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Is Alaskan Agriculture Ready to Feed Our School Children?

by Linda Kellen Biegel

Meyers' farm in Bethel

Tim Meyers stands at the front of room 306 at the UAA/APU Consortium Library. He’s the next guest presenter for the session: Sustainable Agriculture in Rural Alaska at the Alaska Botanical Garden’s Spring Conference. The title of the Conference is “Extend the Season, Expand Your Mind” in honor of guest gpeaker, former TV gardener and 40-year organic farming rock star, Eliot Coleman.

Bethel Farmer Tim Meyers

But if Coleman is a national star, Tim Meyers is the hometown hero. Meyers’ cold-weather farming is being studied by the University of Alaska, who have provided him with interns to train in his techniques. His Bethel farm is featured in publications like Alaska Magazine (source of the photo above) and Organic Gardening, sustainable agriculture resources like Seedstock and television news stories.

There is a very good reason Meyers is getting so much attention: His family is farming in Bethel, an area where farming itself is supposed to be “impossible.” Not only that, by modifying cold-weather techniques of growing and storage to the extreme climate, he’s managed to so something even more unheard-of, provide fresh vegetables to his neighbors in Bethel year-round.

So far, he is THE commercial organic farmer in Alaska who has had the most success.

Tim was in construction before he was a farmer and his expertise shows. He uses a version of the techniques made famous by Elliot Coleman for his cold weather farming in Maine such as low-tunnel and high-tunnel greenhouses. However, Meyers took it a step farther to farm in Bethel. He flashes slides across the screen of the underground building design he uses for his root cellar, his winter greenhouse and even a chicken coop. According to Meyer, underground is the great untapped heat source in Alaska and it enables him to achieve growth year-round without having to heat with $7–$8/gal fuel.

Eliot Coleman has heard all of the naysayers before when they told him year-round farming in Maine could never happen. At the end of his keynote speech at the ABG Conference on Saturday (aptly titled, “Nothing Is Impossible”), he was questioned about the importance of sustainable, local farming.

“Local is what I do. In fact we actually have a rule that we won’t ship our stuff more than 25 miles from the farm. If anybody farther away than that wants it, we tell them, “We’ll come and show growers next to you how to do what we’re doing.” Local is the answer.”

Mr. Coleman went on to describe the research and calculations which led them to discover that a head of their farm lettuce only used about 5% of the petroleum “energy” required to ship the same head of lettuce from California. However, if he were to start using artificial heat to grow things that were more exotic, he would rapidly lose the local advantage through energy expenditure.

“As long as we stuck with what local could do and do well, we were way ahead of the curve.”

He also had a message for Alaskans and our Legislators:

“If I lived way up here and I was on the far-end of the food delivery system, I would be urging my legislators to look into some of those things that Tim [Meyers] was talking about earlier; how can we create more farmland in Alaska.”

This is a topic discussed frequently within the State’s agricultural community. The “high-tunnel, low-tunnel” technology is just beginning to boom, in farm areas like Homer and in places as unlikely as along Bristol Bay. In the last several years, some Mat Su Valley farmers have just started to sell farm products year-round at “weekly markets” in several Anchorage Malls. Others sell to local Alaskans through programs called CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), but most must enhance their dwindling root-stocks mid-winter with organic produce brought in from Washington State, California or Oregon. Those who don’t are generally limited to potatoes soon after Christmas.

The issue of providing locally-grown produce to Alaska school kids has been very much on the front-burner as well. The Farm-to-School Program was created in 2011 which encouraged school districts to partner with local growers as well as providing grants for school gardens. The products of these gardens are intended for use in school lunches/snacks. According to the website, four school districts in the state are participating so far in the fledgling program with a few, limited products.

Meyers farm fills CSA boxes

In November 2011, I attended an Anchorage School Board meeting where there was an hour-long discussion about the future of ASD school meals in light of the changes in the federal nutrition requirements. Part of that discussion revolved around local growers. To my surprise, I learned that in spite of the existence of the State of Alaska Division of Agriculture, the Alaska Farm Bureau and the Alaska Food Policy Group, there was no farm co-op where a school district could go in order to discuss food purchases from a number of farmers. Rather, they would have to take on the time-consuming chore of talking to them individually. As I was told, “ASD’s job is to educate ASD’s kids.” They don’t have the time or the budget to try and organize the farmers themselves.

It was clear to me that we had a long way to go before Alaskan school kids would be seeing much Alaskan produce in their lunches.

Imagine my surprise when Rep. Bill Stoltze, Co-Chair of the House Finance Committee, gave the response below to explain why he was refusing to hold a hearing on SB 3 “An Act providing for funding for school lunch and breakfast;” that has been sitting in his committee for a year:

State Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said Monday he wants instead to create a new $3 million school food program using Alaska grown or caught food.

His idea to create the trial program, which he plans to insert into the capital budget this session, would let school districts use credits from the fund to buy Alaska produce and seafood, creating a new market for local food and, he says, ensuring better nutrition for school kids.

“There are vendors in Anchorage that are working on things, like salmon wraps they would prepare for the schools, much more nutritious foods,” said Stoltze, who is a non-voting member of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute board.

