Monday, February 10, 2014

Cooperative could be a key to farming's future in Alaska

Improving Alaska’s food security through agricultural efforts is complicated. There’s a lot more to it than planting, cultivating and harvesting; including considerations about economic indicators, cultural systems, social interactions, business concerns and consumer preferences.

To that end, the Alaska Co-op Development Program has stationed a research assistant in Fairbanks for several weeks. Christine Nguyen is studying the Interior’s agricultural system so the community can take an educated approach to creating an agricultural cooperative.
Funded by a Division of Agriculture grant to the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp., the study is focused on vegetable and fruit growers and potential buyers, such as businesses, restaurants and institutions.
Julie Emslie (left) of Fairbanks Economic Development Corp.and Christine Nguyen of Alaska Co-op Development Program plan their agricultural marketing survey strategy.

In meetings led by Julie Emslie, FEDC’s project manager, it was determined that a top priority for Interior farmers is establishing a cooperative that could help them coordinate sales, make group purchases and address crop storage. “What would it look like if the farmers marketed together?” Emslie asked. “There have been a lot of questions and there are still a lot of unknowns.

“We wanted to study the market so we could make a much more educated approach to creating a co-op.”

Farmers serving on the steering committee are Susan Kerndt, Brad St. Pierre, Jen Becker and Avril Wiers. Meetings, which have been held all winter, are open to the public.

“We are hoping the information collected will help start a co-op,” Emslie said. “We’re looking at the potential for wholesale and whether we should focus on certain items and focus on institutions versus retail.”

Critical things like when buyers for restaurants or institutions want to buy fresh produce will help growers plan what to grow and when. And the same goes for restaurants. “If they know there will be an influx in kale they can plan for it,” she said.

“We’re just collecting information to share with farmers and figuring out where to go from there to increase their ability to get food into the market.”

Nguyen, the research tech, said, “It’s funny how much this has grown to include so many farmers and community leaders.” She has been encouraged by the institution and restaurant buyers’ enthusiasm about local vegetables. “Almost all of them valued fresh produce,” Nguyen said. “Many of them just didn’t know the farmers wanted to sell to them. We are helping connect the missing link.”

“The food purchasers are developing relationships with the farmers and that helps,” Emslie said.
“Our farms here are small,” she explained. “To sell outside the farmers markets or a CSA (community supported agriculture) is difficult. Co-ops are tools that are used in other parts of the country.”

While it’s hard for individual farms to deal with storage, processing, marketing and distribution issues, if the farmers work together, the systems will be more affordable. “We are looking at a way to sell collectively,” Emslie said. “The coolest thing about the co-op is that it will be farmer owned. A co-op removes the middle men from the equation; the farmers will have direct say.”

Nguyen said the farmers know there are untapped markets which will help them gain new customers. “They realize the current clientele is static.”

Once the survey results are compiled, a report will be presented to the steering committee and Emslie plans on giving a talk about it at the sustainable agriculture conference in Fairbanks in March.
“The rest of the state is watching this, particularly the Alaska Food Policy Council,” Emslie said. “This was brought on in Fairbanks by the interest of the farmers. How do we recreate this?”

Nguyen said, “I really appreciate that the goals are tangible. The buyers are enthusiastic and the farmers want helpful information. All it takes is information to get them talking.”
From left, Julie Emslie of Fairbanks Economic Development Corp, Brad St. Pierre of Goosefoot Farm, Christine Nguyen of Alaska Co-op Development Program and Susan Kerndt of Wild Rose Farm discuss strategies to improve produce sales in the Tanana Valley. (Photo courtesy FEDC)

“Shifting to local food is an uphill battle,” Emslie said. “Creating something new takes time.”

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at

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