The Great Alaskan Cattle Drive features an authentic chuck wagon for cooking and gear storage. Courtesy The Great Alaskan Cattle Drive.
The terms “locally sourced” and “farm-to-table,” have gone past the buzzphrase stage to more of a norm in the national food lexicon these days. Whether it’s reducing shipping distances, finding a way around pandemic-related supply kinks, or just opting for the fresher option, consumers are increasingly seeking a local choice.
Those terms apply to Alaska as well, as does “food security,” two words familiar to residents of a state where more than 90 percent of the food supply is shipped from the Lower 48.
Alaskan farmers are eager to cut into that number, as farming in the state continues to grow and thrive. A U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017 census showed Alaska had a 30 percent increase in the number of farms from 2012, while nationally that number was down some three percent. Forty-six percent of Alaska’s producers were new and beginning farmers, while 47 percent were women.
Support organizations like the Sitka Local Foods Network continue to earn national recognition with farmers markets and outreach programs, and the Alaska Farmland Trust has established Alaska FarmLink, a clearinghouse for beginning farmers starting a business or landowners who want to see their acreage farmed.
And as sustainable farming and ranching continues to carve out a bigger niche, so does agritourism. From the Interior to Southeast Alaska, farm owners are either offering private tours or joining a list of featured farms on organized excursions to showcase their operations.
Following are some notable Alaska farm and ranch tours for 2022.
Delta Junction hay farmer and rancher Scott Mugrage wants to pair his love for cattle drives with an awareness of what agriculture can become in the state.
Mugrage, president of the Alaska Farm Bureau and owner of Mugrage Hay and Cattle, has created the Great Alaskan Cattle Drive, an effort to give registered guests a backcountry experience in the saddle while raising awareness on just how many opportunities there are in Alaska for aspiring and existing farmers.
Mugrage tapped Monica Thornburg, a Missouri transplant with a farming and ranching background, as the drive’s chief operating officer.
Thornburg said through the cattle drive project they hope to raise awareness of the need for more agriculture infrastructure, such as meat processing plants, railroad development, and grain markets—as well as agriculture policy changes to aid farmers. “There is so much agriculture potential up here,” Thornburg said. “I came up in 2020 and was just amazed. Operations like the Alaska Range Dairy and the Alaska Flour Company here in Delta are great examples.”
Thornburg said the plan is to run 100 cattle on public and private land around the Delta Junction area this summer. Guests would stay for weekly intervals and be involved in moving cattle on horseback with a crew of cowboys while they eat, sleep, and live outside. The drive features an authentic chuck wagon to carry gear.
“In a typical day we’ll drive cattle until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, then make camp and cook,” Thornburg said. “Certainly, it would be ideal (for guests) to have some horsemanship, but we welcome all skill levels. We want to fulfill all their dreams.”
For those visiting the Golden Heart City, the Fairbanks Economic Development Council organizes an annual Tour of Farms each summer. Participants can engage in a self-guided tour to each participating farm, which differ from year to year and represent a variety of crops—from livestock to peonies to produce.
Learn about other Interior farms and ranches.
In Palmer, Alaska Farm Tours owner Kristi Short is hopeful that 2022 will be a return to a more normal season after pandemic-related restrictions curtailed her offerings—and guests.
Short bought the business in January 2020, just weeks before the pandemic would grind tourism to a halt in Alaska. “I pretty much used my van to deliver boxes for the food bank that summer,” Short said. “Last year was better; we’re hanging in there.”
Short offers tours of several established—and often historic—Palmer-area farms as well as a Talkeetna tour that includes a birch-tapping operation and tour of Denali Brewing Company. “The Talkeetna tour is popular with the cruise ship passengers who stop on their Alaska Railroad trips,” Short said.
In past years, Short has offered a farm-to-table, sit down meal. “We always provide some kind of locally sourced food,” she said. “We’re really hopeful to bring back the larger, Alaska-grown meal in 2022. It is really popular.”
In Soldotna, Fresh365 is a year-round hydroponic farm located near downtown that produces a variety of greens, lettuces, and herbs for the community as well as Addie Camp, the restaurant next door. Ask for the lemon basil house dressing.
Down the road in Kasilof sits Ionia, a multi-generational community of families who offer tours of their gardens and renewable energy systems.
On the southern peninsula, Blood Sweat & Food Farms in Homer produces pasture-raised lamb, pork, and poultry. Tours are offered on request and visitors can book through Airbnb throughout the summer.
Also in Homer, Synergy Gardens co-owner Lori Jenkins—also the founder of the Alaska Garlic Project—offers tours on request. Along with its role in offering shares as a Community Supported Agriculture farm, Synergy sells garlic as seed, edible decorative braids, or bulbs.
To view a comprehensive list of peninsula farms, visit kenailocalfood.org. The organization will host its annual Harvest Moon Local Food Festival Sept. 10.
The Kodiak Baptist Mission’s Heritage Farm and Ranch is a certified Grade-A goat dairy that also features sustainable agriculture and use of renewable resources.
While tour operations were closed for 2021, Jewell Gardens in Skagway is anticipating a more normal season in 2022. Started in 1996 by Charlotte and Jim Jewell, Jewell Gardens is an organic certified show and vegetable garden, active glassblowing studio, and restaurant housed on the historic Gold Rush era Henry Clark Farm. Glass sculptures adorn the garden grounds.