Harvesting the bounty of Southeast

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2010

In September I often find myself reflecting on the wild summer that is coming to a close and thinking about why I still live in Juneau. I've stayed even after telling myself all those years ago "it would only be for one season." I think about all the fish and other goodies I have added to my freezer this summer, and how much fun it was getting them there. As the days grow noticeably shorter, I anticipate a drop in the temperature, the first snowfall and the new adventures that Eaglecrest Ski Area and the backcountry are sure to provide me and my snowboard during the coming winter season.

Two summers ago, I sat on a bar stool at the Hangar on the Wharf in the middle of the day. As I looked out over the view, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting on the next stool over. (If you have spent any time on those bar stools in the summer, you already know there tends to be a steady flow of tourists and all sorts of interesting characters there, ready to talk with any willing "local.")

The stranger said he had only been in town a little while, and that he was from New Mexico originally, Ruidoso to be exact. I am originally from New Mexico, as well, and at one time I lived and worked on a ranch not far from Ruidoso. Naturally, we had plenty to talk about.

"Do you know the Diamond J Café down by the river in Hondo?"

"Do you know so and so?"

And of course ... "So what brings you to Alaska?"

I told him my story, about a job that brought me to Juneau. I explained to him how much I enjoy being able to get out catch all the fish and crab I want to eat, pick berries, go hunting and then snowboard all winter long. That's when he told me he was a farmer. Being a student of agriculture myself, I was intrigued and wanted to know what sort of farming he did and where, and again - I wanted to know what brought him to Alaska.

The stranger clarified and said he actually used to be a farmer in New Mexico - before he discovered commercial fishing in Alaska. The next thing he said has been burned in my memory ever since.

Grinning as though he had just gotten away with stealing some national treasure, he said, "I figured out that commercial fishing is exactly like farming, only now I just show up for the harvest."

"Yeah, I guess so," is what I suppose many people might say.

However, if you truly understand the struggles, work, time and expense involved in farming and ranching, the statement is actually profound.

Commercial fishing certainly has its challenges and struggles, after all you are "fishing" and there is no guarantee of the catch. Boats are expensive. So is maintenance, gear, fuel, crew and fishing permits, to name a few. Additionally, the industry is at the mercy of Mother Nature as well as the seafood market prices. No doubt, it's a tough way to make a living.

A modern day farmer or rancher contends with all the same challenges and expenses as those of a commercial fisherman, except they do it on land. They also have added expenses, challenges and the hard work of cultivating their crop before it can be harvested. Farmers must buy or lease hundreds or thousands of acres of land. Plowing, leveling, planting, irrigation, fertilizing, managing pest control and employing workers add to the on-going expenses. In addition, a rancher has to provide water, feed, miles of fence and animal medical care. They must deal with mechanical upkeep, predation and death. Most importantly, farmers and ranchers will have to manage all these expenses, and labor for months, if not years, before their crop is ready for harvesting. Then, when they finally get to the point of harvest, they are also at the mercy of the weather and the markets to determine whether or not they actually make any money off their hard work and investment.

The agriculture industry has had some help like "Beef and Pork check-off," and in some cases the government subsidizes prices. However, the help that the Alaska fisheries receive from organizations, such as Macaulay Salmon Hatchery and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, could roughly equate to the help the agriculture industry receives.

"Commercial harvest of DIPAC salmon totaled approximately $5.9 million in 2008," according to DIPAC's economic impact study. Once the fish are caught, ASMI is right there to back them up as Alaska's "official seafood marketing agency," according to their website.

All over America, as the end of the harvest season draws near, it's important that we appreciate all the hard work and money that goes into the food we eat before it gets to our table. Those of us in Alaska must appreciate the bounty graciously provided to us, courtesy of Mother Nature. That stranger I met at the Hangar is definitely on to something. Commercial fishermen work in one of the most beautiful environments imaginable and they really are set up for success - nature willing. Alaska is not just the biggest state in America, but it is also one of the best kept secrets. So get out and take part in Alaska's bounty, but never take for granted just how special this place is, and what it generously offers up everyday.

I am not a farmer or a commercial fisherman. I work in an office. But because I live in such an amazing place, nestled comfortably in Southeast, I have a daily opportunity to enjoy what the region has to offer. Here, we can all live an amazingly healthy and active lifestyle, with great food and surreal moments. Thousands of tourists spend money every day to see and experience what we see from our porches (and I don't mean Russia).

For those of us who enjoy getting out and learning about our environment, there is no better recreation than foraging your own food. Last weekend I added fresh halibut and blueberries to the salmon, crab and salmon berries already in my freezer and all I did was show up for the "harvest." Like the stranger I met at the Hangar, I am definitely on to something.

• Zach Wilkinson lives and works in Juneau.

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