Protecting Palmer Farmland in Perpetuity

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TS49 Radio Land Trust

A stockpile of Alaska carrots at VanderWeele Farms.
A stockpile of Alaska carrots at VanderWeele Farms.

Today we’re exploring farm land in Palmer. The Alaska Farmland Trust was formed about eight years ago in an effort to preserve agricultural land across the state. Louisa Yanes is the director of the AFT, located in Palmer.

“So what happens is a farmer will come to us and say I have this great piece of farm land that I want to make sure is there for the next generation, and the next generation,” says Yanes. Basically, the AFT will create a conservation easement on that farm, which will provide different benefits to the land owner, but more importantly will guarantee the land won’t ever be developed.

“And that will help ensure that they’re able to pass down their legacy, and also that the land will be there for the next 50, 100, 200 years to continue growing food for our state,” says Yanes.  She says there are a lot of reasons to be preserving Alaska farm lands, especially the ones in the Palmer area. Alaska’s lack of food security, sustaining the local economy and producing quality product are just a few. But not everyone sees it that way.

“The Mat-Su valley is the fastest growing area in the state, so there is a lot of development pressure happening here in Palmer and in Wasilla. We’re not against development. Development is great, but we want farm lands to be used for farms,” Yanes says.

Louisa Yanes and Arthur Keyes of the Alaska Farmland Trust.
Louisa Yanes and Arthur Keyes of the Alaska Farmland Trust.

I decided I’d take a tour to see some of these lands for myself with Arthur Keyes, a board member of the Alaska Farmland Trust, and a farm owner here in Palmer. “It’s a specialty crop farm. So we grow squash, strawberries, onions, cucumbers and tomatoes as primary crops,” Keyes says. 

We cruise around Palmer in Keyes’s pickup truck, and he tells me why he decided to join the AFT board about three years ago. “I think the turning point for me that really fired me up and robbed me of sleep is when they built the new hospital here south of Palmer,” Keyes says.

During the hospital’s construction planning, members of the assembly decided they would buy up about 15 miles of farm land for sewer line. When Keyes and his brother-in-law found out, they were stunned. “And, my question to them was ‘why aren’t you putting it on the other side where there is actual already housing development?’ And the response was they don’t need a sewer line. And my brother and I said ‘We don’t need a sewer line.’ And they told us when you go to develop this land and put houses in, you’ll need a sewer line. And that was just nauseating,” Keyes says.

Keyes and his family have zero intention of allowing housing development on their land. Keyes comes from a family of farmers 11 generations deep. And besides, he believes a farm is more valuable than just about anything you could build over it. “A 40 acre hay field can produce hay into perpetuity. Think about what that means. For 1,000 years that hay field can produce hay. There is no limit. You put houses on it, you’ll never farm it again no matter how bad you need the farm ground. Once they go in and dig it up and pour concrete into it, that ground is dead. You have killed it,” Keyes says.

Keyes is passionate about preserving farm land in Palmer. He says there is nowhere else in the state that has its perfect growing conditions. Further up north, it’s too cold. “There are years where they have frost every single month of the year. That’s devastating to a guy like me producing the crops I produce. It would kill them. And a little bit farther south, head to the Kenai Peninsula and you get into from what I’ve heard are arsenic problems. So now you have water problems.”

We take a stop at Keyes’s father-in-law’s farm. “We’re at the VanderWeele farm. And I’d like to take a quick peek at the carrot barn,” Keyes says, as he opens the door to the building. And, what we see is a ton of carrots.

“You’re looking at a pile of carrots about 40 feet wide, about 120 feet long, and about 16 feet high. This will supply Alaska’s population with carrots for probably about the next five or six months,” Keyes says. As we crunch on a few VanderWeele carrots, we agree, they taste as good as any we’ve ever had. Keyes says people ask him all the time why they don’t grow more.

“But what you’re looking at is a product that’s going to have to go to the grocery store and compete with California or any other southern locale carrots. Now you’d think it would be common sense that this is the carrot people would buy. It has up to eight times the sugar content of anything you’ll find in the lower 48,” Keyes says.

But lots of people don’t buy the Alaska carrot. Keyes says smaller displays, prices, and just a basic lack of awareness are some of the biggest contributing factors. He says that last one is the most important. “Choosing the Alaska Grown label; that’s what’s going to help save this farm land. That’s what’s going to make the difference. And that’s something every single person can do,” Keyes says. And, he does mean every single person.

Keyes says he still remembers the first time his son had one of their very own Alaskan broccoli. “My son was about five or six years old, and I roasted this broccoli for the first time, and he wanted nothing to do with it. So I told him ‘I’ll give you a dollar to eat one of these pieces of broccoli, but if you eat more than one I get my dollar back.’ He takes my dollar, scrunches down that one piece. Then about two minutes later he wouldn’t make eye contact with me, but he slid the dollar back across the table,” Keyes says.

The good news Keyes says, is that it’s not just his son that has fallen in love with Alaskan produce. The trend of buying local seems to be more prominent than ever.

“I think that’s the greatest gift that the consumers have given Alaska’s farmers, that trend. Not only is that a gift for the farmers, it’s a gift for the consumers. It’s going to help Alaska stay a very sustainable, good and healthy place for everyone to live,” Keyes says.

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David Waldron began his radio career in 2000 as a volunteer DJ at UAA’s radio station KRUA 88.1, where he hosted a weekend music show. In 2004 he was hired as the station’s Music Director, and held the position until his graduation in 2007. After a few radio odd jobs, he was hired by Alaska Public Media in 2008 as an operator and audio engineer. He currently engineers the statewide programs Alaska News Nightly and Talk of Alaska for APRN, as well as KSKA's Hometown Alaska and Line One: Your Health Connection. He also hosts and produces AK, a weekly news program that airs at the end of Alaska News Nightly on Fridays. dwaldron (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8425 | About Dave