Boosting rural economies in Southeast Alaska may be as easy as picking berries.
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The Kenai-based Denali Biotechnologies, with the help of various organizations, plans to spread its picking operations to Alaska Native and private lands at Prince of Whales Island, Yakutat and possibly Wrangell and Ketchikan. It already buys berries from pickers in Kake.
The company's business director, Jack Brown, said Southeast Alaska is a "treasure chest" of premium blueberries in demand for their nutritional value.
"This is by far the most exciting project I've worked on," said Brown, who formerly worked for the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Denali Biotechnologies dries the berries and sells the product to companies that make dietary supplements. It also makes its own blend of gelatin capsules through its patent brand AuroraBlue; containers of 60 gel caps sell for $39.95 and so far are available only online.
Business and civic leaders at Tuesday's mid-year Southeast Conference meeting in Juneau smacked their lips at the project's possibilities.
Bill Allen, director of the Council on Economic Policy for Rural Alaska, said the picking and manufacturing would have a ripple effect throughout struggling rural communities.
"This is something that really hits my magic button," Allen said.
Alaska blueberries are said to be 10 times more powerful than those found elsewhere in the country, as an antidote for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, aching joints and even serious ailments such as Parkinson's disease and dementia. Blueberries are also a source of fiber and vitamin C, and the gel caps can be taken as an energy supplement.
"Sometimes it's not what you eat, but what you are not eating," said Brown, taking advice from Denali Biotechnologies' founder, Maureen McKenzie. She spent 12 years in Alaska researching Native diets and developing the product.
AuroraBlue fortifies its gel caps with salmon and fish oil, also said to bring health benefits.
By expanding its picking operations in Southeast Alaska, the company hopes to meet its goals in the next few years of harvesting 1 million pounds and employing 3,000 people each summer. Denali Biotechnologies is eyeing several Southeast Alaska locations for manufacturing plants, Brown said.
The Juneau Economic Development Council has been helping the company make inroads with Native leaders so it can use their lands, Executive Director Lance Miller said.
In its first season last year, Denali Biotechnologies harvested 50,000 pounds from Kake and the Kenai Peninsula; this summer, Brown wants to net 200,000 pounds with the inclusion of new areas and the help of 600 workers.
Discussions are in the works with private and Native land owners to partner in the picking and the company is seeking locales for storage. The berries would be sorted and frozen in the communities before being shipped to Kenai, Brown said.
Pickers could easily make $100 per day, and it wouldn't be uncommon for one to make $1,000 a week during the six-week season, Brown said. The land owners also receive royalties.
"(My friends) went out there almost every day," said Kake resident Rhonda Wooton, speaking of last summer's berry pickers.
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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