and owner of one the largest peony farms in Alaska. He likens peony farming to a video game. The first level is growing marketable peonies, the second, chilling and post-harvest handling, and the third, marketing. Each level presents new challenges and unknowns. If you successfully reach the third level, you must continue juggling all of the challenges of the first and second levels as well. Continue reading

Good Garden Reads—What’s on my Bookshelf

If you find yourself with any extra time these days, you know, because there’s a pandemic, check out one of these inspiring garden reads. Here’s what’s on my book shelf.

Books reccomended in this article on a bookshelf.

Recommended garden reads

The Garden Classroom by Cathy James is an excellent resource for teachers, parents, or those involved with children. It’s intended for kids aged 4 to 8 and has all sorts of fun, creative ideas for integrating learning with the garden whatever subject is the focus (math, science, reading, and art).

Brenda Adams, is an award-winning landscape designer in Southeast, Alaska and has written two books: There’s a Moose in My Garden and Cool Plants for Cold Climates. Although you’ll need to filter her plant recommendations through the lens of an Interior gardener, the books are inspiring, beautiful, and backed by a very experienced Alaskan landscaper. They will help you whether you’re designing a new flower bed or an entire landscape.

Not only will Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties  by Carol Deppe spark your interest in saving seeds, it might also inspire you to develop a new vegetable variety. Deppe explains it’s easier and more fun to develop new varieties to suit your own desires and location. We live in a unique climate and have a relatively small population so it’s worth trying! If you’re inspired, then check out the Ester Seed Library and ‘borrow’ some seeds that other local gardeners have been adapting for Interior Alaska. The seeds are free, but you’ll be expected to save and replenish the seeds. While you’re there, look for books on this reading list at the John Trigg Ester Library or other books on sustainability and agriculture. Continue reading

Homer is Passionate About Local Food–and Those Who Produce it

In spring of 2018 I had the happy excuse to visit five farms in Homer–to film high tunnels and season extension techniques for a YouTube series called, In the Alaska Garden with Heidi Rader. While I was there, I kind of fell in love with those farmers. Their passion, tenacity, and creativity was infectious and rekindled my own dream of being a farmer I discovered they’re innovating in lots more ways than high tunnels. I say farmers but they all also identify strongly with the term “market gardener”–a term that describes farmers who grow food predominately for direct markets using mostly low-tech, hand tools on small acreage. They are voracious readers, watchers of YouTube videos, and sharers of ideas. Some of their favorite authors and vloggers include Eliot Coleman (The Four Season Farm), Ben Hartman (The Lean Farm), Curtis Stone (The Urban Farmer), and Jean-Martin Fortier (The Market Gardener).

Heidi Rader stands with Katie Restino while she demonstrates how to cut greens with her Quick Cut Greens Harvester. The harvester is powered by a cordless drill.

Carey Restino demonstrates how to cut greens with her Quick Cut Greens Harvester. The harvester is powered by a cordless drill. Photo by Jeff Faye.

My first stop was Homer Hilltop Farm where Carey Restino has carved out a farm that winds through forest and devil’s club on Diamond Ridge. Carey exuded energy as she showed me her high tunnels and hoop houses that have helped her dramatically extend her season in a microclimate that is cooler than Homer proper due to its higher elevation. She had an impressive lineup of the latest, low-tech tools designed for market gardeners including a six-row seeder, a Quick Cut Greens Harvester, and a soil tilther to name a few. Continue reading