Farmers say proposed agriculture funding cuts would hurt ‘state’s ability to feed itself’

Alaskan farmers say the state gets a big bang for the small buck it provides to agriculture. That’s why they say big cuts like those proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy would inflict serious, long-term harm to the industry.

Bryce Wrigley owns and operates a barley farm and mill near Delta Junction. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Flour Co.)

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 farm 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,” Wrigley said.

That needed resource, of course, is food. And although Alaska imports the vast majority of it from outside the state, 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 if 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,” Wrigley 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 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.

Alaska Farm Bureau Executive Director Amy Seitz operates a Lancashire sheep farm on the Kenai Peninsula.
(Photo courtesy of Alaska Farm Bureau)

Farm Bureau executive Director Amy Seitz says that’s what farmers around the state have been telling her about Dunleavy’s proposed cuts.

“It’s basically the entire agriculture-development section of the Division of Ag, and then a large portion of the Plant Materials Center, and then the Revolving Loan Fund,” she said.

The governor proposes 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 agency 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.”

Seitz says the governor’s proposal to zero out funding for the state’s lone dairy inspector may force the Havemeister family in Palmer to shut down the state’s last dairy.

“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 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 yields 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’s proposals will inflict disproportionate harm on the industry. And he says that’s setting back efforts to help Alaskans feed themselves.

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