Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is the fastest growing agricultural area in the state. According to the
Census of Agriculture, the number of Kenai Peninsula farms increased 30% from 2007 to 2012
(compared to 11% statewide) and the number of farms selling direct to consumers increased
111% (compared to 62% statewide). The vast majority of these farms have under 5 acres in
Kenai Soil & Water commissioned a study of local market farm potential, which was completed
in early 2017 (Heuer, Melissa: Central Peninsula Agricultural Market Analysis, 2017). Farmers
who participated in the study indicated that limited volume was the primary challenge to selling
produce locally. Improvements in the distribution system, including centralized distribution, a
marketing representative, and increased coordination with potential buyers were among the
proposed solutions to the limited distribution of Kenai produced farm products. The Kenai’s
farmers are generally very optimistic about the potential for growth, if production and marketing
limitations imposed by their small size can be overcome.
The question to be researched is, “Will more efficient production using appropriately-sized
technology, along with cooperative marketing, significantly increase production and market
penetration of locally-grown root crops on the Kenai Peninsula?” At present, most farmers are
harvesting by hand with potato forks, then collecting and washing the potatoes by hand. The
heart of the project is to test appropriately-scaled equipment (single-row harvester and tubwasher)
on five small-scale farms producing root crops, to assist producers in designing a
cooperative marketing plan and to evaluate and advertise the results of both interventions.
The Kenai SWCD is well-positioned to carry out the proposed project. The mission of the Kenai
SWCD is to nurture sustainable agriculture on the Kenai Peninsula. The District encompasses
296,000 acres with a population of approximately 20,000, but this project will benefit dozens of
agricultural producers throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough, which has a population of
57,000. In our Sustainable Agriculture program, we work with public and private partners to
identify and conserve agricultural lands, increase local knowledge and use of sustainable
agricultural practices (e.g., composting, cover cropping, riparian buffers), provide education and
equipment for small-acreage market farms and high tunnel growers, and cultivate consumer
support for an integrated local food system.
1. To trial appropriately-scaled equipment (single-row harvester and tub-washer) on
five small-scale farms producing root crops.
2 .To quantify the environmental, economic and social (labor and quality of life)
impacts of adopting new methods and equipment for harvesting and post-harvest
handling of root crops.
3. To assist participating producers in designing a cooperative marketing plan and
evaluating the results.
Baseline data for 2017 were collected from each of five participating farms via a written questionnaire developed by the principle investigator (PI) for this project. The questionnaire (see link below) includes questions on planting, production methods, harvest and post-harvest handling, labor and sales. In November/December 2018, participating farmers answered a similar questionnaire. 2018 sales figures are incomplete as of this report (1/14/2019) as sales of stored potatoes will continue into spring.
Educational & Outreach Activities
9/20/18 at Dandelion Acres Farm, 2 farmers attended
Articles and Newsletters
6/5/2018 newsletter to District cooperators included news of the award from Western SARE
“Farm to food bank: equipment rental leads to community benefit,” front page of Peninsula Clarion, 9/14/18 https://www.peninsulaclarion.com/news/farm-to-food-bank-equipment-rental-leads-to-community-benefit/ This article mentioning Western SARE was picked up by the AP and subsequently appeared in the Seattle Times and Fairbanks News-Miner.
“One Potato Digger Makes a World of Difference,” Winter 2018 issue of Simply Sustainable, the Western SARE newsletter
September – November 2018 We have promoted this project and Western SARE’s role at the monthly Farm & Food Friday networking gathering for farmers and others interested in local food. Average attendance: 12.
12/7/2018 Presentation to 100 community members hosted by Kenai Peninsula Foundation.
1/12/2019 Farm Goals for 2019 Workshop. Attendance: 5
This project will be featured in Spring 2019 Facebook posts, newsletters and outreach events. Note: Presentation at the Alaska SARE conference has been postponed from Fall 2018 (when project had just begun) to Fall 2019.
how to prevent the spread of disease via shared-use equipment
how to improve harvest efficiency with a single-row potato digger
This interim report for January 2019 is based on 4 of 5 farms reporting. No farms have reported complete sales data for 2018 since sales will continue into spring. The tub washer purchased with project funds will be put in service in 2019.
Increased efficiency: All five participating farmers used the single-row potato digger for the 2018 harvest. Farmers who harvested with hand tools in 2017 reported the greatest declines in labor hours required for digging. One farm reported a decline in digging time from 4 days/0.5acre in 2017 to 1 day in 2018. Another reported digging time was down from 8 days in 2017 to 3 hours in 2018. Farmers who used machinery (e.g. middle buster plow, 50-year-old digger) in 2017 reported no change in digging hours, but said that the single-row digger did a better job of leaving tubers on the surface, reducing the most time-consuming phase of harvest: gathering and hauling from the field.
Plans to increase planted area in 2019: At the post-season evaluation meeting, four of five participating farmers indicated they plan to increase their planting area in 2019. The fifth has reached the desired production of seed potatoes and does not plan to expand further.
Income/profitability: Sales data are incomplete as of January 2019, but because 2018 was an unusually cold and dry year, production was markedly lower for several farmers.
This project encourages a model of farming that is suitable and sustainable for a place renowned for its wild salmon habitat: small-scale, intensive, fish-friendly (minimal use of herbicides/pesticides, mandated stream buffers), supplying local and regional markets. The project also promotes sharing of equipment and transportation to market, which decreased environmental impact and carbon footprint on a global scale.
Quality of life: Adopting use of the single-row digger has reduced back-breaking labor for farmers, a substantial improvement for farmers and farm laborers.
Increased cooperation: Cooperative behavior has increased among the participating farmers due to this project. Farmers researched and agreed on a cleaning and sanitizing protocol for shared-use equipment to prevent the spread of disease. As farmers gained experience with the new equipment, they shared what they’d learned about using the equipment most effectively in different soil conditions. All farmers agreed to allow the PI to share project data among the partners, which will constitute the first known “benchmarking” that has been done in this area. Going forward, the partners will build on the existing cooperative structure to explore possibilities for cooperative marketing to open new markets and increase profitability.
Feeding the hungry: In 2018, farmers donated 330 pounds of produce to Kenai Peninsula food banks in partial payment for rental fees for the equipment used in this project.
One farmer had this to say about using the single-row potato digger for the first time in 2018:
“(T)here was a big learning curve involving how deep to dig, how fast to run, and so forth. That certainly slowed us down. Now that we know, it should be better. Barring the unexpected, of course. The last row we did took about a quarter of the time the first row did.
“How it was better, beyond time, is that the potatoes came out cleaner once we got it figured out, and they were much easier to find, dry, and store. There was significantly less damage, almost no need to stab around with a broadfork or digging fork, and way fewer ruined potatoes.
“I expect that the numbers will be even more telling next year.”