Farming

A plan to open 180,000 acres of state last west of Nenana to agriculture and other development is well along in its planning.

A plan to open 180,000 acres of state last west of Nenana to agriculture and other development is well along in its planning. Lands being considered cover an area roughly 16 by 20 miles west of the city of Nenana.

The State Department of Natural Resources is taking the lead of the project, which would be carried out by DNR’s Division and Land and Water Management and the Division of Agriculture.

DNR has completed an advanced radar technology LIDAR survey of the area as well as aerial photography to aid in planning, and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service plans a soil quality testing program this summer, according to David Schade, the state agriculture director.

USDA’s Soil Conservation Service did very preliminary testing in 2000 with promising results to the quality of soil in the area but the program this year will provide much more detail, Schade said in an interview.

It’s likely that only part of the 180,000 acres will be suitable for crops. DNR’s working assumption is that between 50,000 and 100,000 acres will have optimum conditions for growing, but a better estimate will be available after results of the imaging surveys and the USDA tests are done, Schade said.

Meanwhile, the critical infrastructure for the project has been built. A bridge across the Nenana River built by the City of Nenana with state funds and the Nenana Native Association, which obtained a U.S. Dept. of Transportation infrastructure grant, was completed last summer.

It is now connected to 17 miles of road built privately by Doyon Ltd. several year ago to support oil and gas exploration. The road has been dedicated as a public road.

It’s possible that tracts in the project may be offered in summer, 2022 through DNR’s land sales program, Schade said. The Division of Mining, Land and Water and the Division of Agriculture is engaged in the planning of the project outline and first offering of tracts for the project.

The working assumption is that soil quality for traditional agriculture is better in the western sections of the 180,000 acres so land tracts in those areas are likely to be larger. Parcels offered in the east, nearer the bridge and Nenana community, are likely to be smaller and more suited to operations like greenhouses, Schade said.

Getting more state land into the hands of private owners is a top priority for Gov. Mike Dunleavy but the options for doing that are limited through the state’s usual land disposal programs which are aimed more at allowing Alaskans to buy land for cabins and other recreation uses. An agriculture project, properly planned, has more potential.

But many are also the idea because of past problems with agriculture projects, or even whether farming can be done successfully in the state. The Delta barley project and a program to stimulate dairy farming in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are cited as past failures of state-led initiatives.

Mistakes were made on both programs but as it turned out the Delta project has been successful in that farms were established and are now producing, local agriculture centered on barley has since diversified into other successful activity, like the raising of cattle for beef production. Basically, farmers in the Delta area learned and eventually overcame problems.

The same process might have played out with the dairy venture in the Mat-Su except that a technological disruption undercut the economics. Efficient, low-cost shipping on container ships serving Alaska from large Washington state dairies in the Pacific Northwest supplied milk to Southcentral and even Interior Alaska at lower cost than it could be produced on dairy farms in the Mat-Su or in the Fairbanks area.

Delta’s farmers are getting by serving local markets and even developing locally-manufactured food products with barley – these can be purchased in local supermarkets – and Mat-Su and Tanana Valley farmers have developed a good business selling seasonal vegetables locally. Farmers’ market are thriving, in fact.

But many in the agriculture community feel the Delta barley project should have been in Nenana. There were large areas of state land with good soils, including the 180,000 acres now under consideration, and the elevation was lower, which meant shorter winters, more frost-free days and long, warm summers.

Also, the area was served by Parks Highway and the Alaska Railroad, which offered good connections with Fairbanks, 60 miles away, and Anchorage, about 330 miles to the south. The Nenana River was an obstacle, however, because the good land was west of the river while the community of Nenana and the highway, rail and electrical infrastructure, was on the east side.

Politics proved an obstacle, too. Nenana’s mayor at the time, Jack Coghill, was an influential Republican and Alaska political figure who didn’t get along with Jay Hammond, who was governor. At the same time Delta had a charismatic, energetic state legislator, Rep. Pappy Moss, a Democrat, who knew how to pull the ropes in Juneau to have Hammond select his district for the agriculture project.

There were some serious mistakes by state officials as the project rolled out, however. One was the assumption that barley could be grown on large farms in Delta and trucked to Valdez or shipped by rail to Seward for export to Asia. The city of Valdez caught the enthusiasm and, flush with new oil money, built a grain silo (it is still there).

The Alaska Railroad meanwhile purchased special rail cars for carrying grain, and components for a grain terminal were purchased for Seward. It soon became apparent, however, that the state’s planners for the project had not really checked on markets in Asia. They were being adequately supplied with grain, it turned out, at less cost than it could be shipped from Delta.

Soon after he was elected in 1982 Gov. Bill Sheffield scrapped the barley export plan via Seward. The Seward terminal was never built and Sheffield sold off its part. The Alaska Railroad sold it grain cars, too. Valdez could not dismantle its grain silo and sell it, however, but it has leased it as a tower to support local telecom.

Lessons from that experience were taken to heart and the state DNR now intends to avoid making the same mistakes. For example, the Nenana project will start small and grow in increments as markets develop, probably at its eastern end with greenhouses and smaller-scale farming that has proven itself in Alaska markets.

Possibilities for raising grain at a larger scale and red meat like cattle are out there, however. The experiences of farmers at Delta have shown that barley and other grasses can be grown commercially. If it can be done at Delta it might be done even better near Nenana where growing conditions are better and there is good rail, highway and power infrastructure.

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