State offers help with high feed prices, but some farmers are pushing for an Alaska grain reserve

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Delta-area farmer Bryce Wrigley shows the tightly clustered seeds atop a ripe barley stalk. (Erin McKinstry/Edible Alaska)

The state is offering financial help to Alaska farmers who are struggling to pay high prices for livestock feed that’s in short supply after last year’s poor harvest. But some farmers say setting up a grain reserve would be a better way to help them recover in lean years.

The state has launched two new programs to help farmers pay for livestock feed. Prices are about double last year’s because spring planting was delayed by last winter’s heavy snowfall and fall-harvest crop yields were low due to early frosts and other unseasonable weather.

“It was tough,” says local UAF Cooperative Extension Service agent Phil Kaspari. “We had those high input costs, poor returns, and a number of people are in survival mode.”

Kaspari said in an interview Monday that higher prices for feed, fuel and fertilizer have driven some producers to cut back on their livestock.

“The last thing that we wanted to see happen is people having to cull down their herds,” he said, “but in fact that’s what a number of these people have had to do.”

Alaska Farm Bureau President Scott Mugrage says the problem affects many farmers around the state.

“It’s not just people are paying a high cost for feed,” he said. “We’re going to run out of grain in the state of Alaska.”

Mugrage grows hay and other feed for the 600 head of cattle at his farm near Delta Junction. And he says producers appreciate the help the state is offering through its Food Security Cost Assistance Program. A state Agriculture Division spokesperson says about 70 farmers have applied for payouts from the program, with requests ranging from about a thousand dollars to nearly $150,000.

But, Mugrage said, “I’m just not sure that this type of assistance is what was needed to carry us through.”

He says another new program announced by the state last week, however — the Alaska Barley Transportation Support Grant Program — is more likely to help, even though the window to apply for a grant closed on Monday.

“I thought they’d be better off with offsetting some transportation costs with imported feeds, because that’s what we don’t have,” he said. “We don’t have grains.”

Mugrage says he was disappointed that the state didn’t follow through on what he and others believe is the best solution to protect livestock producers during lean years: reviving plans to establish a grain reserve.

“This is exactly the type of year that proves we need this reserve to be established,” he said. “It’s like a savings account. That grain’s always going to be there, it can be released during a time of drought or disaster, and then could be right back re-apportioned after the drought. ”

Mike Schultz, another Delta area farmer, agrees.

“It is a good idea, for several reasons,” he said in an interview Monday. “One is over the course of several years, that grain reserve would get built up and be the cushion that we need in the event of another poor production year.”

Mike Schultz raises barley and other crops on the 6,000 acres he farms with his brother, Scott. He’s also serves as board chair of the Delta-based Alaska Farmers Co-op, which built grain elevators and a fertilizer plant with state funding back in the 1980s. The organization ran into financial problems and declared bankruptcy in 1993, and deeded those assets to the state. Then in 2015, the state leased it back to the co-op for 25 years at a cost of a dollar a year. Schultz says it would be the perfect place to set up a grain reserve.

“It would really benefit the livestock producers throughout the state,” he said, “because they would then know there’s an adequate supply of feed for their animals.”

Both Mugrage and Kaspari agree. And they’d had hoped the state would move ahead on setting up a grain reserve after Gov. Mike Dunleavy talked about it in June at Nenana’s annual Agriculture Day event. An Agriculture Division spokesperson said last week that state officials are still considering a grain reserve, but decided to move ahead on the other programs in an effort to get help to farmers this year.

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