Martha Merry’s home on Pickle Hill in Soldotna is a bonafide farmhouse. The dozens of garlic plants drying on the floor of the living room during a rainy spell are a dead giveaway.
Merry, stepping over a row of scapes, said she’s not sure she’s going to bring the garlic to the Lancashire Farm stand at the farmers market, like she usually does. It’s a little late in the season.
“So I’m just going to mince those and use them for the family,” she said.
“Which — we do love it when the garlic scapes come up,” said daughter Amy Seitz.
Merry, Seitz and Jane Conway run Lancashire Farm — this year’s Alaska Farm Family of the Year. It’s an honor from the state to an Alaska family that epitomizes a commitment to local agriculture.
Lancashire Farm has been committed to that goal for longer than most. Larry and Rusty Lancashire arrived in Alaska in 1948, by way of Ohio.
They were some of the first homesteaders in Soldotna, and one of the few homesteading families that farmed commercially — and stuck with it.
Merry — not even 5 years old in 1948 — said her dad’s interest in farming was rooted in his time in World War II. When he was serving as a pilot, his plane was shot down and he spent over a year in a prisoner-of-war camp.
“While he was there, the Red Cross would send some books,” she said. “Some were about farming, and so he looked at some of those.”
After he got out, he tried out careers in insurance sales and then in crop dusting. But Merry said neither stuck.
“So then when crop dusting didn’t pan out and insurance didn’t pan out, he decided to come north,” she said. “It took him quite a while to drive a half-ton Jeep pulling four tons on a trailer up the Alcan. He’d come to a hill and wouldn’t be able to go up, so he’d put shocks behind the wheels and he had a rope that he’d put out in front. And then he’d wait for a trucker to come by, and the trucker would pull him up and he’d be good to go until the next hill.”
When the Lancashires finally arrived in Alaska, they set up shop on the property the farm sits on today — on Pickle Hill, in Soldotna.
“I think dad always had in mind having a commercial farm,” Merry said. “So first — Everybody needs to have eggs. So he raised chickens.”
But the neighbors weren’t so warm to the idea, at first.
Merry said the people in nearby Kenai — already an established town then — were so used to eating dried eggs that they didn’t take much to their fresh ones.
“And so, dad tried dairy cattle,” she said. “After all, every family needs milk. But likewise, the people in Kenai were so used to canned milk that they didn’t like fresh, 33% Guernsey gold.”
Finally, the family got into potatoes. They’d sell them on contract up in Anchorage.
Eventually, Larry Lancashire got out of the farm business altogether. He bought Larry’s Club in Soldotna and became a commercial fisherman.
But farming stayed in the family. Merry’s sister, Abby Ala, runs Ridgeway Farms down the street.
Seitz grew up spending summers at the homestead and doing 4-H with Ala’s kids.
“I’ve always been interested in the farm. I always knew this is where I wanted to be,” she said.
Today, the farm does most of its sales directly from the property and at the Soldotna Saturday Farmers Market. They also sell eggs to Odie’s, plus yarn spun from their sheep’s wool at shops around the peninsula.
They’re working on expanding how much they can produce, bringing in more sheep for meat and fiber both and expanding their production on plants — like the garlic.
“We need more layers, we need to do more meat chickens,” Seitz said. “We need to sort out our sheep and have more production there.”
And the farm has been adding new plants into its rotation, too— like yod fah, a brassica from Asia; and celtuce, a cultivar known for its thick stems.
Seitz said people are generally excited to try new things when they stop by their stand at the market — though it takes some getting used to, and some education.
“We have to educate people on what these new items are and then keep planting them,” Seitz said. “We always print off a fact sheet about the plant, and a recipe example. There’s a lot of engagement.”
Seitz is also the head of the Alaska Farm Bureau.
She said there’s a lot of enthusiasm today about local food from consumers, driven in part by a recognition that Alaska’s really cut off from the rest of the world.
“There’s definitely a lot more interest in buying local,” she said.
There’s interest from budding producers, too.
“Several years ago, when high tunnels came on the scene, that was a big benefit,” Seitz said. “It’s given more opportunity to grow longer.”
Merry also said people recognize that local produce just tastes better. It’s a far cry from those early days in Kenai.
“I think there’s a lot of interest in homesteading, in growing gardens and learning how,” Merry said. “And I think that is really good. So I think it’s important that we as farmers reach and help individuals learn to garden on their own area.”
Merry and Seitz are heading to the state fair in Palmer this weekend. They’ll be presented with the Farm Family Of the Year award on Aug. 25.