It’s the middle of August and Alaska farmers—of both commercial and hobby varieties—are busy harvesting their crops.
Some of them will be eyeing ribbons at the Alaska State Fair while others will be putting their products up for use over the winter.
This writer confesses to lack of a green thumb, but dabbles from time to time in planting, weeding and keeping his fingers crossed while hoping for good results. He definitely does enjoy the taste of fresh veggies that are picked, cooked and served at their prime for flavor. Our location and short season deprive us of fresh produce much of the year. Fruit picked while green and expected to ripen during shipment to stores here from distributors closer to the orchards lacks the sweetness and juiciness of vine-ripened goodies.
As an example, a cantaloupe cut and served after being collected from a friend’s yard three years ago in Couer d’Alene, Idaho, was enough to make me turn away from that fruit now. It tasted so good that just the memory is enough to make our everyday store-bought variety completely unacceptable. Previously enjoyed, the meat of that yellow fruit available here is tough and blah-tasting.
But this is to be a layman’s look at the history of agriculture in Alaska, not personal likes and dislikes.
From the early days, Alaska was recognized for its agricultural potential. Both the Tanana and Matanuska valleys were seen as places where flowers and vegetables could flourish. Some settlers in both places were planting crops even before the government established a colony at Matanuska in 1935. At Knik, trader George Palmer, for whom the town that replaced Matanuska was named, long before had seen the potential. He sought seeds and directions from the Experimental Station in Sitka that had been established in 1898, planted the seeds and reported fair results the first year.
The Hatch Act of 1887 (not to be confused with the 1939 law of the same name that deals with political activity by government employees) created an agency to promote agriculture. Experimental stations were established at land-grant colleges to study the most effective ways to grow food. While Alaska did not yet have a land-grant college, such a station was created at the governor’s mansion atop a hill at Sitka, then the territorial capital.
According to historians, Alaska Natives were already planting potatoes and a few other vegetables introduced to them by the Russian traders and missionaries. Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes planted seed potatoes in the spring before heading for their fishing camps. Upon their return they harvested the crops. Settlers who arrived after the purchase of Alaska brought with them a desire to grow their own produce. They also delighted in growing colorful blossoms to brighten their yards and tables.
The Experimental Station at Sitka was the first created in Alaska.
It was tended by professionals who tested various strains of vegetables thought to be suitable to the climate. They also raised cattle and hogs in hopes of establishing herds that could sustain the populace.
Separate from the federal agricultural program, a reindeer project was created in northwestern Alaska. Rev. Sheldon Jackson, Alaska’s general agent for education, had acted on an idea proffered by Capt. Michael Healy, skipper of the Revenue Cutter Bear. Jackson convinced the government to purchase reindeer from Siberia, and later from Norway, as a means of supplementing meat for the Native population. Sami herders were brought over from Norway to teach husbandry techniques and supervise care of the animals.
The idea behind that program was to train Native apprentices, then loan them animals to start herds of their own. The project was successful but became sidetracked after non-Native interests acquired many of the animals and opened commercial slaughterhouses. Notable among these was Nome’s Lomen Brothers operation that advertised reindeer meat nationally. In the end, regulations were put in place limiting ownership of reindeer to Alaska Natives. Although not as numerous, there still are active reindeer herds.
Although early experimental stations were set up at Sitka, Kodiak, Kenai, Rampart, Copper Center, Fairbanks and the Matanuska Valley, now only the latter two continue. Both are operated under the auspices of the University of Alaska, which also oversees the Cooperative Extension Service.
The Matanuska Experimental Farm consists of 260 acres of cultivated land and 800 acres of forested land.
There they grow and study various varieties of small grains, vegetables, forage and other crops in an ongoing effort to discover and improve those best suited for Alaska’s gardens. They also raise beef cattle for food and educational purposes. The university’s veterinary technician school assists with that effort.
The Palmer center also works with Alaska Fish and Game biologists in studies of moose and caribou nutrition. A long-time Alaskan once opined that moose usually die of starvation because their teeth wear down to a point where they no longer can chew their natural food. The veracity of that statement has not been verified, but is an interesting one.
An area of particular interest to amateur gardeners is the Cooperative Extension Service. Its Web site can be found at www.uaf.edu/ces. There you can find information in their Master Gardener Programs for adults and juniors, where people can learn the ins and outs of growing things in Alaska. They have a wide variety of publications, including a regular newsletter. They even have a section on pest control, although it does not give helpful hints on getting rid of calls from political pollsters or candidates wanting your vote.
Very helpful are gardening articles by Michelle Hebert whose columns on lawn care, houseplants, flowers, vegetables, seed selection and many other topics. Just click on a subject and choose from a series of well-written and informative items. She can be found on that site under “Michelle’s Garden.”
Now is the time when many gardeners are thinking about the State Fair at Palmer.
Some have been tending rows of veggies with an eye to getting their best ready for display. Eagle River resident Joe Ann Vanover, who was a young child when her family arrived as part of the Matanuska Colony Project in 1935, recalls helping her mother get ready for the Fair. She said the display of peas had to have each of the green beauties the same size as the others on the plate and arranged “just so” for the judges to inspect. Harvest time involved a lot of hard work, but was a fun time, she remembered.
There is a lot more that could be said about the joys of harvesting, but the keyboard on which this is being written is in danger of destruction by drool. Granddaughter Tracy just called from Pennsylvania. She arrives tomorrow with her 2-year-old daughter Kinley. That news was good enough, but the added fact that she is bringing a cooler loaded with fresh ears of corn caps it off—kind of like spreading melted butter all over a plate of corn on the cob.
Goodbye for now. Can’t spend any more time at the computer today. Eagerly anticipating an over-stuffed tummy and a longed-for visit with a beautiful little girl whose mother’s online posts long ago captured my heart.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: email@example.com.