Friday, January 15, 2010

USDA forum focuses on rural development

Farms such as Rosie Creek Farms near Fairbanks (owner Mike Emers pictured) can play an important role in economic development and food security.
Food systems, climate change, renewable energy, and broadband internet access are the four pillars of the USDA Rural Development economic recovery proposals. On Thursday in Fairbanks, at the first of four forums in the state, USDA representatives listened to experts and took public comments.

Susan Willsrud, farm director at Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, a nonprofit educational working farm near Fairbanks, said, “We are a food insecure state. The need is great; the opportunities are great. We live in a place that can produce a wide range of products on a small scale.”

In the past decade the number of community supported agriculture businesses in Fairbanks has grown from one to at least a dozen, she said, and most CSAs have waiting lists of customers they cannot serve because the demand is greater than the supply. “The opportunity for somebody to grow food and sell it exists.”

The lack of infrastructure is a big challenge for farmers, Willsrud said. “We need planning and food assessments, and to identify needs and opportunities.” She suggested creating food policy councils in each city and village across the state.

Farming is an industry that can provide jobs, she emphasized, but it takes funding to pull a business together.

Danny Consenstein, director of the Alaska Farm Service Agency, said his agency has begun the process of forming a statewide food policy council. Members have not been selected yet. He said, “I’m pretty optimistic about the potential to expand agricultural products in the state but there are some barriers.”

Comments came from rural residents who would like to have community gardens in their villages and citizens concerned about the fragile state of food security in Alaska.

Others stressed the importance of educating young people about food and how the lack of infrastructure inhibits commercial scale agriculture. One farmer from Delta Junction recommended bringing back Gov. Jay Hammond’s agricultural plan from the 1970s.

Jim Nordlund, USDA Rural Development state director, said he is disturbed that children in the Matanuska Valley eat potatoes from Idaho in their school lunches when potatoes grow right outside their classrooms. He suggested the formation of a state farmers’ cooperative that could build and operate processing facilities, with profits returning to farmers.

Even the climate change discussion turned to agriculture with International Arctic Research Center Director Larry Hinzman saying that milder winters may lead to the development of fruit crops in Alaska and that there are more opportunities to raise cattle and reindeer. He also said, “There will be more shipping opportunities through the Arctic,” and he suggested adding support services in Nome, Barrow, and Kotzebue.

Jim Dodson, president of the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation, said energy is the key factor in economic improvement. Chancellor Rogers said a natural gas pipeline is crucial. Jerry Isaac, president of Tanana Chiefs Conference said the villages are severely stressed by the cost of fuel, with none paying less than $4 per gallon for it. He also emphasized the importance of food security, saying that Alaska would run out of food in six days if incoming shipments of groceries were cut off. “We will best learn from one another with the partnership approach and we should always consult the people who will be impacted the most,” he said. “We have got to figure out ways to do things that are friendly to the climate and friendly to the locals and come up with ways to become independent.”

During the energy discussion, UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers suggested that schools and university buildings around the state could be retrofitted to make them more energy efficient, creating jobs in the short term and energy savings to taxpayers in the long term.

The head table at Thursday's forum.

Sen. Mark Begich was at the forum to announce that federal stimulus money could be on its way to Alaska, helping create jobs and sparking the economy. He also stated that $49 million in federal aid has been allocated to the state for rural water quality improvement projects (PDF).

The USDA will file a report on the forums with the White House in February. Comments may be e-mailed to Gene Kane.

Further reading:

Sen. Begich says more stimulus funds are coming to Alaska, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, by Jeff Richardson, Jan. 15, 2010

USDA hosts economic growth forums, SNRAS Science & News, Jan. 11, 2010

Alaska's State-Funded Agricultural Projects and Policy -- Have They Been a Success? (PDF) UAF SNRAS senior thesis ST 2008-01, by Darcy Denton Davies, May 2007

UAF brings CSAs to the table, SNRAS Science & News, March 24, 2009

A map of Alaska farms with community shared agriculture programs, SNRAS Science & News, April 23, 2009

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