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

Summary:

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/collapse or show everyone's info
  • 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 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations

Education and Outreach

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

Participation Summary:

23 Farmers participated
1 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

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

7 Farmers changed or adopted a practice

Education and Outreach Outcomes

5 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
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

Success Stories

    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.