WASILLA — On an overcast Wednesday, John McNeal shuttles a visitor up to his potato patch.
His side-by-side four-wheeler barely slows despite heading straight for a very furry cow that soon gets the idea McNeal means business and moves off.
Cresting the hill, there’s his potato patch. Picking the potatoes are about a dozen people, mostly volunteers, all from non-profits that could use a few hundred pounds of tasty tubers.
Between this patch and the one over by his greenhouse, McNeal has less than half an acre in potatoes. But he’s probably looking at 7,600 pounds of spuds, which is way more than he needs.
“When I saw the food pantries and everybody having problems, I was like, let’s donate them,” he said.
McNeal was talking about recent news stories raising the alarm about Southcentral food pantries going bare. The same articles in Palmer prompted a food drive among downtown business. As of Thursday, three days into the food drive volunteers, were already emptying collection bins and Academy Charter had collected 1,500 cans.
So, back to McNeal — he and his wife agreed that giving away the excess potatoes was a good idea so they called Eddie Ezelle with the Wasilla Food Pantry.
Since McNeal also needed some manpower to help him get them all out of the ground, Ezelle sent him to Bean’s Café in Anchorage and the Alaska Dream Center in the Fishhook area — a faith-based recovery center for addicts.
Josh Cooley, program director at the Dream Center said a lot of the center’s food comes out of the Wasilla Food Pantry or other food pantries.
“It’s always nice when you get fresh produce,” he said.
And picking potatoes fits with the Dream Center program.
“We do community service projects at least once a month,” Cooley said.
McNeal said he’d send them away with as many potatoes as they could carry. But even if they both took 500 pounds he’d still have more than 2,000 that came out of that field. He said he told the guys they’d be waiting in his newly built potato room whenever they ran out.
The potato room is just a well-insulated room in which he can control airflow to regulate temperature, keeping the spuds cool but not freezing.
As a farmer, McNeal is almost, but not quite, a hobbyist. Take that patch next to his greenhouse he opened up to his neighbors to take as many potatoes as they wanted.
“Part of our philosophy is building the community,” he said. “That’s why all these people live out here. They want to do that, too.”
McNeal said he started growing potatoes a few years back for several reasons. He and his wife are concerned about Alaska’s food security and he wanted to see if he could do potatoes and how many he could grow if the state suddenly needed them.
Why potatoes? They’re easy. And they have a good, in McNeal’s words, “calorie to work ratio.” Which is to say, they give you a lot of energy but don’t take a lot of effort to grow.
“I’ve kind of proved that it works,” he said.
McNeal, a Wasilla police officer on the verge of retirement, said that when he leaves the force he’d like to have enough money coming out of his farm to maintain his lifestyle. He recently went to a conference on peonies and says he’s pretty much convinced on the potential there. Those flowers will likely be his cash crop — his cash crop and his entertainment.
“I don’t have a TV. I’m not a big cellphone guy,” he said. “Most of my days I’m out in the fields.”
Contact reporter Andrew Wellner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-2270.