In Alaska, vegetables and other foods are shipped long distances to reach store shelves and dinner plates. But the region’s changing climate and the introduction of new technologies is making local farming increasingly feasible. Some farms are thriving.
With the right investments in research and infrastructure, farming could become more profitable in Alaska and less of an alien concept, says Milan Shipka, the director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Root crops and tubers do well in Alaska, but grasses and grains, leafy greens and flowers can also succeed.
There are more than 750 farms in Alaska, including some that produce more than $500,000 annually. But, like elsewhere in the U.S., the average age of a farmer in Alaska is tipping toward 60. “If we’re going to talk about all the things that we can grow in the Arctic, then we have to talk about who is going to grow these things. We have to create enterprises that can support them economically,” says Shipka.
To dig deeper into the future of Alaskan agriculture, Arctic Deeply recently spoke Shipka.
Arctic Deeply: How has, or how is, climate change altering agriculture in Alaska?
Milan Shipka: People on the ground in the North, including Alaska, they see a change happening. It’s not uncommon to talk to somebody who’s been in the area for many years and hear them refer to “when it used to get cold.” For example, the number of frost-free days in Fairbanks have increased by 50 percent from about 80 to 120 per year. That’s phenomenal. But these things aren’t only changing in the summer. We certainly don’t see the cold in the winter that we used to see.
Arctic Deeply: What does that expansion of frost-free days mean when it comes to growing produce?
Shipka: It means new varieties, new cultivars that we have not been able to grow here before. There are many I could name, spring wheat is one example. Wheat has been impossible to grow at our latitude. But we are now seeing a longer growing season and, with the right selection of varieties, we can create a cultivar that will make it to maturity. It is completely possible to have a successful harvest.
Arctic Deeply: The temperature change helps, but is there weather to be concerned about?
Shipka: Everything is still up in the air; we don’t know what the long-term precipitation patterns will be. We know there will be changes, but there is still a lot of variation in the models. This year happened to be a very moist year, and it surprised everybody.
Arctic Deeply: Is it all about figuring out what the trends will be?
Shipka: Exactly. It will involve determining the value of things like irrigation. We have a lot of water underground in Alaska. Is it going to pay to invest in systems that bring water up? If it is not necessary, you don’t want to spend that money.
Arctic Deeply: Soil quality is important for determining the potential for agriculture. What does the potential look like for Alaska?
Shipka: Alaska is a huge unknown. It’s a vast country. There have been huge investments in other states that have just not been there for Alaska. It’s largely unroaded, so it’s difficult to get anywhere. There have been areas identified as having top potential for agricultural development, but there might be a big river in the way – and there is not money to build a bridge, et cetera, et cetera, so it’s an infrastructure thing, too.
Arctic Deeply: Are those insurmountable challenges, or can the infrastructure be put in place to make it worthwhile?
Shipka: I’ve been accused of being an optimist, but sometimes I accept reality, and I think the infrastructure challenge is so great that it’s going to be a long time before that problem is solved. Nevertheless, new technologies are becoming available. NASA is doing some great work on microgrid applications in controlled-environment agriculture and its applications in some of the village settings. We have at least one outstanding example of geothermal energy production and hydroponic growth of vegetables year-round in Alaska, under glass. It’s going to be creative ideas like that that take place, as opposed to waiting for the public investment in the public infrastructure.
Arctic Deeply: What’s the motivation behind developing agriculture in Alaska?
Shipka: In my mind, it’s a food security issue. Our state currently imports a very high percentage of its food, in the high 80 percent to mid-90 percent. There is a carbon cost, but it’s also about what types of foods are being brought in and the quality of those foods, in terms of freshness and the diet quality. It’s far easier to pack a whole bunch of cans of pop into an airplane than it is to pack a whole bunch of heads of lettuce, or what have you, and have saleable products come out on the other side.
Arctic Deeply: Where can progress be made in the short term?
Shipka: I teach sustainable agriculture. If you look at the three legs on which sustainable agriculture stands, they include environmental and ecological concepts, social concepts and economic concepts. The social concept, I think, is fairly strong. People are supportive of the idea of growth, of food, local food. We can work with the ecological concepts, although we have much to learn about how we use tools in the northern environment, because sometimes the results may be different than in the south. For example, a tool like a herbicide is an important tool in helping gain a harvestable product, but what happens to that herbicide in the soil in the long term may be different in the North than in the south, if it doesn’t break down at the same rate.
But one of the biggest points of struggle is the economic – the profitability. In order for any farm to be sustainable, it must garner profit for the operator. That’s where it becomes very difficult, because as a society, we’re not willing to pay for what the value of our food should be. We need to be able to bring young people to farming in Alaska. There are jobs where you can work only five days a week that make considerably more income than the hard work that goes into being a farmer. You can love the farming lifestyle, but you have to reach a certain threshold of economic security in order to live and enjoy that lifestyle.
Arctic Deeply: Where will agriculture in Alaska be in 10 years?
Shipka: More small farms, more mixed activities. But it may not be the primary income of the operator. More identification of value-added opportunities for products that are grown in Alaska. One example is flowers. Peonies are the most sought after plant for weddings – and it all happens in a two-month window, July and August. But it’s very hard to find fresh-cut peonies because of the warm temperatures elsewhere. In Alaska, that’s exactly when they bloom. It has worked out very well for some people.
This article is the fourth in our series on Arctic agriculture.