Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sustainable agriculture in Alaska, part 2: small farm viability

Heidi Rader with a selection of vegetables grown in high tunnels and the field research plots at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, August 2006. Photo by Mia Peterburs.

Heidi Rader, who graduated from SNRAS with a master's degree in resources management, conducted her research on how changes in technology, such as high tunnels (temporary, quonset-hut style field greenhouses) for season extension, or distribution techniques, such as Community Supported Agriculture arrangements (CSA), can improve the economic and environmental viability of small-scale agriculture in Alaska. She looked at several factors affecting the success of small farms:
"Improved efficiency doesn't have to mean economies of larger scale, increased mechanization, higher chemical inputs, or genetically engineered crops. Lowering costs by decreasing dependence on fossil fuel can increase profit margins. A small farm might have an advantage over a large one if they incorporate new technologies, decrease distribution distances, and have a more direct relationship with the consumer.... I want to find out how small improvements in technology, input levels, distribution channels, and marketing systems can alter the viability of small farming operations."
Working with her thesis advisor Dr. Meriam Karlsson, professor of horticulture at SNRAS, Rader determined that high tunnels may be a practical and affordable way to extend the growing season, protect field crops from hail or snow damage, and improve the produce quality.

High tunnels on Rader's research plots at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm. Photo courtesy Heidi Rader.

To distribute her research crops, Rader set up a CSA for about twenty subscribers, also students. Some produce was also provided on a weekly basis to the UAF catering operation. In researching CSA distribution, she found that more flexible programs "with less stringent time commitments and delivery schedules may attract more customers for locally grown produce."

Another former master's degree student at SNRAS, Susan Willsrud, went on to form Calypso Farm & Ecology Center, a Fairbanks-area CSA and nonprofit agricultural education center. This successful farm has inspired other CSAs, teaches workshops, and sponsors two educational programs, the Schoolyard Garden Initiative and Employing Alaskan Teens in Gardening, which themselves feed many families. The farm has 65-80 shareholders and a waiting list, and is experimenting with seed saving and looking at micro-regional variety development.

CSAs are only one marketing technique that small farms have used successfully to establish good relationships with their customers. In further posts, we'll examine other methods that local agriculturalists have used to raise and market their crops.

(See also part one of this series.)

Links, articles, and other resources on small farms and distributing to local markets:
Alaska Division of Agriculture, including links to marketing assistance programs.
Alaska Root Cellar, Anchorage Daily News blog by Kim Sollien.
Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket, by Brian Halweil. 2004, Worldwatch Institute.
Global Food Collaborative, a private initiative to support the food industry in Alaska, specifically to the collaborative's members.
• "Local farmers are foundation of Alaska's food system," Alaska Root Cellar, March 5, 2008.
The Next Green Revolution: Essential Steps to a Healthy, Sustainable Agriculture, by J.E. Horne and M. McDermott. 2001, McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers.
Sitka's community greenhouse page, including many links to articles on greenhouse construction.
• "Small farm viability," by Doreen Fitzgerald, Heidi Rader, and Meriam Karlsson. Fall 2006. Agroborealis vol. 38 no. 1 (PDF).

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