FAIRBANKS - Alaska mushers could face a pricey winter when it comes to finding bedding and insulation for their dogs.
A poor growing season and early snow in Delta Junction, the state's main straw producer, are causing a severe shortage of straw. That's forcing area feed stores to import more expensive straw from outside the state.
With temperatures dipping below freezing and snow on the ground, Manley musher Joee Redington figured it was time to get some straw for his 80-plus sled dogs. What he didn't figure on was what he would have to pay to get it.
"It's pretty unbelievable," said Redington, loading one of the four bales he bought last week for $20 apiece. "I don't think this has ever happened."
With temperatures dipping to 60 degrees below zero in the winter, straw is a requirement for dog owners in Alaska, especially mushers. They use it as insulation in dog houses and in dog boxes on trucks used to transport dogs to races. Many long-distance races require mushers to have straw to bed down their dogs at checkpoints.
"It's just like food; you gotta have that, too," said Fairbanks sprint musher Curtis Erhart. "It's part of the deal."
In Fairbanks, the going rate for an 80-pound bale of Washington straw is $20, up from $6.50 for a 40-pound bale of Delta straw last year.
"It's a hard call," said Connie Dubay at Cold Spot Feeds, which sells about 4,000 bales of straw a year, mainly to mushers. "People hate spending $20 a bale on straw, but the fact is there just isn't anything else."
People living in remote villages must pay more for shipping, Dubay told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The bales are too big to send whole so they have to be cut in half to be shipped, which costs $20 each.
The price tag didn't stop people from snapping up Dubay's first load of Washington straw last week, however.
"We just got the first batch in and we're already sold out," she said.
Barley farmers in Delta Junction normally provide the bulk of the straw sold in Alaska, but poor growing conditions this summer and an early snowfall left many farmers out in the cold. They were able to harvest a good chunk of their barley, but they didn't have time to bale up the stems that were left behind for straw.
Underdog Feeds owner J.P. Norris, who supplies dozens of mushers in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys with straw for their dogs, bought 5,000 bales from the Delta last year.
There are alternatives to straw, Norris said. Some mushers use shavings, sawdust or hay to put in dog boxes and houses.
"Shavings work quite well in dog boxes and it's considerably cheaper," Norris said. "I think mushers probably have a few options other than buying straw at $20 a bale."
Dubay and Underwood said the straw from Washington state is top quality, but Underwood agreed that $20 a bale was a steep price to pay.
"We're talking about something you could get for $2 a bale if you picked it up in a field from the states," he said.