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Thriving, Varied, Mat-Su Farms

Oct 1, 2014 | Agriculture

Harvesting head lettuce at the VanderWeele farm.

PHOTO BY TASHA ANDERSON

By Tasha Anderson

Driving through downtown Wasilla or Palmer, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the Matanuska-Susitna Valley began in many ways as an agricultural colony. But, just a few steps off the main road, there are many farms producing fresh meat, dairy, and produce for hungry Alaskans.

Valley farmers feed Alaskans locally

Ben VanderWeele (right) describing agriculture in the Mat-Su Valley.

PHOTO BY TASHA ANDERSON

VanderWeele Farm

VanderWeele Farm is currently operated by Ben and Suus VanderWeele; the family farm also employs all three of their children. It produces potatoes, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, red and green cabbage, various lettuce varieties, kale, onions, beets, and other vegetables. The majority of VanderWeele vegetables are grown from transplants, which are started in a green house. After thirty-three days, they’re transplanted outside. The exceptions are carrots and radishes, which are grown from seed sown directly in the ground.

Many have the misconception that farmers plant once, wait a while, and then harvest once, but VanderWeele, like other farms in the Mat-Su, plants and harvests continually throughout the season. “We seed every week and we plant every week,” Ben VanderWeele says. “Once we start selling, grocery stores do not want any lapses, you have to have [produce] all the time.” The first planting on the VanderWeele farm usually goes in about the May 1, which is necessary for multiple harvests but risky in Alaska weather.

For example, in 2013 the VanderWeeles planted their potatoes in early May only for the weather to dump four inches of snow on the ground May 18. “You couldn’t see a single plant,” VanderWeele says. “We thought we’d lost the works, but it did ok.”

Despite the challenges, VanderWeele is successful in getting produce out of the ground and ready to sell. Carrs-Safeway, Fred Meyer, Wal-Mart, and Three Bears all stock VanderWeele produce, in addition to a few other wholesalers and restaurants.

VanderWeele does have one unique buyer, and that’s the Alaska Chip Company, owned by Ralph and Darcy Carney. Ralph Carney approached VanderWeele about getting potatoes for the company, and VanderWeele provided him with a half a dozen varieties to choose from. Carney settled on one, which VanderWeele Farm now produces exclusively for the Alaska Chip Company, one of the few agriculture processing plants located in Alaska.

VanderWeele states easily that the produce coming from his farm is not certified organic. “The only reason we are not organic is that we use commercial fertilizer,” he says. All of the produce on his farm is pesticide free, a boon of the Alaska environment, which has few insects and is isolated from many agricultural diseases. He says that in years where the fields are arranged in such a way that there are trees nearby, they use an organic spray for aphids. “I am not organic, but I think this is some of the cleanest produce you can buy,” VanderWeele says.

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Each cow on the Havemeister Dairy Farm has a number and a name.

PHOTO BY TASHA ANDERSON

Havemeister Dairy

Havemeister Dairy was established in 1935 as part of the Colony project by Arnold and Emma Havemeister. The dairy and farm is currently owned by Bob, one of their children, who still operates the property with his wife Jean, their family, and a few employees. In 2012, the Havemeisters decided to stop selling raw milk and instead sell it processed and packaged under the Havemeister name.

Currently Havemeister Dairy has a herd of approximately 150 cows. Of those, eighty are milked twice a day. The cows’ diet consists of hay and about ten pounds of grain daily. The hay is grown on the four hundred acres of farmland worked by the Havemeisters. Because it’s necessary for the Havemeisters to use industrial fertilizer on the hay fields, technically the milk from the dairy cannot be certified organic. Weather wise, 2013 was a difficult year for hay, and the Havemeisters ended up needing to purchase $100,000 worth of hay to make up for a poor harvest.

In order to sell packaged milk, it was necessary for the Havemeisters to build a milk processing plant on-site. Space specifications were sent to a company in the Lower 48 that assembled the plant entirely in a warehouse, took it apart, and shipped it north. Ty Havemeister, Bob and Jean’s son, who runs the processing plant, put it together. According to Havemeister, the plant processes about 530 gallons of milk an hour. It produces three different milk products: 2 percent, nonfat, and whole milk, all of which are homogenized Grade A milk. The milk is packaged in jugs at a rate of about 900 gallons per hour using a nine-valve filler. The Havemeister Dairy currently only packages in one-gallon jugs—producing half-gallon jugs is too expensive.

