Interior Alaskans often picture themselves as self-reliant individuals, growing huge cabbages and putting a moose in the freezer each fall. Growing produce in the long days of summer and gathering from the bounty of nature indeed can be productive, spiritually rewarding, and economical. However, the reality is our population as a whole imports a high percentage of its food from outside the state.
With only an estimated 10-day supply of food in warehouses, Alaska is vulnerable to a prolonged disruption of the long-distance transportation network on which we rely daily. Rising cost of fossil fuel will impact food production and transportation prices. Relying heavily on outside sources means we are also at risk when one of the few major producers has contamination that can manifest widespread effects on many people, even if caught relatively quickly and recalled.
U.S. policies favoring inexpensive food after World War II included price supports for commodities (foods, fuels, and fiber crops, such as cotton) and low taxation on fossil fuel, which is also a feedstock for fertilizer and pesticides. The cost of food as a percentage of annual income has steadily declined in the industrialized world during the 20th Century. Today Americans spend only about 10% of income on food. However, the “savings” come at a price to the environment (chemical loads, water use) with consequences to international policy on energy (including military engagement), immigrant labor, and trade—externalities that don’t show up on the label in a grocery store.
A local system of food production and processing for storage capability in Interior Alaska, if it (likely) does not qualify for price supports enjoyed by “industrial” agriculture Outside, would be more expensive to consumers because it would reflect more of the true costs. However, what is the value of not being so vulnerable to a disruption of transportation, such that shelves of major grocery stores begin to go bare when trucks or barges are delayed for just one day? What is the return on your dollar spent when you can see it remain in the community, providing jobs for producers, processors, and grocers? How much are you willing to pay for supporting a local food system has to be more accountable because it is composed of your neighbors, not a faceless entity thousands of miles distant with many corporate fingers taking a cut between the grower (doing the work and taking the greatest risk) and the supermarket?
The mantra of industrial process is increased efficiency, which indeed can help feed the world—if consumers can afford the shipping. But heavily mechanized production means high start-up and operational costs for younger people with the urge and skills to produce food. To quality for many of the federal cost share programs you need to have the private money or loan collateral up front–a Catch 22 for young families.
Alaska is highly unlikely in our lifetimes to produce all the food needed by our growing population approaching ¾ of a million people across a vast area, some of which is unsuitable for agriculture or livestock. However, trials a hundred years ago at various locations across the state demonstrated a high potential for growing food on relatively small areas with intensive labor—something young aspiring farmers can handle. There are incredibly resourceful producers of crops and livestock in the Interior right now, growing for personal consumption and maybe a little at the farmer’s market or customer shares. Our collective challenge is to help them scale it up!
I envision Fairbanks Community Cooperative Market as one venue that can help with food security by providing a reliable local outlet for many smaller producers. We can still buy the more exotic foods from far away, but we can buy a lot more of the basics much closer to home.