Favoring Fresh Eats: Dining on Alaska-Grown Products
Restaurant owners are heeding the call of the many Alaskans who want to support local farmers by buying local produce. But that’s easier said than done in the 49th State, where getting the food from farm to table takes extra time, money, and effort. Fortunately, there is an increasing number of people in the food industry—from farmers to distributors to restaurant owners—who are committed to creating a sustainable pipeline.
“While it’s trendy to work directly with farms, most restauranteurs find that the logistics are too challenging; you have to have an avenue to consolidate and move products over great distances, and that’s a huge undertaking,” explains David McCarthy, owner and founder of Northern Hospitality Group, which operates 49th State Brewing Company. “It’s taken us more than fifteen years to create a network of farmers and ranchers that we can work with all over the state.”
“For a restaurant to make the commitment to look for Alaska-grown products, and to make those extra phone calls and accept another delivery truck coming to their location, takes extra effort,” agrees Amy Pettit, executive director for Alaska Farmland Trust. “So many restaurants are used to the pipeline of food that comes from the Lower 48 that it’s hard to get them to make changes.”
Getting the Food to Market (or Table)
The good news is that there are plenty of people and companies willing to go the extra mile to bring Alaska-grown products to market.
Kyla Byers, owner of Arctic Harvest Deliveries, aggregates products from multiple farms around the state (mostly from the Mat-Su Valley) to provide a one-stop shop for chefs to buy produce, meat, eggs, and other products. In addition, the company offers retail sales as farm-share subscriptions.
“We collaborate with farmers on their crop plans so that they can meet the demands we see from chefs and our retail customers,” Byers says, adding that they make several weekly product deliveries from the Valley into Anchorage.
“Without this service, restaurants would have to call individual farmers, check product availability, work out pricing, and coordinate everyone’s days of delivery. We consolidate everything and provide consistent delivery days and invoicing; it just makes things a lot more convenient.”
Chefs are notoriously busy, so simplified logistics makes Alaska-grown products more accessible.
“Restaurants are able to shoot us a text of what they want, and we can shoot them an email of what we have,” says Byers. “We also have an online ordering system if they want to do it on their own; they can see what we have, what it costs, and what farms it is coming from.”
What’s unique about Arctic Harvest Deliveries, which has been in business for five years, is that the company exclusively offers made and grown-in-Alaska products as wholesalers. While some other companies do carry Alaska-grown products, it is only a part of their business.
The company was originally started by a chef who provided Byers with a list of farmers when she took over. “We’ve grown it from there, and now we are able to meet the demands of the larger scale restaurant market,” she says. “For example, when we see a trend for certain products, we go to our farmers with that information—say we need 500 pounds of broccoli a week—and ask if they can grow it. Knowing what we can sell helps them plan what to plant.”
Arctic Harvest also has a farmer aggregation site where growers can drop their product off at any time into a refrigerated CONEX with 24/7 access. While most of the product is taken to Anchorage, the company also ships to Juneau, Fairbanks, Seward, Kodiak, and other Alaska communities.
The Alaska Food Hub is another option for farmers to list their products for sale. Customers can buy online and the items are dropped off at a central location for pick-up. While the food hub tends to serve mostly individuals and families, it also serves some smaller bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants.
49th State Brewery bratwurst featuring Yensis onions grown by Alaska farmer Arthur Keyes.
“In 2015, we got a USDA grant that provided seed money to launch the food hub,” says Sitka Local Foods Network Executive Director Robbi Mixon. “We’re just about to open our sixth season, and this past season was our best so far.
“We made the same amount of sales last year [as] we did in the past four years combined,” she continues. “All of the social distancing stuff pushed people to buy online, which was good for our farmers in Homer, because with restaurants closed or reduced in capacity, they were able to make more sales through the Food Hub.”
She gives the example of Two Sisters Bakery in Homer, which closed its doors until October. But by listing products on the Alaska Food Hub, it was able to continue selling.
The food hub operates on a weekly cycle, with local purveyors listing and customers adding to their baskets, everything from produce and seafood to kombucha and coffee. On Wednesdays, vendors deliver the goods to the United Methodist Church in Homer, where the products are aggregated into individual orders for customer pick-up. The Hub also sends products to Seldovia by air.
Why Support Local Producers?
When it’s so easy to just take advantage of streamlined delivery options from the Lower 48, why would restaurants take the extra steps required to work with local vendors?
“First, there’s the value of super-fresh ingredients; food coming from the Lower 48 is often several weeks old, while most of our products are harvested to order,” says Byers. “It tastes better, lasts longer, and there’s less waste. It also shows a restaurant’s customers that they have a connection to the state and pride in Alaska and that they are a part of the community.”
“The palate never lies,” agrees McCarthy. “The quality is already in the product; you can literally eat a raw onion straight out of the ground like an apple because of the quality of the soil here. The terroir—where and how the food is grown—is important.
“You’re also providing long-term sustainability with the money you spend going back to the farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers in the state,” he continues. “A rising tide raises all ships, so from the beginning, we decided to support the full-circle philosophy of supporting those businesses who supported us. As they grow, we grow.”