As I mentioned earlier, there is already a trial program called the “Farm to School Program.” It just started in 2011. I’m sure his idea sounds great to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, but I’m trying to figure out how, besides a few “salmon wraps,” there is any way to pull this off in the short-term.

I’ve had a number of discussions with farmers from across the state, folks from the various agricultural groups, etc…The thing I find most prevalent is that our Alaska farmers are an independent lot and they seem to have strong regional loyalty. For example, there was a push for state funding to establish a cold-storage facility in one region of Alaska. Alaskan farmers will need an incredible amount of cold storage space if they want to increase production enough to provide year-round food, especially for Alaskan school children. However, farmers from another region fought against the facility because it was expensive and perceived as benefiting just one or two farmers.

Another battle is between two bills currently in the Legislature. One is HB 191, backed by one faction of the agricultural community. It would establish a new and seperate “state department of agriculture and food” and gives pretty specific criteria for its creation, including:

“…assist prospective settlers and others desiring to engage in the agricultural industry in the state with information concerning areas suitable for agriculture, food storage, food processing, sustainable and renewable farming practices, and other activities and programs essential to the development of the agricultural industry in the state;”

On the other hand, Bill Stoltze has his own idea in HCR 24, which is “Relating to the establishment and operation of a state food resource development working group.” In contrast, besides the fact that the HCR is just asking the Governor to create a “working group,” the text is more general and non-specific:

…the Alaska State Legislature respectfully requests the Governor to establish a state food resource development working group to work with the Alaska Food Policy Council to identify resources and set policies to build a strong, sustainable healthy food system in the state…

I spoke to two different farmers involved with two different agricultural groups in two different parts of the state. One spoke eloquently in favor of establishing a new Division, the other spoke passionately against it and was for establishing a new working group. I get the impression this regularly happens in the agricultural community as a whole.

As a kid who spent every summer of my life on Iowa farms, I’m noticing that neither of these will provide a very important piece of infrastructure…co-operative organizations made up of the farmers themselves.

Tim Meyers pounded home the idea of “infrastructure” during his session at the ABG Gardening Convention. In order to get this very specialized form of cold-weather farming off the ground, Meyers explained that the State of Alaska would need to establish opportunities for folks to aquire farmland. To insure success, he offered himself as a mentor to bring prospective farmers on his land as interns for a season so he could teach them everything he knows. Already established farmers could also be given the opportunity to visit Meyers’ farm and see how he does it. The state could provide loans or grants to aid farmers in building the underground buildings required to grow/store plants without heat.

— We don’t have these infrastructure-building programs in place.
— We don’t have an army of Alaska farmers providing a variety of vegetables for consumption year-round.
— We don’t have enough spaces for food processing.
— We don’t have enough sustainable cold-storage facilities for our farmers to store their products.
— Most of all, we don’t even have a farmer’s co-operative where all of these things could be worked-out and a large school district like Anchorage can negotiate food purchases.

But we do have salmon wraps…

All of these things make me think that (shock) Bill Stoltze isn’t exactly being sincere. As I know Mr. Stoltze communicates with some in the agricultural community, it’s hard for me to swallow that he isn’t aware how far we have to go before our Alaskan farmers can actually support that kind of year-round food production, even with his $3 million in the capital budget.

Of course, there’s another bill sitting out there that completely blows Stoltze’s waving of the “Alaska Grown” banner all to hell. It’s HB 93 and it is an attempt to increase participation in the “Farm to School” program through the State Division of Agriculture. The bill would allow non-profit corporations to partner with the schools and assist in the operation of “school gardens, greenhouses or farms.” (Since the school’s education budgets are so thin it’s hard to find time or money to plant/maintain a garden). The non-profits would be required to contribute to the garden, greenhouse or farm, thus saving money. Also, their participation could help to build the infrastructure needed and could provide an excellent education in cold-weather agriculture. Besides teaching Alaska kids where their food comes from, they would also get the opportunity to grow part of the food they consume through school lunches/breakfasts.

Surprise, surprise…this is just another education bill that has also been sitting in the House Finance Committee since April of last year.

Sometimes, a bully is just a bully…

From Cartoonist Chuck Legge-Mat Su Valley Frontiersman



10 Responses to “Is Alaskan Agriculture Ready to Feed Our School Children?”
  1. huntforfood says:

    Great example of changing things from the ground up, literally. Here in Homer there are many people farming now with high tunnels, great season extenders to be sure, but there is so much more to be done in order to create a real food producing culture in AK. Like what Moose Pucky says, we need to make sure that our land and water are protected and conserved not only to ensure farming productivity, but also so that our wild foods (and wildlands in general) will flourish. Decentralizing food and energy production is the wave of the future. It’ll be our challenge to get new production concepts of both of these vital concerns established now, so that our kids and grandkids can create healthy, sustainable communities in the future. If we lead, the politicians will follow.

  2. Moose Pucky says:

    Tim is doing awesome things with agriculture in Bethel.