One of the great advantages to having a dairy in the Valley is how quickly the milk appears on shelves after it’s been processed. “Best case scenario, milk from [Outside] is twelve days old,” Havemeister says. Milk that Havemeister Dairy produces is milked on Monday and on the shelves in stores by the end of the week.

A Graying Workforce

Seen above are the milking station (top left), milk bottling machinery (top right), and milk processing tanks (right). The cows are first brought into the milking station, twice daily, at 3:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The milk is moved through and underground tube to the processing plant, where it is pasteurized and processed to remove the milk fat. Ty Havemeister then mixes the fat and processed milk to get skim, 2%, or whole milk, which is bottled on-site in gallon jugs.

PHOTO BY TASHA ANDERSON

Cream is a byproduct of the milk processing; the dairy doesn’t sell the cream to general customers, but they do sell it to Evangelo’s Restaurant, an Italian dining restaurant located in Wasilla. Havemeister milk is also used throughout the state in local coffee shops and it is used to make local Alaska ice cream.

Havemeister Dairy milk is available at Three Bears, Fred Meyer, Carrs-Safeway, Steve’s Food Boy, and Cubby’s Marketplace.

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Bushes Bunches Stand, located on the Old Glenn Highway, owned by the Bush family.

PHOTO BY TASHA ANDERSON

Bushes Bunches

Bushes Bunches has been in operation at one location or another since 1954. In 1988, the business was split into two branches, Bushes Bunches Gardens which sells flowers, shrubs, and berry plants, and Bushes Bunches Vegetable Stand, located on the Old Glenn Highway, which sells table vegetables: mostly potatoes and squash.

The current owner, Bruce Bush, who runs the Bushes Bunches Vegetable Stand, has been “on the farm” since he was six years old. Bush says that through the sixties, before the business was split, the vegetable stand was self-service because the Bushs couldn’t afford to pay someone to man it. “It was on the honor system, and we never got ripped off. We’d find notes saying, ‘I owe you two dollars,’ or, ‘You owe me three dollars.’ People kept track of their own lines of credit.”

The vegetable stand has moved locations throughout the years. At one point it was on the Parks Highway, and it has been located on both sides of the Old Glenn Highway.

Many of Bush’s customers can and process the food they buy. Bushes Bunches is planning to set up canning, freezing, and preparation classes at the vegetable stand during the winter months.

Fresh produce available at Bushes Bunches Stand, sold by the pound.

PHOTOS BY TASHA ANDERSON

One of Bushes Bunches specialties is the peanut potato, which Bush developed and named. He also farms blue potatoes, which he sells to wholesalers, in addition to eight other varieties of potatoes. Bushes Bunches also sells summer squash, green zucchini, yellow zucchini, crookneck squash, onions, carrots, kale, collards, Swiss chard, celery, pickling and English cucumbers, golden and red beets, radishes, dill, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, spinach, arugula, romaine lettuce, red leaf and green leaf lettuce, and red and green tomatoes. Produce is available at their stand seasonally and is also sold to grocery stores and high-end restaurants in Alaska.

Todd Pettit, owner of the Little Pitchfork Ranch, with a following of buffalo.

PHOTO BY TASHA ANDERSON

Little Pitchfork Ranch

Todd Pettit is the owner of Little Pitchfork Ranch, which is a six hundred acre ranch, and is a third generation farmer and rancher. His family has been farming in the Mat-Su Valley since the 1940s. “My grandparents raised cattle up here for about thirty-four years,” he says. “They used to lease up on Lazy Mountain; there’s a bowl that cuts up in there and our cattle would graze there all summer long.”

Pettit lived in Anchorage and spent his summers on the ranch as a child; he moved to Alaska permanantly two years after graduating from high school. The ranch was actually phasing out the cattle at that time, “but I wasn’t done with animals,” Pettit says. He decided that instead of cattle, he’d have buffalo, and in 1998 he started his buffalo herd with four ten-month old heifers and a bull calf he got from the Edmonton area in Canada. “I grew up with those calves; I learned from them and they learned from me.”

