Sunday, September 5, 2010

Farm'n Alaska

On this fine and rainy weekend I spent a little time putting up my stores for the winter. No, I wasn't smoking (LINK) any salmon for the long winter ahead, but instead processing broccoli.

A case of local broccoli chopped, peeled and ready to be steamed and sealed up in the freezer until darker months.

Just like the salmon however, the veggies were also born and raised here in the north.These days, my life mostly revolves around fish and fishing.In a time not so long ago however, local meat was more of a novelty while fresh local vegetables were a constant.Ever since I was young I was drawn to the garden.
I remember when I was maybe 7 or 8, my dad, tired of the incessant weeds, called a quits with ours.I decided to take it over for the next couple years. Nothing ever really came from that little patch of soil in the backyard, but I really enjoyed it and never ceased to come up with new plans for it.

I never grew carrots like these

Eventually the garden was displaced, and I was forced to have only a small plot for flowers. Undoubtedly, what attracted me to gardening then, and still does to a slightly different extent, is a sense of ownership.The plot of dirt I tilled, and the little baby carrots I picked in fall, were mine.

Rachel, who wouldn't touch a green thing when I first met her, as a thumb greener than the tops of those carrots now.

In college I brought the garden back for a short time, and even brought potted greens (seriously they were just lettuce you cynics) to school with me so I could have fresh mesclun and Swiss chard in my salads.
Nowadays, I don't have the space, or the time, for a garden. Instead I harvest fish.This summer I was reminded that fresh veggies are still easy to find up here though. Rachel spent the summer working in the Matanuska Susitna Valley north of Anchorage on a small farm, and brought me fresh tomatoes, strawberries and greens that all blew my socks off through the summer.

300 bunches of carrots ready to be brought back to the farm for processing.

Despite our short summers, parts of the state like the valley have rich soils and long daylight hours that, with a little help from greenhouses, allow people to grow just about anything.I guess I always kind of knew this, but Rachel sort of re-exposed me to this, and re kindled some of the interests I have in growing my own food.
Last week I got to spend some time with her working at their farmers market (LINK) stand and in their fields.Her job really isn't' so different from mine, just that her product and her clientele are a bit different.I laughed though, working at the market, as I made some of the same jokes to people that I make here in camp, I just used slightly different language.
In the field, we picked some 300 bunches of carrots, which roughly translated equals about 3,000. We probably picked another 500"rejects" on top of that, maybe more, that get left in the field to fertilize next years crop.By the time we had all the carrots cleaned, packed and in the cooler, I felt the same sense of satisfaction (and exhaustion) that I do when I get a load of fresh fish in the freezer.

Rachel shows a little Alaska farming pride with some homemade jewelry.

I think that at the end however, based on pure economics, all the effort and energy needed to put away fish, or veggies, isn't going to pay off.
For example, say you want to catch a winter's worth of halibut. OK, first question, how are you going to get them. In the best case scenario, you have a friend with a sea worthy boat and you can spot him or her $50-$100+ for gas and bait. If you go far enough out you might get big enough fish to be able to do two trips and call it good for the season. If you don't have a friend, then you may need your own boat, that's going to cost plenty of dough, and on top of that, now you have a boat that you better use more than twice all year, so now you're committing more time. Or, you can always pay for a charter, but remember, you get what you pay for; $99 will get you out but it may not get you much meat. So let's say that in the best case scenario you can do two trips and catch 40lbs of meat, which is average, and do that for $100. Then you make it.
On the other hand, a more likely scenario is that you buy two charter trips at $225 each for the same amount of meat. At that point, the halibut cost you as much as it would have in the store.
The same dilemma exists for catching enough salmon for the winter too with many of the same variables.
It also happens to be the case for growing your own vegetables. I think it's a little easier to break even with a garden, but Rachel pointed out to me that just as fish can not show up, veggies can go bad and they still take lots of time and energy.
There's one thing economics can't measure though: intangible benefits.
I may be hard pressed to say that eating halibut and salmon that I caught for dinner is actually saving me money, but I do know that I caught it and I'm proud of that and I had fun doing it. Equally, the broccoli in my freezer that I earned though a little carrot harvesting may not actually save me a dime at the grocery store, but when the quality of the produce goes south in another month or so and I turn to that for a few weeks, I'll know where it came from and who grew it.
You can't put a price on pride.

A meal that would make an economist's head spin: Kenai River sockeye with broccoli, potatoes, strawberries and ice cream, all made and produced in Alaska. This meal would probably fetch $30 a plate at any local restaurant, but Rachel and I enjoyed it only at the cost of labor, and labor that we both enjoyed making everything taste that much better.

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