Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Alaska Tilth Project hopes to feed those in need

Megan Talley, left, and Joshua Faller pause for a photo in the Matanuska Experiment
Farm greenhouse. The pair founded Alaska Tilth in 2015.

By Steven Merritt
It is a unique turn on an established agricultural model, one that the organizers of Alaska Tilth hope will feed, educate and inform Valley residents on the region’s food production capabilities — and its future.

Megan Talley and her husband Joshua Faller manage Spring Creek Farm in Palmer, part of Alaska Pacific University’s Kellogg Campus. Through its programs, Spring Creek trains new farmers and gets students who might not have a farming background involved in agriculture.

“Taking a good look at food security, economic situations and how food can play a role in that is part of what we are trying to teach our interns and summer students,” Talley said.

The pair founded the Alaska Tilth program last year, a variation on the community-supported agriculture model that has partnered with a host of local agencies to get fresh produce to those in need. The program donated 3,000 pounds of produce in 2015, a number Talley and Faller hope will grow this year.

Traditional CSA programs — Spring Creek offers one — work as a subscription service. Buyers pay a set price for a share of a farm’s harvest and receive a weekly vegetable distribution during the growing season. The Alaska Tilth program works a little differently. Buyers can donate an entire share or contribute toward a share that is then distributed to local food pantries and other aid organizations. An Alaska Tilth contribution share is $600, and donations are tax deductible.

Talley said groups served in 2015 included MyHouse, the Palmer and Wasilla senior centers and the MatSu Food Bank.

Faller said Alaska Tilth’s partnerships with APU, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, the UAF Matanuska Experiment Farm and the state Division of Agriculture’s Alaska Plant Materials Center have created a layer of support for the program that has been rewarding.

For example, Talley said the plant materials center worked with Alaska Tilth last fall to harvest, clean and distribute some 900 pounds of potatoes that would have stayed in the field.

“They have the funding to grow it, but not to harvest,” Talley said. “The cool thing about this program is that people have come to us with these other pieces, like the plant materials center. That has been the spirit of the project.”

Along with distribution of fresh produce, Alaska Tilth partnered with the extension service’s nutrition educator, Winona Benson, who not only helped distribute the food, but also led nutrition education classes on preparing what was donated.

“We knew that we could grow the food and donate it,” Talley said. “But we wanted to make sure that people were able to get some education on preparing it.”

The program is poised to grow this year, Talley said. The Mat-Su Health Foundation has provided funding for a full-time program coordinator, and other partnerships are shaping up with organizations like Grow Palmer and NeighborWorks Alaska.

“We have seen a lot of mission-driven people who are working on food security and food quality in Alaska right now,” Faller said. “It has been a humbling and inspiring opportunity to get people working together and as a community.”

Both Talley and Faller said the mission of Alaska Tilth covers a range of health issues at the forefront of national discussion these days, like the climbing rates of obesity and diabetes. Alaska’s vulnerability in food security also is part of their message.

“It is tied into a lot of different things,” Faller said. “One, so much of Alaska’s food is imported. We want to make sure those in need have food, and make sure it’s healthy. If we can help them with the tools to prepare it and even some of the skills to grow it, we can address some of that need.”
Plus, Faller said, the quality of Alaska produce can stand on its own.

“We have grown in a lot of different places, and Alaska has some if the most delicious carrots. It is amazing,” Faller said. “We need to continue to identify Alaska not only with fish and game, but also with produce. It’s also a good way to feed ourselves too.”

For more information on the Alaska Tilth program, contact Talley at 746-2714 or by email at springcreekfarm@alaskapacific.edu.
This article was reprinted with permission of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

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