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ANCHORAGE - It's been a mixed year for potato farmers in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, with some crops hit by a fungus, but local school officials hope to provide them with another market.
District officials will introduce a baked potato bar using local potatoes in the lunch program at secondary schools as a healthy choice for students.
Kathy Walker, the Mat-Su School District nutritionist, said she plans to introduce baked Matanuska Valley-grown potatoes once a month in the upcoming school year. Besides the baked potato bar at 13 secondary schools, the potatoes will be in pre-packed meals for students at 18 elementary schools.
Walker has already incorporated valley-grown carrots as a regular item in school lunch menus.
Farmers and state agriculture officials see the introduction of baked potatoes as another foot in the door for local agriculture.
Introducing valley potatoes into the schools would have the same economic effect as a new restaurant opening up, said Adam Boyd, a third-generation valley farmer.
"I don't think it will be a huge amount. It all depends on the kids," he told the Alaska Journal of Commerce.
Valley farmers produce an average of 13.2 million pounds of potatoes annually, according to Larry DeVilbiss, director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture.
"If we get them (the schools) permanently on the agenda, it's going to be a lot of potatoes," DeVilbiss said. "It's a brand new market, totally in excess of anything they have sold before."
The impact could be as much as a 30 percent increase of potato sales for valley farmers, he said.
A lot of potatoes are sold through agreements farmers make with wholesalers. Paul Huppert of Palmer Produce said he would rather see the school district purchase potatoes from wholesalers to encourage wholesalers to buy more valley potatoes and offer them to other schools, institutions and restaurants within the state.
Farmers face the challenge of having humidity-controlled storage units to hold the potatoes, carrots and other items, so they can be used by the school district throughout the school year.
Organic farmers, who grow as many as 10 varieties of potatoes to sell at local open markets, said they do not have the volume or facilities for storage, but Huppert and Ben VanderWeele of VanderWeele Farms said the prospect does interest them greatly. Both sell to wholesalers who would be able to compete for contracts to provide the school district with potatoes. While it would be a relatively small volume at this stage, every sale is a plus, they said.
Potatoes are a popular food source but most people eat them in forms not recommended by nutritionists - french fries or potato chips. Baked potatoes decline as healthy options if they're loaded with fat such as butter, sour cream, melted cheese and bacon bits.
Without the added fat, a baked potato is a low-calorie, high-fiber food considered a good source of vitamin C, vitamin B6, copper, potassium, manganese and dietary fiber.
Even with the prospect of new markets, it has been a tough year for some valley potato farmers, whose crops were hard hit in August by a fungus. Twice before, during the 1990s, area farmers were hit by a similar blight. Five of seven large farms have been affected and DeVilbiss said the blight could affect a significant portion of the normal harvest.
The fungus, spread by airborne spores, spreads faster in the cool, rainy weather typical in the valley in late August and early September. One farmer has already applied for disaster relief, DeVilbiss said.
Organic farmers said their potato crops so far have not been affected by the blight.