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Planting onions

Farmer Ben Vanderweele, right, places trays of onion seeds in his greenhouse on Saturday, March 20.

There’s still snow on the ground in Southcentral Alaska but our farms are getting back to the business of growing things. Ben Vanderweele, a longtime Matanuska Valley farmer, started planting onions in his industrial-size greenhouse last week. Cold weather — as in below zero Fahrenheit — delayed him but not for long. Vanderweele said he experiments with different onion varieties, trying to find the sweet spot between cold climate success, flavor and storage.

The onions get a head start, but they’ll soon be joined in the greenhouse by trays of lettuce. They won’t be moved outside until sometime in May.


I picked up some of the last of the local corn from the South Anchorage Farmers Market yesterday for a barbeque but didn’t take the time to research best grilling practices before heading out. Party consensus was to half-shuck the ears, remove the silk then re-cover the ears before cooking.

The final result was OK but does anyone know a better way?

While I was visiting Arthur Keyes’ great strawberry experiment in mid-August I couldn’t help but notice the corn field behind his house.

Alaska is not known for corn (or strawberries for that matter) but with some work and a little meteorological luck the Palmer area will produce a decent crop.

This has been a good summer for corn but because the ears ripen at different rates it takes a skilled eye to determine which ones are ready for market — making harvesting a time consuming task for Arthur.

When I returned later in the month to photograph the pre-market harvest, Arthur kept handing me samples that didn’t make the cut. Even raw it is fantastic stuff.

[A&M Farms photo gallery]

The State of Alaska Division of Agriculture sponsored Eat Local Challenge begins on Sunday. We’re starting tonight with tomato soup, red salmon, and Alaskan strawberries. And something with fava beans (lots of fava beans).

Palmer, Alaska farmer Arthur Keyes has been experimenting with a pair of California strawberry varieties this summer. The California-in-Alaska story seems improbable, but Keyes sees a huge upside to growing the berries in Alaska. The fruit can ripen on the plant, increasing sweetness, and Alaska’s harsh winters and isolation mean that there are very few crop-threatening pests.

An artisan farmer has a tough job with very narrow margins, but if a creative thinker can find niche market….

Keyes says the strawberries have been very popular with his customers at the South Anchorage Farmers Market and I’m interested to see what happens next year if he expands his operation as planned.

[Still photo gallery from A&M Farms]

Southcentral Alaska is enjoying a sweltering summer (well, sweltering for us … temperatures are in the mid-80s) and our garden is pretty happy about it. I’m pleasantly surprised with our broccoli thus far. The plants are developing decent sized crowns, and we’ll soon be able to start harvesting.

This year we added an IRT mulch (primarily for chickweed control) and buried a soaker hose in the row (to make water easier) but the good weather is certainly a factor.

UPDATE: We harvested a couple of the larger crowns tonight, in part to see if we could stimulate those plants to produce other stalks (hat tip to There’s a vast difference between store-bought and home-grown: no recipe, or even cooking, required when they’re straight out of the garden.

Arctic Organics is a small (six acres in production) organic farm tucked beneath the jagged ridges of Matanuska Peak just outside of Palmer, Alaska. Owners Sarah and River Bean serve 150 families with their CSA program, sell at the Anchorage Farmers Market, provide greens to two Palmer restaurants (Vagabond Blues and Turkey Red), and open their farm stand to the public for two hours each Friday.

They are committed to organic, sustainable agriculture yet they can’t label their produce as organic. Until the fall of 2002 they held an “Alaska organic” certification from the Alaska Organic Association but when the Federal government took over the term “organic” the Beans decided to pass on the label. This was part cost (the new regulations require certifying agencies to be accredited, which Sarah estimated would cost $10,000, or $2,500 per AOA farm) and part philosophy, since the language created, as Sarah puts it, “standards we didn’t feel were high enough anymore” (visit the ‘organic certification’ page of the Arctic Organics site for more on their decision to skip the ‘organic’ label).

It doesn’t surprise me that reading a label isn’t enough to protect against industrial farming but it does make walking into a grocery store a little dispiriting, especially in a place like Alaska with limited local food choices.

[Still image gallery from Arctic Organics]

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.


Alaska in February makes us crazy (cabin fever, anyone?) so every year we find a way to pack the family in a jet and escape to Hawaii for a week or two. This year we ended up on Maui and while it was a family vacation I had visions of farm visits and markets brimming with local produce.

Alas, ’twas not to be.

We stayed in Kihei, a resort heavy area on the southwest end of the island and while we did drive through acres and acres of sugar cane, local food was disappointingly scarce.

What the Safeway in Kihei did not carry: local meat; local eggs; local milk; local produce.

Hawaiian Moons, a small grocer on the main street in Kihei, at least carried local produce, including organic and apple bananas. Prices have to be pretty significant to induce sticker shock in an Alaskan but the numbers from Maui were cruel:

  • Local organic bananas: $1.99/lb. (Hawaiian Moons)
  • Local organic apple bananas: $1.89/lb (HM)
  • Dole bananas: $.99/lb (Kihei Safeway)

For comparison:

  • Dole bananas: $.79/lb (Palmer, AK Fred Meyer)
  • Dole organic bananas: $.99/lb (Palmer Fred Meyer)

The local organics were better than the Dole version — they tasted more like bananas somehow. Alaskan bananas are shipped green and force ripened in the grocery warehouse once they arrive in country and I wonder if something similar happens in Hawaii.

It was an expensive way to reduce my banana-eating carbon footprint but worth it. At least for 10 days.

Eat Local Northwest

A food blog documenting the adventures of two friends trying to cook and eat sustainably in Seattle and in Anchorage.