    Alaskans also feed themselves from healthy habitat and healthy watersheds. Salmon, hooligan, halibut, trout, grayling, crab, shrimp, deer, caribou, moose, bear, mountain goats, berries, and edible greens. Keeping it all healthy will feed us forever.

  3. UgaVic says:

    Thanks for highlighting Tim’s work. He has a done a great job and is fantastic about sharing what all he has learned.

    From the first time I was introduced, about 4 years ago, to what he was accomplishing in an area that does not appear to be conductive to food growing to today, I continue to be impressed.

    The bills you mentioned bring a number of good things to light but in each there are some real issues.

    The farm to school program might be new to Alaska but it is not to the lower 48 where it is gaining some real ground in improving our kids access to healthy meals at school. The program in Alaska has done a lot of work to first make itself understood but also to bring farmers together to learn from each other but also how to address school lunch program administration concerns. LOTS of work! It would be nice to have a co-op to deal with some of these issues but I fear Alaska is a long way away from that in execution.

    There continues to be the issue of enough farmers/crop volume to warrant developing infrastructure first or the other way around. It is difficult to see a direct path to success. There is no doubt much work can be done while this is made clearer in the area of developing technics on how to farm in our various regions in the manner Tim is and to make the opportunity for new people to enter the field.

    There is also the opportunity for Rep Stoltz to actually make a reasonable contribution to the health of our kids and one of it is to stop stalling on ANY of these bills and have hearings. Allow those involved to speak and the legislators to bring them to the floor for a vote. His actions mirror the issue we are having on a national level and it is unacceptable at any level. I hope those who vote in his district understand this and take corrective action when the time comes!!

  4. mike from iowa says:

    There is a root cellar on this farm. Nothing fancy,but at twenty below outside I can find skeeters and spiders alive and active in the root cellar. Used to store spuds there all Winter long. With some artificial lights I could probably raise something down there besides fungus. Thought never crossed my mind until now. Thanks for the informative information Ms Linda.

  5. akglow says:

    Great work, Linda. I truly appreciate how much time and (probably lots of) anguish, you put into your work. I imagine sleep is only a “pipe dream” for you.

  6. Zyxomma says:

    Great post, Linda! Thanks for introducing us to Tim & Co.

  7. Jeff says:

    Great post! I think this is the way to go, but it can’t be a school district’s responsibility. ASD is trying to feed kids on roughly $5 per meal. It is hard to be healthy and cheap. And comply with federal nutrition standards that aren’t particularly healthy. Schools are a great place for small, learning gardens, and they would be a great learning experience.

  8. Susan says:

    It can be done mostly by the kids themselves along with inputs from the local community.

    Locally there is a middle school program going great guns, initiated by a pair of teachers but once the kids got actually involved, it wasn’t long, with the guidance of said teachers that the kids carried it off. First they were riding their enthusiasm alone but at this point (several years later) they do it all, down to planning, budget, and fund-raising (summer produce sales, packaging and selling seed, etc, even got some beginning info on grant-writing), sales, public education (in the form mostly of local presentations, as well as going to other schools for same). Jon & Steve (teachers) are still steering the ship, but not by so much. 🙂 They have the year’s plan on the website: Website home page: Student blog:

    In addition to school lunch needs (unanticipated benefit: vegetable consumption there has risen greatly and there is much interest in new for new items, which is, I’m told a big change. They now are working with the town to provide veggies for the soup kitchen and at least one other community service; they talked the town into bringing them all compostables and they have some giant piles going over there. Several years ago they began to plan for and work over the summer break so they could start the school year “Ready-Eddie”, as one kid put it to me. The program has been hugely popular and there is much competition for the limited number of spaces. So the possibilities are there; what it takes is the vision.

    In addition to the obvious science & biology subject matter the kiddos are exposed to much history, math, art, plenty of other needed skills and all in a context where they can see (and sometimes not altogether positively) the uses for same. Writings skills have improved muchly, I’ve noticed, and as they have gone out to other schools to “spread the word” I see much improvement in their confidence and speaking skills as well as some serious improvement in their ability to interact with adults.

    My own kids were homeschooled (very long ago….before it was cool 🙂 ) but these kids are getting such a rounded education from the school garden program that it made me think to myself one day after a visit that “it’s like homeschool at school”.

  9. Thanks for the head’s up on Bernie Karl! I hope I get a chance to visit Chena sometime soon!

  10. ISeeVillagesFromMyHouse says:

    Tim and his family are true ground-breakers, literally. He saw the worth beneath the tundra – above the permafrost.

    He reaps what he sows, and that is Alaska’s future, to wean our dependence off imported produce to supplement our wild protein diet. No more $20 watermelon (not that we’ll be planting watermelon, but you get my drift) or $8 bag of potatoes. No more wilted lettuce or spotted bananas with no more nutritional worth.

    The State of Alaska would do well to take the lead in letting green-house and farm land crop up all across our places off the grid. Quit making trailblazers like Tim and his family struggle all on their own while the Oil Companies and fishing companies get tax breaks and mind-boggling subsidies.

    Congratulations Tim, on paving the way – so that Bernie Karl isn’t the only self-sustaining community (Chena Hot Springs) in the State.