The Northern Lights Dairy in Delta Junction will stay open – at least, for now. The owners say they’ve reconsidered a decision earlier this month to close. The dairy’s future hinges on finding people to work hard for low pay, a nationwide agricultural problem, experts say is even more challenging in Alaska.
It takes a lot of work to run a dairy. And at the Northern Lights Dairy in Delta Junction, the Lintelman family has for decades pretty much been doing it all.
“We’ve done everything from milking the cow to packaging it to delivering it to the consumer,” says Lois Lintleman, who along with her husband, Don, own and operate the dairy. It’s one of two in the state and the only one still operating in the Interior.
But the Lintlemans are getting on in years, and all but one of their sons have left to find work elsewhere. And the co-owners are aving a hard time finding workers to take their place. So Lois and Don decided a few weeks ago to shut down the dairy. Then, last week, they reconsidered and decided to keep it open – for now.
“We’re hoping things will maybe turn around,” she said in an interview on Monday. “I mean, we’ll have animals that will calve and come fresh in September-October. And we’re hoping things might change.”
Lintleman says they’ll try again to find good workers to operate the dairy. She says that’s been getting harder in recent years, mainly because they must compete against Delta’s biggest employer: Fort Greely and its missile-defense base contractors.
“Everybody thinks that they need to be getting wages like they do out at the military base,” she said, “and a farmer can’t pay 25, 30 to 40 dollars an hour. We’ve advertised Outside, and we even sent a fellow a plane ticket. And he never came.”
University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service agricultural agent Phil Kaspari says most Alaskan farmers struggle to find good employees.
“It’s more challenging here, I would say, because of the military base and the wages,” he said. “It’s difficult for the farmers to be competitive.”
Kaspari says dairy workers are especially hard to come by, because they have or learn a wide skill set that includes farming – growing and harvesting feed – to animal husbandry, to operating a processing plant.
“This time of the year,” he said, “I will get calls from local farmers asking if I know of any good workers, y’know, any young folks graduating that have an interest in agriculture.”
Alaska Farm Bureau President Bryce Wrigley agrees, adding “It’s a challenge for America in general, really.”
Wrigley took a break from spring planting at his barley farm in Delta Monday to explain the worker-shortage problem that farmers nationwide face. Wrigley, whose day job is managing the Delta and Salcha-area Soil and Conservation District, spends much of the rest of his time out in the fields or helping operate a mill where he processes the barley. So he knows what it takes to run an agricultural operation.
“You’re milking cows, you’re grinding grain, you’re making flour, you’re raising beef, checking the hogs. This stuff happens around the clock.”
Wrigley says it takes a special breed of person to commit their life to producing food.
“They see that as a mission, or as a thing that they want to do,” he said. “And they’re willing to forego the high-dollar salaries and stuff like that.”
Wrigley says there aren’t many people out there these days who would choose such demanding work – work that he says is essential to Alaska’s food security. He says the state must grow its agricultural workforce by helping young people understand the importance of producing food through education and activities like 4-H and FFA, or Future Farmers of America, so they’ll be ready to take over when this generation of farmers is ready to retire.