Alaska Farms Find ‘Second Harvest’ through Tourism and Event Hosting
There’s nothing quite like waking up in a beautiful, secluded Alaska lodge and looking out the window to see reindeer wandering outside the window. This view is especially surprising considering that this location, known as The Grove, started out as a private farm about seven miles outside of Talkeetna before opening to guests.
Farming in Alaska can be a tough row to hoe, literally. According to the US National Agricultural Statistics Service, barely more than 1,000 farms generated at least $1,000 in revenue as of 2021, the fewest of any state. To supplement their income, farmers have given their land a second life as tourist destinations, wedding venues, product-tasting sites, and more. Not only does this benefit the farms, but locals and visitors get to spend memorable moments on some of the state’s most beautiful homesteads.
The Many Lives of The Grove
When Graham and Mindy Knapp first bought The Grove in 2014, they planned to use the site as a working farm. The property was first developed as the Old Tyme Saloon in the early ’80s and was known as the “Sistine Chapel of Alaska” for the vivid murals painted on every part of the ceiling by T.E. Barber, who created the artwork in exchange for beer.“
After the bar closed, the property was owned by a couple of different families and fell into disrepair before being bought by Esther Golton and Jim Kloss, who renovated the entire site,” says Graham Knapp. “They used it for house concerts, nonprofit fundraisers, and parties, which made it into what it is today.”
The Knapps originally planned to farm the land, and for a while they grew conventional vegetables that they sold at farmer’s markets before hitting on the concept of microgreens, which Graham had grown before. The Knapps tried distributing through a membership subscription service.
“The microgreens were a success, but we needed to scale it up to produce more and use mass production to make it viable,” Knapp says. “At that point, we had two kids and were confronted with the issue that the farm had to make enough money to support the whole family.” The couple’s two young children are listed on The Grove’s website as “apprentice” and “intern.”
While growing microgreens, the Knapps had started tours as a member of Alaska’s Farm Tour Route, and they steadily began increasing their tour offerings. They also joined Airbnb, which encourages its properties to offer not only lodging but activities that guests can do while vacationing.“I was pleasantly surprised at the interest out there; there are plenty of people looking for something to do while staying at a different location,” says Knapp. “It came to a point where our backs were starting to hurt and we were gaining more of an interest in farm tours, so we decided to completely drop the microgreens program. Now we’re focusing on the tours and on our two reindeer, which we added to the farm last fall, as well as perennial production.”
‘Nourishing Body, Mind, and Soil’
The Knapps have begun experimenting with berry growing, which they plan to offer as another option for those looking for farm-grown products. Visitors to the farm can now enjoy an Edibles and Medicinals of the Boreal Forest Tour that includes learning about reindeer as the animals walk with the group while they forage along The Grove’s trails.
“The resources that the forest offers have always been an interest of ours, and I did a little nature guiding before we got this property, so I’m comfortable talking about the different trees and plants here and what you can eat,” says Knapp. He adds that The Grove is currently working on making more trails on the property to further its use as an agritourism spot, in line with its slogan, “Nourishing Body, Mind, and Soil.”
The reindeer have also become a major attraction, and the Knapps plan to add a male reindeer to the herd to keep Sophie and Phoebe company.
“When we first got here, we experimented with a lot of different animals,” says Knapp. “We loved pigs and thought we wanted a grazer for our property, and we tried goats, but they were all good at getting out and getting in trouble and being loud. We loved sheep, but they are really loud and whiny.”
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While watching YouTube videos, the Knapps came across The Reindeer Farm in Palmer and thought it would be interesting to try that form of livestock on the farm. “Reindeer are quiet, majestic, peaceful, and well-suited for Alaska,” says Knapp. “Having them live next to the lodge was a no-brainer.”
The lodge’s top floor, which still features the incredible murals, is now used as an event center for yoga retreats, birthday parties, fundraisers, artists’ workshops, weddings, and more. Guests can stay in either of the two bedrooms on the bottom floor or in one of two cabins or a tiny house on the property.
Lucy the Moose and More
The Reindeer Farm has been attracting visitors to Palmer for thirty years. In addition to 100 reindeer, the property hosts Rocky Mountain elk, bison, Tibetan yaks, alpacas, and Lucy the Moose. During the summer, the farm also offers a food truck, barista stand, and kids’ play area.
Originally one of the Matanuska Valley Colony farms built in 1935, The Reindeer Farm was used as a dairy by the current owner’s grandparents, Tom and Gene Williams.
“My grandpa grew up here in the ‘50s, and my mom grew up here in the ‘70s,” says farm manager Lauren Waite. “They got their first reindeer in 1987.”
Waite’s grandfather loved animals and originally wanted to have a moose farm, but it was illegal to farm the wild animals. “He figured that reindeer are sort of little moose, so he thought he’d raise them for meat,” says Waite. “He got his first 20 reindeer in 1987 and the next year got 100 more, and people started coming to the farm to see what reindeer looked like.”
The family started giving tours in the ’90s and now offer three different tours.
