For Mark Rempel, vegetable farming the “old school” way is the best way for him.
Sitting in the seat of his 1956 Farmall Cub tractor with Pioneer Peak as a backdrop to his 135-acre farm in Palmer, Mark related, “We started planting 6 acres, now we’re up to 17 and it’s not enough, I can’t keep up with the demand.” Mark and his family plant over 70 different varieties of vegetables. Mark responded when asked what he grows, saying with a chuckle and with a rapid-fire response, “Oh gosh…. carrots, beans, celery, potatoes, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage.” Taking a deep breath, “Tomatoes, basil, arugula, kale, cilantro, onions, beets, cucumbers,” and the list went on. And here’s the kicker, it’s all hand planted using a 1930 push hand planter that his father used in 1960.
How it all Started
Mark’s grandfather, a Russian immigrant, was a farmer who fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and immigrated to California. That’s where Mark’s dad was born and learned to farm. The family moved to Palmer in 1944 when Marks’s father was 14 years old. Later his father and uncle divided up the property which is located in the Butte. When Mark was four years old he started helping his Dad clear the trees to begin farming the land. Mark has cleared most of the trees himself for the current acreage that is now used to grow the vegetables.
When Mark turned 17, he and his father started growing carrots on eight acres of the property. The carrots were sold to local grocery stores and Mark remembers that time saying, “My sister and I were put through college on carrot money, so I’ve been growing carrots for over 40 years.”
Off to College
Mark headed off to college in Kansas and obtained a degree in mathematics minoring in physics. He also obtained his teaching certificate along the way. After college, he moved to Kotzebue working as a carpenter building custom homes. It was there he met his wife, Tammy. According to Mark, “We hit it off and after eight months of dating we got married.”
Mark and Tammy decided they did not want to raise a family in Kotzebue and it was about this time that Mark’s dad and mom were getting older, making it more difficult for them to continue working the farm. Mark and Tammy decided to move back to Palmer. After returning home to Palmer, he considered getting into teaching, “I thought I was headed that way. But…” His voice trailing off, then continuing, “But farming is… the variety fits me. I’m a versatile person. My interests are broad. I like doing my own mechanical work, I do my own welding, I enjoy dealing with customers, I like exploring new ideas.”
So he and Tammy decided they would give farming a try, “We tried it for a couple of years and we realized we really liked the work.”
But, like most farmers starting out, Mark had to have another job, as he put it, “To support my farming habit.” Mark worked driving a fuel truck in the winter for about eight years before making farming a full-time job.
“We moved back to Palmer in 1990. By 1992 I decided to stop using chemicals. I know they kill insects, and they kill weeds, but after applying it, in 30 days it won’t hurt me? I found that hard to believe.” He decided he didn’t want to feed his family vegetables grown that way.
It was at this time organic farming was getting some traction and according to Mark becoming a “buzzword.” After looking into organic farming more closely he discovered, ”We don’t have many dairies here, so compost wasn’t really an option. But I heard about fish bone meal, and at that time it came out of Seward. I knew a man in Palmer who was bringing bones up from Seward and running them through a hammer mill.”
Mark used the sawdust-like substance to fertilize his fields, “I did a side by side comparison between the standard chemical fertilizer that my Dad used, and the fish bone meal. I found the results were very favorable. I actually raised a better quality crop, not necessarily more but the marketable produce was superior to what was raised chemically.”
Mark had to learn a few tricks to deal with pests but considered it a minor detail considering the reward. In 1999 the Rempel Family Farm became one of the first Organic Farms in the State of Alaska, with Mark helping to form the Alaska Organic Association, the first certifying agency in Alaska. At that time, according to Mark, the association had the most stringent rules in the nation, better than California, Oregon or Washington. Alaska farm soil was tested approximately every three years and the produce was tested annually looking for any chemical residue. “The guarantee to the customer that he was eating clean produce, was very, very good.”
Farm to Market
Mark supplies a variety of stores and restaurants with his produce. He sells to Carrs-Safeway in Palmer, Wasilla and Eagle River, and to the Middle Way Café and Hearth restaurants in Anchorage. Primarily though, he sells his produce at a farmer’s markets saying, “I bring a truckload of produce to a farmer’s market in South Anchorage every Saturday all summer.” Adding with a bit of laughter, “I’ve been doing it a long time. In fact, some of my customers have been my Dad’s customers!” The farm produces enough vegetables during the summer that Mark can continue to sell the produce in the winter as well. The vegetables are stored in a climate-controlled barn throughout the year.
Challenges and Rewards
Mark readily admits that farming is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle with rarely a day off. He acknowledges that without the help of his wife, their three adult and one teenage child, and a field crew, the farm would not be successful. He simply could not do it alone. Additionally, in the summer Mark employs about 10 people. With long hours and hard work in the fields, finding the right employees who are willing and able to do the work is challenging.
Summertime is especially tough on the family with planting and harvesting and keeping the farm running. Mark’s day starts very early, especially on Saturdays in the summer. He’s up at 5:00 AM. Then it’s time to get everything ready to take to the market. The family returns from the market in the evening with chores still to do.
Keeping the moose off the fields is also a constant issue as well. “Another big challenge are the moose, we have to have a serious fence to keep them out,” Mark explained he uses an electrified fence to deter them.
As Mark and his son Ben prepare the first planting of the season, Mark cuts open a bag of Red Russian Kale with his Leatherman, and says, “I’ve been having some difficulty in getting some seed that I’ve used for years. Sometimes they just quit making it.”
Then, of course, there’s the tractor that needs fixing or the fence that needs repair, or a tree that has fallen and needs to be cut up, the list of things to do is “endless” as Mark explained it.
A sense of pride goes along with the challenges of running his 135-acre farm. “All the produce is hand planted, hand picked, hand washed and hand sorted.” Mark said with a smile, ‘’We realize that we work really hard and are possibly not paid as well as we might be for as hard as we work if we were doing something else. But, it’s almost like a mission to feed people well.” Mark is sincere when he says, “I feel like what I do is really important, and my family agrees – because we feed the soil, to feed the plants, to feed people well. What we eat is so foundational to how healthy we are, who we are, all kinds of things.”
This kind of sincerity and dedication means that Mark and his family don’t just grow vegetables, they nurture and foster long-standing relationships with his customers, “Over the years our customers have become our friends.”
A Sense of Purpose
Although working a farm is a difficult occupation, Mark feels he has a sense of purpose in what he does saying, “I don’t want to quit. Part of the reason is I know there are so many people who depend on my food. I have people in the fall that tell me, ‘I’m gonna miss your food, my body will tell me I’m not eating your food anymore.’ They feel it when they eat it in the spring and feel it when they can’t eat it in the fall. I try and raise nutrient dense food and like any good thing, it requires a good effort.”
Mark expressed his thoughts about choosing farming as a way of life, “My favorite time is late summer in the evening – to walk out in the fields and see the glory of it all. I look at the beautiful mountains and thank God for what He has done and what I get to be a part of. I plant the seeds and I supervise, but He makes it grow. He creates the beauty.” Taking a long pause to finish his thought, “I’m thankful.”