Appropriate Technology and Cooperative Marketing to Increase Root Crop Production on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula

Final report for OW18-029

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2018: $21,631.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2020
Grant Recipient: Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District
Region: Western
State: Alaska
Principal Investigator:
Heidi Chay
Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District
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Project Information

Abstract:

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
production.
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.

Project Objectives:

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.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Stephen Albers (Researcher)
  • Louise Heite (Researcher)
  • Don McNamara (Researcher)
  • Chet Williams (Researcher)
  • Harry Ala (Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

Baseline data for 2017 were collected from each of five participating farms via a written questionnaire developed by the principal investigator (PI) for this project.  The questionnaire (see link below) includes questions on planting, production methods, harvest and post-harvest handling, labor and sales.  Participating farmers answered a similar questionnaire in November following 2018 and 2019 harvests.  

SAREProducerSurvey-2017

 

Research results and discussion:

Aside from one farm that was already quite efficient using a 50-year-old digger, farms reported dramatic labor savings as a result of using the digger and/or washer.  The hours devoted to vine killing, digging, gathering, washing and preparation for sale were down 45 to 80%.  Digging time was reduced from days to hours. Digging time with the new digger averaged 4.5 hrs./acre with farmers reporting that efficiency increased as they gained experience.  Washing was four times faster with the drum washer.

On the downside, production did not increase as we had hoped.  This was due to in part to adverse weather conditions: unusually cold and dry weather in 2018 and severe drought in 2019.  Also, farmers were not as ready to expand acreage as they had anticipated when the project began.  Farmers said lack of adequate winter storage and difficulty obtaining seed potatoes affected their decisions regarding expanded acreage.

On the upside, the project brought about a new level of cooperation and information-sharing, a cleaning and disinfection protocol for sharing potato equipment safely, and creative ideas for cooperative marketing that may yet come to fruition.

Participation Summary
5 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 On-farm demonstrations
3 Published press articles, newsletters
5 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary

23 Farmers
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Fact sheets and educational tools

Disinfection Protocol for Shared Potato Equipment

Tip sheets for digger and drum washer, including safety warning and operating instructions

On-farm demonstrations:

9/20/18 at Dandelion Acres Farm, 2 farmers attended

10/11/19 at Ridgeway Farms, 4 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

We have featured the project in 2018 and 2019 annual reports, newsletters and Facebook posts.

Presentations

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

2/20/2020 – Presentation at the Alaska SARE conference (postponed from Fall 2018, when project had just begun).  Attendance: 15

2/29/2020 – Outreach at Spring Farmers Day, Feb. 29, 2020 hosted by Kenai Local Food Connection.  Attendance: 50

Learning Outcomes

5 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • how to prevent the spread of disease via shared-use equipment

  • how to improve harvest efficiency with a single-row potato digger

  • how to improve post-harvest handling efficiency with a drum washer

Project Outcomes

7 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

This final report is based on all 5 farms reporting. Severe drought conditions in 2019 impacted 4 farms, all in the Central Peninsula, with one farm reporting crop failure. Only one of these farms sold potatoes from the 2019 harvest. The remaining three kept their small harvests for 2020 planting and/or personal use. The fifth participating farm, in Homer, had a normal harvest of seed potatoes even without irrigation. 

Nevertheless, all five participating farms used the single-row potato digger for the 2018 harvest.  Four farms used the digger in 2019, and the fifth had crop failure.  The drum washer was not available for use until 2019 and was used by one farm to wash carrots.   

ECONOMIC

Increased efficiency:  Farmers who harvested with hand tools in 2017 reported the greatest declines in labor hours required for digging. 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.  Four farms reported dramatic reductions (45 – 80%) in total hours devoted to vine killing, digging, gathering, washing and preparation for sale. The fifth farm was already quite efficient using a 50-year-old digger. Digging time with the new digger averaged 4.5 hrs./acre with farmers reporting that efficiency increased as they gained experience.

Dramatic improvements in efficiency were also seen with the tub washer.  The farm using the tub washer reported washing carrots in a quarter of the time required to wash by hand.

Plans to increase planted area didn’t materialize: Total acres planted to root vegetables fell slightly over the course of the project. At the 2018 post-season evaluation meeting, four of five participating farmers said they planned to increase their planting area in 2019. The fifth had reached the desired production of seed potatoes and did not plan to expand further.  Farmers did not actually increase their planting area in 2019 due to various reasons, including shortage of seed potatoes and inadequate storage.

Income/profitability: Due to unusually cold and dry weather in 2018 and severe drought in 2019 production and sales were markedly lower for all four Central Peninsula farmers than in the baseline year. 

ENVIRONMENTAL

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 decrease environmental impact and carbon footprint on a global scale.

SOCIAL

Quality of life: Adopting use of the single-row digger and tub washer has reduced back-breaking labor and water use 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 helped research 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 constitutes the first known “benchmarking” that has been done in this area. 

Tentative steps toward cooperative marketing: As planned, the PI facilitated a series of meetings (12/2018 to 4/2019) which resulted in a draft cooperative marketing plan for 2019 involving project partners and two other local farms.  At that point, the PI had to take a leave of absence to attend to a family emergency and the plan was not finalized before the busy summer growing season. The drought of 2019, low production and other factors put a damper on enthusiasm for cooperative marketing.  As of this final report, the PI is still hopeful that interested parties will reconvene to discuss cooperative marketing for 2020 without further support from SARE.      

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.  Following the drought in 2019, donations totaled 143 pounds of produce and $75.  The Farm to Foodbank program that grew out of this project has been expanded to include a single-row potato planter.  Donations in lieu of rental fees are expected to continue for the usable life of the equipment. 

Success stories:

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.”

Another said: “I will never dig potatoes by hand again!”

Another said: “Having access to the tub washer will help me expand root crops in 2020, especially beets and turnips.”

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.