Alaskan farmers say the state gets a big bang for the small buck the state provides to agriculture. That’s why they say big cuts like those proposed by Governor Mike Dunleavy would inflict serious, long-term harm to the industry.
Bryce Wrigley earns his daily bread as manager of the Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District. And in what he jokingly calls his “spare time,” he operates the family near Delta Junction, where he grows and mills barley. He’s also past president of the Alaska Farm Bureau board, so he knows a bit about the importance of government support for the industry here.
“Inspections, land sales, financing – those kind of things are really important to having agriculture continue to grow and continue to provide that needed resource in Alaska,” he said.
That needed resource, of course, is food. And although Alaska imports the vast majority of it from Outside, Wrigley and a lot of others believe it’s essential to develop the industry here. Those include people who want healthier locally produced food and others who feel better about eating stuff that doesn’t create a huge carbon footprint from bringing it in by truck or barge.
Most important, he says, the industry could help provide for Alaskans when natural disaster makes it impossible to import food. Like the big earthquake that hit Anchorage last November.
“Alaska’s remote location kind of necessitates a certain level of production, just to manage and to provide food for when those emergencies occur,” he said.
Wrigley says in addition to food security, agriculture also boosts local and state economies. So he says he and others who work in and support the industry are all seriously concerned about the disproportionately damaging impact of Dunleavy’s proposed funding cuts to the state Agriculture Division and other agencies that support farming.
“If you take so much capacity away from the Division of Ag that it can’t even rebuild, then you do long-term damage to the state’s ability to feed itself,” Wrigley said.
Farm Bureau executive Director Amy Seitz says that’s what farmers around the state have been telling her about Dunleavy’s proposed cuts.
The governor proposes to zeroing-out the $1.8 million the state gives to the division’s marketing program – the folks who came up with the Alaskan Grown promotion, among other things. Dunleavy says that and other so-called “lower-priority programs” should instead be funded by farmers.
But Seitz says farmers operate on a slim margin, and the agencies helps keep them solvent.
“It’s the division helping farmers get into retail stores,” she said. “It’s helping them get into institutional markets. It’s running the federal grants through to help develop the industry.”
“FDA requires this inspection,” she said, “So, getting rid of this eliminates any chance of commercial dairies.”
Wayne Gentz is a former dairyman who lives in Fairbanks. He says he says he got out of the business and started selling real estate, because it’s almost impossible to make a living running a dairy. And he says Dunleavy’s cuts will make it even more so, especially for startups.
“That’s a tough business to start out, if you know what I mean,” Gentz said.
Wrigley, the Delta barley farmer, says the governor is wrong to propose cutting a half-million dollars from the state Agricultural Revolving Loan Fund, because he says it competes with private industry. Wrigley says the private sector doesn’t seem interested in lending to farmers.
“Banks will not loan money on agriculture,” he said, “and that’s been the case for the last 30, 40 years.”
Wrigley says the money the state invests in agriculture may seem small, but they yield big dividends, as shown in the industry’s growth in recent years. He says farmers are hard-working and willing to endure their fair share of funding cuts, but he says the governor proposals will inflict disproportionate harm the industry. And he says that’s setting back efforts to help Alaskans feed themselves.