Residents of Kodiak’s rural communities are in Kodiak this week for a two-day agriculture training event, which kicked off Thursday and continues today.
The Introduction to Farming and Ranching on Kodiak Conference is one of two events to be held in 2019 that aim to assist Kodiak’s communities in developing ways to grow and sell produce locally. The conference includes a range of sessions on all aspects of the process –– from tutelage on soil-building to learning about which grant and loan programs are available for financial assistance.
The conference was organized by Kodiak Archipelago Leadership Institute. According to a news release, a long term goal of KALI is “is supporting the availability of fresh, locally grown organic food, including produce, eggs, meat and poultry, through the establishment of a network of community based farms and ranches in our region.”
Over the past three years, KALI has worked toward this goal by helping to establish farms in the communities of Larsen Bay, Old Harbor, Ouzinkie and Port Lions under a grant from the Administration for Native Americans. That grant expired this year, leaving the farms to fend for themselves. This prompted KALI to apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to facilitate activities designed to increase knowledge of farming and ranching opportunities for the region’s tribes and residents.
The conference is the first of these activities, which will include a series of teleconferences, technical site visits to the four farms and other forms of training.
“I think we all want to improve our communities and the way that we eat,” said Guy Bartleson, a Port Lions resident. “When I started this program under the ANA grant three years ago, I didn’t know anything about growing, I didn’t even know if I could. So I’m living proof that, if you put your mind to it, you can make a difference to your community, you can provide healthy food for your kids, your family and friends, and you can make some money too.”
Bartleson is leading efforts to set up the Port Lions Farm, which he referred to as a “labor of love.” Bartleson said that, over the past three years, he and his team have successfully set up the basic infrastructure for the farm.
The farm currently has several thousand plant-starts growing, two hoop houses ready to hold plants, a number of developed outdoor raised beds and roughly 100 egg-producing hens.
“We’re trying to grow enough out there to where we can feed our community –– which is number one –– but also to keep our farm going, so we can continue to do so,” he said.
That, Bartleson said, requires extensive business planning and market-building. This includes figuring out which products will help the farm to best financially sustain itself and how large the harvest has to be. Bartleson explained, for example, that while egg sales are highly profitable for the farm, they decided to stop rearing turkeys.
“They didn’t make us a profit, they actually cost us money,” he said.
It also involves figuring out where sales are going to come from. According to Bartleson, this has become a primary focus in order to ensure the farm’s survival. He said that beyond selling directly to individuals, local businesses have started to show interest.
“We have local entities that are willing to purchase from us exclusively,” Bartleson said. “One is the summer youth camp; they want to purchase eggs exclusively from us for their summer camp. We’re trying to develop some markets, as we get ready to be able to supply those markets.”
Ultimately, Bartleson said, the goal is to have Port Lions Farm produce available in Kodiak, which is a more attainable goal than it sounds. Bartleson noted that there are farmers markets and other groups that present ready-made markets for products.
“We’ve got the (Kodiak Harvest) Food Coop, which is screaming for our produce, eggs, anything we can send them,” Bartleson said. “The word is that lots of people in Kodiak want to experience village produce. The fact that we’re growing off the land, naturally, organically, it seems to appeal to a lot of people.”
In order to take these next steps, Bartleson and the other rural farmers need guidance, which is where KALI’s conferences come in. The conferences act like a living organon, where local growers can exchange Kodiak-specific knowledge, and representatives from agencies can offer information on government programs that could help the farms grow.
On the agenda, for example, was a session on growing fruit trees in Kodiak with Strawberry Fields Nursery owner and operator Lorne White. White said the apple, cherry and pear trees are the best fruit trees to grow on Kodiak.
He noted that Kodiak’s cold weather can prevent fruit from properly maturing, which is why rearing fruit trees in a greenhouse or a hoop house is the best method. He also said that hungry bears can be an issue for fruit-growers, but his wife discovered a good trick for mitigating that problem.
“All you have to do is put cayenne pepper around the area and keep it dry. They hate cayenne pepper,” White said. “Their nose is very, very sensitive. Once I used that, they never came back again.”
Among other attendees at the conference Thursday was Kodiak rancher Chris Flickinger, who owns and operates Pasagshak Ranch. Flickinger gave a presentation on the current status of ranching on Kodiak and is scheduled to give an introductory seminar on raising live stock today.
It wasn’t just locals in attendance. Jeff Curry from the USDA Alaska Farm Service Agency is scheduled to give a presentation on the various programs and grants that are available to Kodiak’s farmers, to help them bridge the gap between working under the ANA grant and self-sufficiency.
“So we’re here looking at the farming from an economics/business standpoint and will be talking about some of our programs with the USDA farm services agency,” he said. “We’ve got the Reimbursement Transportation Cost Program, an Uninsured Disaster Assistance Program and we also have our loan programs. All of them deal with the economic side of the farm.”
Other interested parties also came to the conference. Kodiakan Brian Himelbloom sits on the governing board of the Alaska Food Policy Council, a statewide volunteer-led organization. He explained that his aim was to gather information on any gaps in support that the fledgling farms are facing.
“Our goal is to bring back information to change policy,” said Himelbloom. “Because what you’re talking about is what we hear across the state: we don’t have enough food, we’re importing too much, individuals want to go into business and how do they do that.”
According to Himelbloom, the council is in the process of drafting letters to state and federal government reps, urging them to address issues of food insecurity that impact communities across the state.
For Kodiak’s rural farms the most pressing need is to develop markets. To offer guidance on this, Donna Rae Faulkner and Don McNamara, who run Oceanside Farms in Homer, gave a presentation on how they achieved success. Their farm sells mainly fruit and vegetables, as well as some poultry and flowers. Faulkner began by explaining the importance of marketing.
“Marketing isn’t something to poo-poo totally, because putting your name out there and getting your brand out there in some fashion, letting people know that Kodiak beef is really great –– that’s really important,” Faulkner told the room “There’s a lot of ways that people group-market. So we’ll be sharing some of those with you.”
Faulkner and McNamara have been involved in Kodiak’s rural farms for a while now. They’ve conducted several site visits and Bartleson said the pair have already helped with Port Lions Farm’s business plan.
But while future markets are worked out, the staff of Port Lions farm are busy working on preparing for the growing season, by doing things like treating beds with locally produced compost.
“We haven’t done it before so we don’t know exactly how much we need to make,” Bartleson said, adding that he is staying optimistic for the year ahead. “We’re experiencing the mildest winter since I got here in 1983. And with spring following suit, we might get a decently long growing season this year, which –– thank you lord for the help! We certainly don’t want to be chipping stuff out of the ice in June.
“The (consumer) outlets are there, we just need to get enough product developed to where we can start meeting those needs, to where we can send an airplane-load of fresh produce to Kodiak and they can say ‘this is from Port Lions Farm’,” he said.