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Farmer girl: Organics up north

Posted: July 28, 2012 - 11:01pm
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Using some modern but still man-powered technology, Jen Becker, a former Juneau resident who started an organic farm, Pioneer Produce, in North Pole, Alaska, hoes a row.  Courtesy of Jen Becker
Courtesy of Jen Becker
Using some modern but still man-powered technology, Jen Becker, a former Juneau resident who started an organic farm, Pioneer Produce, in North Pole, Alaska, hoes a row.

Picture a farmer in your head. Now erase that image, because Jen Becker is only 30, female and free of overalls.

Self sufficiency was the concept that drew Becker to farming.

“Before farming I was more interested in self sufficiency, which, I found a book while I was still in college called The Good Life, by Helen and Scott Nearing — they lived off the land for many years in Vermont and Maine — so I wanted my life to look like that. And it’s taken a long time for my life to get there. I think I actually bought that book when I was in Juneau for the summer of 2000, when I was 21 years old.”

Originally from Rhode Island, a graduate of the University of Maine - Orono, where she studied forestry, Becker’s connection to Alaska is through her aunt, currently a resident of Gustavus, formerly of Juneau. She moved to Juneau after college for a change, a better chance at a job, to fulfill a goal, and eventually a dream.

“Mostly I came to Alaska because I needed change, also it was something that my now-deceased little brother and I had always talked about — moving to Alaska. I don’t think, at that time, self sufficiency was on my mind, but at this time, gathering and growing food is most of what I do now. In the warm months.” she said.

Farming is definitely a full-time job, requiring help, and even during the off-season, it is at the forefront.

“The farm is definitely always on my mind. I do a lot of research and ordering things over the winter. I’ve since quit my day job, but for a while I was working with adults with developmental disabilities, in their homes, I worked a lot last winter so I wouldn’t need a day job this summer. I work and ski a lot, and I actually spent about two-and-a-half months in Manley (Hot Springs) this winter, getting plants ready for the spring.” Becker said, “I’m hoping to go back to Manley this winter, and I’m hoping maybe to get a job out in the green house at Chena Hot Springs so I can learn more about what’s working for people here.”

Becker lived in Juneau for six years, leaving for Interior Alaska in 2010 to pursue farming. She had spent a summer interning at Rosie Creek Farm and another summer managing the program, but finally decided to pursue farming seriously on her own.

For a long time, Becker wasn’t sure it was ever going to happen, but here she is.

“It’s just crazy for me that I’m actually a farmer now. I used to seriously, like, cry that I wasn’t a farmer because I wanted it so bad. And I just knew that was it. I was like, ‘why am I not a farmer? why am I not a farmer?’ and it’s just sort of surreal to me now that I actually get to do this for a living. It just seemed like it was never going to happen for a while.” She said.

Finally getting reaching the goal has left her a wise young farmer.

“I talked a little bit to a friend who was having problems, and I was like, “You just gotta do things a little bit at a time, you know, work toward what you want your life to look like, it’s not going to happen over night.” To me it seemed so insurmountable, but I found a way to make it happen that works for me, when I never thought it would happen.”

Becker’s baby steps started with finding land.

“I thought I was going to be (in Juneau) for good, I had a couple leads on land, one was in Gustavus, but it was before the ferries went, so I didn’t think it was going to work.”

Instead of staying in Southeast, Becker found herself in the Interior again looking for opportunity.

“Honestly, I just put a lot of ads on Craigslist, looking for land leases. Someone I worked with on Rosie Creek Farm was also looking for land, but when she decided she was going to go back home, she put me in touch with the people whose land I farm right now.”

For Becker, it is the perfect situation, leasing from Clyde and Donna.

“We just do a cash lease based on a percentage of the income from my farm.” Becker said, “Actually, the owners are really helpful. The man is retired and just wants to see his land put to use, and obviously there are tax breaks for using your land for agriculture, but he actually does most of the tractor work and he’s putting up a fence to keep out the moose. And that’s not a common thing, I think I just lucked out in that.”

It’s partially about what she feels comfortable with financially, but Becker also feels she has a lot to learn still.

“For me, it’s sort of nice not to have so much debt. There’s no way I could do it, it would be very stressful. It just works better not having a mortgage.” she said, “For me I just view it as being sort of a journeyman of farming. I don’t think I’m ready for prime time yet. I don’t trust myself yet to make some of the decisions about land and equipment. It relieves some of the pressure for me and I think being a tenant farmer really adds to my quality of life, you know, it’s just a lot less stressful.”

Becker has taken a cautious approach and is constantly learning and teaching herself, both about farming and business.

“I did a lot of research the year before I started my own farm. The limited liability company — LLC — was the way to go, it was pretty much a no-brainer to start the LLC. The biggest thing for me was trying to figure out tax law, but it’s not insurmountable.”

Becker chose the Community Supported Agriculture model. Her business, Pioneer Produce of North Pole, serves the North Pole area, including Fairbanks.

“Most of my business comes through selling shares in my Community Supported Agriculture program, which primarily serves Eielson Airforce Base, and then I extended this year and I deliver to the University and Fairbanks this year, then I have some in North Pole, where the farm is.”

She chose the model because she doesn’t care for the farmers’ market model personally, but also because she has more time to focus on the farming instead of hocking vegetables.

“The good thing about the CSA is it really frees the farmer, I don’t have to do a lot of marketing to sell my crops, I have people, I have the CSA people there and I do weekly deliveries to them. I feel like a lot less is wasted that way, and it’s really hard for me to throw vegetables on the compost, because it was just so much work.”

The CSA model is exceedingly popular; Full Circle Farms delivers produce throughout the West. But Becker is happy to be “hyper-local,” and would happily supply just to North Pole if there weren’t a demand for her vegetables further out. Her flexibility, selling half-shares, is appealing to university students especially.

If she has excess vegetables after her weekly deliveries, Becker will sell right off the farm or, sometimes, she sets up a stand at Richard’s Diner down the road.

Becker’s next big thing is learning employment law, she said, because she needs more help on the farm and she’d like to have paid help next year. So far, she has been doing the bulk of the work on her own, receiving help from volunteers. Figuring that out will be a project for this winter.

“(The amount of work) is the biggest hurdle in the business. I have to plan for everything in the winter because, in the summer, it’s just too busy to stop and figure stuff out, unless I really have to.”

Another tough thing is trying to be a small, organic farmer in the world of mass production.

“I think that a lot of times people don’t realize that I have to make a living, and I think a lot of people think this is some sort of touchy-feely experiment, but it’s how I make money. And I think that a lot of the times, organic farmers have to take on this educational role, and a lot of times people just think that this is a side project for me or something. It’s a business, you know. I want to make money growing vegetables.”

Not that she’s asking to make a ton of money, but enough to get by.

After two years operating as Pioneer Produce of North Pole, Becker is thrilled to be doing what she loves and to be learning so much all the time.

Unfortunately, Pioneer Produce of North Pole won’t be serving Juneau, but Becker suggests having a farm in Juneau wouldn’t be impossible.

“There are crops that do fine down there, that like the cold and wet.” she said.

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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