FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The glorious taste of a late-summer tomato, fresh off the vine, is a chin-dripping wonder for many Americans. Except, as many gardeners might assume, up here.
In Fairbanks, just 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, frost can continue into June, while summer surrenders as early as mid-August. A long growing season it is not. On the federal Agriculture Department’s plant hardiness map, a blue smear across interior Alaska shows where the brutal winters, with their 60-degree-below-zero temperatures, make it difficult for anything but the toughest plants, and people, to survive. Partly as a result, Alaska imports about 95 percent of its food, state officials say.
But advocates for local food are pushing back against the widespread notion that eating food grown or raised in Alaska is impossible or too expensive. Boosted by a state program that is helping school districts buy local products, and food-stamp incentives that are luring low-income shoppers to farmers’ markets, locavore warriors are teaching small farmers how to reach the public, and consumers how and where to buy. (In Alaska, local can also mean wild, as in moose or seal meat.)
One consultant on food issues, Ken Meter, likened the effort to matchmaking.
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There is, for instance, only one tortilla-chip manufacturer in Alaska, said Meter, who is finishing a report for the Alaska Food Policy Council, a coalition of government and private groups. But recently, the manufacturer took an interest in Alaskan salmon, Meter said, and the product of the culinary marriage, the salmon tamale, is now being shipped to schools across the state.
Many people in the new wave of local farmers and eaters say the short growing calendar and gardening-zone limitations can be misleading. With more than 22 hours of sunlight on the longest days of June, gardens in the far north can explode like gawky teens, sending out shoots, flowers and fruits in a compressed and frenzied summer cycle. Cruciferous vegetables, like cabbage and cauliflower, can get as big as basketballs.
It is a pattern the early settlers embraced, mostly because they had to — if a family did not shoot, catch or grow something local, they did not eat. Then, with the wave of global food marketing and transportation, the knowledge faded.
“Things want to grow here,” said Susan Willsrud, the farm director at the Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, a nonprofit near Fairbanks that trains backyard and commercial farmers in the vagaries of Alaskan-style cultivation, and has seen the numbers in both categories sharply rise in the past few years.
At the downtown farmers market along the banks of the Chena River, a local chef — paid by a state agriculture program, using federal farm grants — handed out samples of scallops on an Alaskan-made chip with minted pea purée on a recent weekday afternoon.
Kathy Page, 33, had just bought zucchini, broccoli, onions and snap peas for her family of five under a program that doubles the first $20 of a food-stamp recipient’s money used for fruit and vegetable purchases at farmers’ markets.
“Twenty bucks, doubling it out to forty, goes a long way,” said Page, who said she and her husband, who is disabled, and their three children live in an apartment and are able to cultivate only a tiny garden.
The food-stamp incentive program has grown fivefold since its start here in 2011. Measured more broadly by things like access to farmers’ markets and farm-to-school programs, Alaska is now 16th in the nation — up 11 spots in the last two years — in the “Locavore Index” created by a Vermont-based local-food advocacy group. Alaska also recently got its first food co-op, based here and offering 50 percent locally grown produce in the summer to its 2,600 owner-members.
At Ice Wedge Farm, which started near Fairbanks in 2011 on 1 acre, food-stamp buyers make up about half the sales, said Iris Sutton, the farm’s owner, who grows vegetables in summer and makes art through the winter — and sells both at her farm stand. Food-stamp recipients can also get weekly produce boxes directly from farmers like Sutton at subsidized prices through a community-supported agriculture membership, or CSA.
Alaska’s defining differences with the Lower 48 states — the vast distances, the lack of roads in many areas, the climate and a still vibrant tradition of subsistence hunting and fishing — make many food patterns, and home pantries, unique.
The Legislature has seized on those differences, with a school-lunch program begun in 2012 that agriculture experts said is one of the most generous in the nation, reimbursing districts when they buy local products. In a state with only about 131,000 public-school students, $3 million a year has been committed; some districts unable to spend it all because many newer school kitchens were built to serve processed, frozen or canned foods.
But there is an Alaska-sized debate, too, about what exactly constitutes local in a state more than twice the size of Texas. The port city of Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands, where many crab, scallop and halibut fishing boats bring their catch, is almost as far from Fairbanks as New York City is from Miami. And even wild Alaskan salmon, the signature local food, might be only partly local, having been in many cases packed and frozen in a plant in Seattle.
The Alaskan identity, especially the spirit of self-reliance that many residents still pride themselves on and practice, is the secret weapon in the local food fight, said Danny Consenstein, executive director of Alaska Farm Service Agency. “Consumers are saying, ‘Yes, there was a time that I thought getting those fresh tomatoes from Mexico was a cool thing,’” he said. “But now I think the trend is going the other way.” Alaskan tough, he said, equates to Alaskan local.
“We’re vulnerable up here. We clearly do not produce the food we need to, either to be secure or prepared in the case of emergencies,” he said. “Alaskans don’t like feeling vulnerable.”