SARE 2010

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education

Victoria Briggs flew to Fairbanks last week to attend a couple of interesting workshops.

Her first report dealt with the 6th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference and Organic Growers School.  Producers, agencies, and researchers from across the state, all involved in sustainable agriculture, met for presentations and meetings that addressed the issues of agriculture sustainability.

At the conclusion of this first conference, Vic remained to attend a second subregional conference meant to concentrate on “Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education” (SARE) issues. Alaska is part of the Western region of the SARE program.  TheU.S. Department of Agriculture hosted this second conference which it offered to participants “by invitation only”.

~ Elsie

***

In the eighteen months leading up to this conference, the SARE coordinator, and a number of people who work/volunteer with the program, traveled to all seven areas of this western region to gather information, face-to-face. A HUGE amount of time and energy was dedicated to understanding problems facing food producers.

The SARE program is not one of the largest farmer/rancher/producer programs in the U.S. government.  However, in spite of that, they seem to work darn hard to get input from those they serve. In fact, the SARE program, started about 20 years ago, was focused on “sustainable” agriculture long before the term made headlines.

The involvement of a considerable number of ‘industry’ people in the entire SARE process makes, or so it seems, the projects they fund more ‘down-to-earth’. Support also comes from industry volunteers who devote a great deal of time to help pull this process together.

Prior to the conference, attendees and others were asked to give input in the following six areas:

  • What is needed to create stronger local and regional food systems that are less reliant on imports from elsewhere?
  • What are the local and regional consumption and production trends in your local area?
  • The SARE program was commissioned by Congress to get its research results to the farmer and rancher. How can this process be improved?
  • What type of research, education, and development projects will be necessary over the next 10 years to help economically sustain farming and the environment?
  • If Western SARE received (from Congress) an additional $1 million per region, what type of projects should be targeted or emphasized?
  • How can we (Western SARE) overcome barriers that may prevent underserved groups, including socially disadvantaged groups, from applying for, and receiving, SARE funding?

SARE did a great job of bringing together a VERY diverse group of attendees, who were, in turn, broken into small discussion groups. The aim of this part of the conference was to help gather input from the educators, researchers and producers who work with Alaskan food producers to answer these six questions and then prioritize the answers.

One thing that came out loud and clear is Alaska needs to produce more food for local consumption.

(quote)… according to the Alaska Farm Bureau if for any reason food imports were suddenly cut off Alaskans would have only 3-5 days worth of groceries in the store before everything was gone.  Alaskans have experienced short term food shortages due to natural phenomenon such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions before, and many have raised questions about our preparedness in addressing similar situations in the future should they occur.  We’ve asked, how much food are we eating?  How much of it comes from Alaska?

The data shows that our local food systems are not up to the challenge of supplementing a lapse in imported food.  In 2007, Alaskans spent 2.6 billion on food, of which only .13%    [Jane, is this 0.13%, or, 13%?]    was spent on agricultural products from Alaska.  In order to increase our food security and decrease our reliance on imported food, we need to identify specific ways to strengthen food systems in Alaska.(unquote)

We talked about farmers in the state who produce barley and hay on large tracts of land. We heard from villages where people are excited about producing a bucket of potatoes and how they will help feed their family. These issues point to a need for research into varieties of cultivars that give an increased yield and will thrive in our climate and short growing season.

Alaskans face many obstacles in producing their food.  The five different climatic zones in Alaska is one major consideration.  Each zone has differences in rainfall and wind conditions that impact the regional temperatures. [I’m extrapolating here, so we might want to run this past Vic to see if I’m true to her intent.]

Soil was another main topic. We discussed the nutrient need of all our soil types, given our cooler temperatures, and how to deal with the various types.

Questions were posed such as where to slaughter and package meat that is raised within the state. You cannot slaughter and then sell the meat if it is not done in a USDA/FDA-approved facility.  (Poultry is exempt from this if you deal with fewer than 15,000 units.)

Another topic of discussion is the storage of grain in Alaska, or, the lack thereof.  In all other parts of the United States, there is a long history of silos, as well as storage at community centers and co-ops. None of that exists in Alaska. We import, if not 100% of our flour and grains, then darn close to it.

Through a lot of intense discussion in small groups of up to eight people, we narrowed down the top priorities of our state. ALL the ideas and comments, even the notes that our table ‘recorder’ jotted down, were collected to help the program. The results will be available in a few months, I believe.

A number of things REALLY impressed me:

  • The courtesy given to each and every member in listening to what they had to offer.
  • How much everyone seems to want to understand what others are up against in producing food and getting it to consumers.
  • How hard our researchers and extension people work to help people in the state.
  • How much the SARE program wants to make the dollars they grant to projects in the state count.

All of us conference attendees left with the hope that each side now better understands how to work together, how to make the best use of monies offered, and, most importantly, how to advance food production in Alaska. 

We Alaskans who met together in Fairbanks last week also hope that we can help our citizens, legislators, and other government officials realize the importance of “Alaska Grown” food production. We will see how it goes in the future, but I believe all of us walked away with more spring in our step and hope in our hearts!!

~ Victoria

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