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Closure of Interior’s Only Dairy Shows Vulnerability of Alaska’s Food Security

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Don Quarberg
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The only commercial dairy in the Interior will soon shut down. The owners of Northern Lights Dairy in Delta Junction, one of Alaska’s two operating dairies, say they’ve decided to close the dairy they’ve operated since 1984 due to a lack of workers and other challenges. Food-security advocates worry that the dairy closure shows Alaska has a long way to go toward the goal of being able to feed ourselves.

Northern Lights Dairy co-owner Lois Lintelman confirmed Monday that she and her husband and co-owner Don Lintelman will shut down operations in the near future. She didn’t want to talk any further about it, and said they’ll announce more information soon.

State Agriculture Division Director Arthur Keyes said Monday he was sad to hear about the closure.

“Agriculture’s a hard industry to be in,” he said. “It’s a challenge.”

Keyes says the closing will leave Alaska with only the Havermeister Dairy, in Palmer.

UAF Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station Director Milan Shipka says he, too, was disappointed with the news. But he says consumers probably won’t feel much impact from the closure of the only dairy in the Interior.

“The Lintelmans didn’t have a huge sector of the market – I don’t think it’ll have a big impact on what we pay,” he said.

But Shipka says the closure illustrates a more important problem, and that is Alaska’s inability to feed itself. Or, as some say, its lack of “food security.”

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Credit UAF Cooperative Extension Service
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Lois Lintelman says she and her husband Don Lintelman will close the dairy in the near future. They bought their farm in 1970.

“There’s a huge, huge concern about food security in Alaska,” he said.

Shipka says the closure of facilities like the Northern Lights Dairy illustrate the difficulty of farming in Alaska, with its cold weather, high costs and complicated transportation logistics at the end of a long supply chain that originates in the Lower 48.

“We’re at the end of a long chain of movement in order to get food to us,” he said.

Shipka says that chain is vulnerable to such disruptions as flooding, like that which closed the Alaska Highway in June 2012 and halted trucks delivering fresh produce; and mechanical problems that kept a barge from delivering food to the Port of Anchorage in January 2016. Both disruptions delayed deliveries and left many shelves bare for several days.

“The difference between the Lower 48 and here is that we have one road to get here,” he said, “and we have a limited number of barges that come into Anchorage. We have one port where they can unload.”

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Credit Northern Lights Dairy
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The Northern Lights Dairy makes milk, ice cream and other products, and distributes them around the Interior.

Another expert – Danny Consenstein, with the Alaska Food Policy Council – says the state’s food-security problem has grown worse over the past few decades.

“Back in 1955, Alaska produced 55 percent of the food that we ate,” he said. “And now, in 2017, it’s something like 5 percent.”

Consenstein is a board member of the council, an Anchorage-based nonprofit that’s working to create a healthier and more secure food system in the state.

“That means 95 percent of the food that we eat is imported,” he said.

Consenstein is also a former state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in Alaska. And he says despite that shortfall, there’s growing interest in farming in Alaska that promises to boost the amount of food grown here.

“The number of farms are definitely increasing in Alaska,” he said. “You look at the number of farmers markets around the state and they’re exploding. Everywhere you go in Alaska there’s a farmers market.”

Consenstein says that’s probably partly due to a growing preference among consumers for locally and sustainably produced food. He concedes farmers that raise livestock for dairy or meat face greater challenges than those that simply grow veggies and fruit. But he says the grow-your-own trend under way in Alaska will help us feed ourselves in the years ahead.

Editor's note: this story was revised to clarify that the Lintelmans bought land for a farm in 1970, where they later built the dairy. They've operated a commercial dairy there since 1984.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.