It’s a tough time right now for local produce in Alaska. There’s a tray of baby lettuce in our arctic entry, but even potatoes are gone from the major stores. Since the outdoor growing season in Alaska is short, from mid-May to the end of August, the commercial farms really need to get moving while the days are long.

Palmer fixture Ben Vanderweele supplies many of the grocery stores in the area with potatoes, carrots, lettuce, brussels sprouts and brocolli, and he’s been busy getting his seeds and starts in the ground. With about 160 acres in production, Vanderweele operates one of the larger farms in the area and last week I spent the morning with one of his crews as they planted rows of lettuce (photo gallery here).

It’s labor intensive, even with an automated planter. Eight people drop the seedlings into the machine and a team about that large crawls behind the tractor to make sure the rows go in properly. Job assignments are by seniority. If you can survive a couple of seasons on the ground you’ll graduate to a seat on the tractor.

This is a commercial operation, and not organic, but shopping for local food in a big box store still feels like progress to me. It’s a healthy, high quality option, and hundreds of acres of prime land are saved from becoming cookie-cutter subdivisions.

We’re enjoying a wonderful spring so far, warm and sunny, and Vanderweele thinks he’ll be able to start harvesting lettuce by the middle of June.