My turn: Celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day by showing interest in local food options

Posted: Tuesday, May 04, 2010

If Alaska is truly going to address food security, we must first acknowledge that food comes from farms, not shelves.

Separated from the country's bread basket by thousands of miles, we are in a precarious position concerning food and the time has come to embrace agriculture rather than ignore it.

It's Alaska Agriculture Day and while some of us think about the production of food every day, others find it easy to shrug off those concerns as trivial. As long as there is food at the super store, why worry?

If we wait a day or two to worry, after trucks, planes and barges are stopped en route to Alaska due to weather or fuel crisis or natural disaster and food on store shelves is diminishing, will it be time enough for everyone to suddenly show an interest in agriculture?

It's true that in this state we cannot be self sufficient in supplying all our own food for all Alaskans, but we can improve and increase our food supply; we can enter export markets for specialty items and we can produce local food nearly anywhere in the state, from the most urban areas to the most remote sites.

The vision for Alaska's agricultural industry is locally focused and diversified so it can supplement the food supply by substituting locally grown food for imports and concentrating on selected export markets compatible with the current handling and transportation infrastructure.

If the vision is to happen, there must be a marketing strategy with a statewide outlook that is a mix of supply-driven markets where producers provide high-quality products for consumers and demand-driven markets where consumers let producers know the characteristics of the products they want to buy. The ideal supply chain for these two different types of markets includes local wholesalers, food brokers, retailers, farmers' markets and direct sales such as community supported agriculture (CSA) enterprises.

Success of this vision for Alaska's agricultural industry emphasizes private sector ownership and support to increase agricultural production. The public sector can help through research, education and outreach that concentrates on techniques and technologies that will help farmers, producers and processors. It can also help by providing a support network for entrepreneurship via cooperatives, farmers' markets, brokers and retailers; loan programs that are tailored for agricultural enterprises that are often high-risk; and appropriate policy, regulation and zoning to encourage agricultural production.

Finally, educating the consumer about the advantages of purchasing locally grown and processed products is of utmost priority. Foods shipped long distances are often not ripe when harvested and chemicals are used to enhance storage and shipping times. There is no doubt that locally produced foods are fresher. Bite into a carrot you grow yourself or pick up at a farmers' market and tell me it doesn't have more flavor than one from the grocery store plastic bag. Fuel costs for food shipped long distances add to the price of imported food. Additionally, local farmers and producers benefit from local purchases and the dollars spent in purchasing locally produced foods stay in the local economy.

It's often mentioned that Alaska imports 95 percent of its food, but the truth is we don't really know exactly what that figure is. University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences is conducting a statewide survey to pin that number down. We want to clarify what is being produced in state and who and where the producers are. This will give us a base to understand consumer demands and community needs. As we conduct this research we have a greater goal in mind: to help the entrepreneurs of Alaska's agricultural industry answer the call for increased food production. We at UAF in the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service can then better direct our research, education and outreach to assist those in the food production industry in Alaska. The information we obtain will also allow us to be more effective in our work with municipal, state and federal governments to provide relevant policies and regulations, marketing assistance, quality control and vehicles for financial assistance. All in all, the future is bright for Alaska agriculture.

Enjoy Alaska Agriculture Day. Plant some seeds, sign up for a share in community supported agriculture, support the new retail outlets that are handling local products or visit a farmers' market.

• Carol Lewis is dean of the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station

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