“The biggest difference between our tours and others is that we have staff standing at each of the animals’ pens to tell you about the animals, and you get to feed and pet them and interact with them,” says Waite. “During the guided tour, we talk about the history of the farm as a colony farm, as well as how we got into raising reindeer.”
The farm introduced self-guided tours last year, and this year The Reindeer Farm is offering both guided and self-guided tours. Grandpa Tom’s VIP tour allows visitors to go into the pen with the animals rather than feeding them over a fence, and it offers up-close interaction as well as the opportunity to get great pictures. Those tours are limited to smaller groups of up to ten people, ages 10 or older.
While The Reindeer Farm mostly attracts out-of-state tourists in the summer months, locals come to visit in fall to attend the farm’s big fall festival and pumpkin patch and in winter for Christmas with Santa Claus. The farm has also garnered attention for its appearance on the National Geographic Wild TV show, Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet. The celebrity veterinarian from Haines first visited in 2013, and she usually visits a couple of times a year if there is something going on with the animals.
“That’s been really good exposure for us; a lot of our followers on social media saw us on the show and put us on their bucket lists,” says Waite.
While the tours help pay for the animals’ grain throughout the winter months, Waite says that they love that visitors get to enjoy the experiences of living on a reindeer farm.
“We love the animals; it’s the whole reason that we do what we do,” she says. “You can’t form a bond with a vegetable like you can with our animals. They all have names and different personalities, and they’re all unique.”
Waite seems to be as entertained by The Reindeer Farm’s resident livestock as its guests are. “They come running when you’re out in the field, and they latch onto certain people,” she says. “I just love that they are so affectionate, and it’s so fun that tourists get to share and experience this, too.”
To keep visits fresh, The Reindeer Farm is constantly changing what it offers to ensure that people have a different experience each time. The food truck, espresso stand, and kids’ play area were added a few years ago, and a log cabin that Waite’s grandfather started building before he passed away in 2017 has been finished as a gift shop.
“We just completed the gift shop last year and added a parking lot so that people can stay longer, get something to eat, feed the animals, and just enjoy being here,” Waite says. The farm also added a season pass for locals for the first time this year, offering an individual pass or a family pass for up to six people.
Peonies and Pack House Tours
Decorative flowers have been a surprise crop success in the last decade or two, and now Alaska’s peony farmers have gotten into the agritourism act.
“At the pack house, we show visitors how we create consumer bunches, talk about different packaging options, talk about our buyers and where we ship to, and introduce the value-added products that we’re starting to produce,” says Allison Gaylord, board president of Alaska Beauty Peony, a co-op of a dozen farmers in Homer.
The former Old Tyme Saloon in Talkeetna has, over the years, been a farm for vegetables and microgreens. Its latest incarnation as The Grove harvests visitors drawn to agritourism.
“We also talk about what a cooperative business is,” she says. “Our co-op was formed, for example, to provide shared infrastructure, labor, and marketing for distribution. We’re all jointly invested in the facilities and infrastructure.”
As part of the peony tour, guests start at the pack house and are then driven in a fifteen-passenger bus to Gaylord’s farm, Willow Drive Gardens, where they can take a tour of the peony fields and see what the harvestable stage looks like as well as what field maintenance entails. “While the farm is only two acres, they can see what a large volume of flowers you can grow on a small-scale intensive farm; you can produce a lot of flowers in a small footprint,” says Gaylord.
The final stop is a local meadery, where they spend the rest of the two-hour tour learning about peony mead. “We worked with Sweetgale Meadworks & Cider House on a variety of flowers, and they chose the variety that they wanted to make mead from,” says Gaylord. Mead, of course, is an alcoholic beverage fermented from honey; winemaker Jason Davis raises bees that feed in the flower fields to produce sweet stuff for mead and for his berry-based wines.
Alaska Beauty Peony’s tours attract a mix of folks from out of state as well as locals who come from Anchorage for the month-long Homer Peony Celebration, held throughout July. During the festival, visitors can visit peony farms near Homer and partake in a range of educational activities.
At last year’s fourth annual festival, artists’ workshops focused on peonies and painting, giant paper Japanese flower-making and printmaking, and dressmaking classes using floral couture and more. The Fleur de Paeonia Botanical Dress Art Show held at Bear Creek Winery attracted floral designers from across the country to learn more about flower farming at the source.
This year, for the first time, the co-op is also offering tickets for a You Pick at another co-op member, Hidden Hills Peony Farm. The You Pick begins July 14 and continues until the harvest is done.
Co-op members also use their farms as wedding venues, including Alaska Homestead Peonies near the head of Kachemak Bay, which includes the AK Diamond J Wedding Venue as part of its offerings, and The Farmer’s Daughter, located in Soldotna.
From the flower fields in Homer to the U-Pick apple orchard in Palmer and the Running Reindeer Ranch in Fairbanks, farmers in Alaska have figured out ways to extend the productivity of their land.
“Margins in farming are tight, and it’s a risky business, so it’s nice to have a back-up source of income,” says Gaylord. “We’re seeing strong interest from members leaning heavily into agri-tours, and we’re developing value-added products as well.”