At its peak, Pettit’s buffalo herd got up to about one hundred buffalo, though in recent years he generally kept the herd limited to about eighty. He says that a herd of eighty produces roughly twenty-five calves a year. “I got to the point that, however many calves I got, that’s how many I’d butcher each year at two years of age,” after pulling out the best females to continue breeding.

Pettit also has a small elk herd that started as a bull and two female calves. Fifteen years later, the bull is still around and going on eighteen years old. Pettit has historically kept his elk heard in the range of twelve to twenty-five head.

His were not the first elk in the state, he says, as those came in the late eighties. The Department of Natural Resources required Pettit to build an eight-foot game fence as part of the licensing process to farm the elk because elk can survive in Alaska on their own and have, in fact, been successfully transplanted to Afognak and other Southeast islands.

Last year was also disappointing for Little Pitchfork Ranch in terms of hay production. Pettit says the main market in Alaska is hay for horses. For the horses to be able to consume the hay, the moisture content must be at least down to 12 to 18 percent, which can be difficult with uncooperative, wet weather—the exact problem encountered last year.

Because of losses, Pettit culled down his buffalo herd, which is now comprised of a little more than forty buffalo; the elk herd he is currently maintaining at eleven or twelve. Pettit does sell the butchered animals, either by the side or as a whole animal.

Above left: An example of one of the vegetable information signs, with a storage building and the hydroponic facility in the background.

Above right: Hay and storage barn at Pyrah’s Pioneer Peak Farm.

PHOTOS BY TASHA ANDERSON

Pyrah’s Pioneer Peak U-Pick Farm

While the Pyrah’s Pioneer Peak U-Pick Farm property was one of the original homesteads of the Colony Project, the Pyrahs are not the original family. They have been there for the last thirty-five years. Janet Dinwiddie, a member of the Pyrah family, says that the Pyrahs did originate the U-Pick experience on the property. “The benefits are on both sides: it means that you not only save money but the food is much fresher.” Dinwiddie says that the farm generally tries to set their prices at about half the price of local stores.

The farm grows thirty to thirty-five varieties of vegetables, including corn when the weather cooperates. “The only two that we have failed successfully at time and time again are eggplant and sweet potato,” Dinwiddie says. Alaskan summers, while full of sun, aren’t hot enough long enough to support them.

People who come out to the farm are allowed to pick by the truckload or pick a salad for dinner. For the most part, produce is sold by the pound.

Janet Dinwiddie, a member of the Pyrah family, explains a little about the U-Pick farm, the benefits of growing locally, and the innovations in place to combat the challenges of farming in Alaska during the Mat-Su Farm Bureau tour in July.

PHOTOS BY TASHA ANDERSON

The Pyrah family feels strongly about the value of education. All of the grown children that currently work the farm left the state to get degrees before returning, Dinwiddie says. This focus on education extends to the community, and the U-Pick farm happily arranges and conducts school tours in the fall and camp tours in the summer. “It helps to show kids where their food comes from… Then the kids get to pick their own bag of veggies to take home.”

Beyond that, the Pyrahs have developed signs that are placed at the end of each row of vegetables, describing how to grow it, how to pick it, how to store it, and why it’s good to eat.

One innovation Pyrah’s Pioneer Peak U-Pick farm is utilizing is hydroponics, specifically for strawberries. The system used at this farm is vertical, allowing seven thousand plants, which would normally take up acres of space, to be housed in an area the size of a large barn. Because the space is so much smaller, it can be fenced in, solving the problem of moose grazing on the sweet berries. “Moose would come in like it’s a salad bar—they take one bite out of the top of everything,” Dinwiddie says. The hydroponics also helps control weeds, pests, and birds. The fruit produced is clean and ready to eat.

The farm did try to utilize the system for lettuce greens to form a salad mix, but it worked too well. “It was supposed to turn around every three to four weeks, but it grew back every six days, and we couldn’t keep up with it,” Dinwiddie says.

There’s a nationwide movement to eat responsibly, eat locally, and eat fresh. Fortunately for Alaskans, eating produce fresh out of the ground is an option due to our thriving agriculture industry in the Mat-Su Valley. While Alaska may be known far and wide for its horse-sized pumpkins, local Alaskans should all be aware that kitchen sized, quality vegetables are available any day.

TASHA ANDERSON IS THE EDITORIAL ASSISTANT AT ALASKA BUSINESS MONTHLY.

This first appeared in the October 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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