Pettit credits other Alaska restaurants and chefs, including Alex Papasavus at Turkey Red in Palmer, and Lemongrass Thai Cuisine in Fairbanks, with helping to spur this evolution. “Even fifteen years ago, they were leading the way by demanding local food,” she says. “That commitment really helped mature a couple of farmers into what they are today.”
Vegetables at a Homer farmers’ market.
“It would make sense for the state to get involved in providing more cold storage in farming communities; especially since we’re pretty food insecure up here. There is always the potential of being cut off from the Lower 48.”
Become an Industry Sponsor
Helping the Pipeline Grow
Considering that food is a $2 billion industry in Alaska and more than 95 percent of the food consumed here is imported from the Lower 48, more can be done on local and state levels to support the Alaska-grown restaurant supply chain.
Some state effort has been made to encourage the pipeline’s growth with seemingly successful results. Unfortunately, when the funding stopped, so did the programs.
“The State Division of Agriculture had a restaurant rewards program that provided a reimbursement incentive; restaurants received a portion of the food price back for every Alaska-grown product they purchased,” Pettit explains. “It exposed a number of restaurants to these products, and even though it ran out of funding, ten years later, they are still committed to buying local.”
In 2014, the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District utilized a USDA grant to create a Farmers Market Promotion Program that resulted in creating more sites where Alaska-grown products were sold and helped to double the number of farms in the Central Peninsula in just two years. It currently sponsors Farm & Food Fridays, where people interested in local foods, including farmers and chefs, can network. It also publishes a local food directory in partnership with the Kenai Local Food Connection.
Thundershuck Oyster Stout is brewed with oysters from Jakolof Bay.
“One thing we know about farmers is that they are passionate about growing food or raising livestock, but they are not always as passionate about marketing their products,” says Pettit. “The pipeline needs middlemen, or connectors, to bring farmers and restaurants together.”
Infrastructure is important, too. “When we started out, we struggled to find any cold storage to meet our needs and ended up building our own cold storage facilities,” says Byers. “We did a trial project getting retail boxes to Nome, and the biggest barrier was having reliable, consistent temperature control the whole trip up there.”
Because many smaller farms don’t have their own cold storage, a lot of food goes to waste. “It would make sense for the state to get involved in providing more cold storage in farming communities; especially since we’re pretty food insecure up here,” Byers adds. “There is always the potential of being cut off from the Lower 48.”
Arctic Harvest Deliveries aggregates products from farms around the state to provide restaurants with a one-stop shop for Alaska produce, meat, eggs, and other products.
The Alaska Food Hub has worked to increase the use of hubs throughout the state by providing software for trials at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. They’ve also worked with Kodiak Harvest and have advised groups in Palmer and Canada.
“We would love to see hubs all over the state; imagine sending Homer oysters all the way up to Fairbanks and getting some of their food in return,” says Mixon. “One of our big goals is to find ways to connect regional food systems.”
According to McCarthy, not only is it vital that the state provide monetary assistance to help restaurants investing in Alaska-grown products but that it invests in promoting the products as well.
“We made the same amount of sales last year [as] we did in the past four years combined. All of the social distancing stuff pushed people to buy online, which was good for our farmers in Homer, because with restaurants closed or reduced in capacity, they were able to make more sales through the Food Hub.”
“Advertising the products that are grown and raised in the state is extremely important,” he says, giving the example of New Zealand, which is involved in both the testing and promotion of its Manuka honey, which is now considered by many to be the best honey in the world.
He adds that providing funding to save local farms would also make a big difference.
“One of most challenging things that we face is the loss of farmland: if the state would work directly with farmers to get them the funding they need to remain sustainable and to supporting generational farming, it would provide stability not only in production and manufacturing but in the retail and wholesale markets,” McCarthy says.
Most of Arctic Harvest’s deliveries are made in Anchorage, but the company also ships to Juneau, Fairbanks, Seward, Kodiak, and other Alaska communities.
What the Future Holds
The pandemic really showed Alaska—and the country—the importance of the food pipeline.
“The pandemic revealed how global and international our food system is; there were tomato shortages across the country because there was no one to harvest the food, and there was a crisis in meat availability when the Midwest shut down and the supply chain stopped,” says Pettit. “What it showed in Alaska is that people really want Alaska food. Our farmers sold out faster than they ever had and got better prices than ever before; it was exciting.
“I think 2021 will be really telling; it will be interesting to see what happens,” she adds. “Not only did the pandemic bring out people’s commitment to support their neighbors and their communities but it exposed them to the freshness and quality of Alaska-grown food. And once you meet that farmer and taste carrots that are eight times sweeter, you don’t want anything else.”
“I think 2021 will be really telling; it will be interesting to see what happens. Not only did the pandemic bring out people’s commitment to support their neighbors and their communities but it exposed them to the freshness and quality of Alaska-grown food. And once you meet that farmer and taste carrots that are eight times sweeter, you don’t want anything else.”
In This Issue
Meeting in the Middle
In January, when the Biden administration announced its ban on the future sale of oil and gas leases on federal land, the news understandably ruffled the collective feathers of Alaska’s oil and gas industry.