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Posted 12-02-2002 at 16:07:56
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Found this in the Anchorage Daily News (www.adn.com)
State looks at opening more land for farming
PROJECTS: Thousands of acres in Mat-Su among areas considered.
By S.J. Komarnitsky
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: December 2, 2002)
Wasilla -- The state has sold more than 55,000 acres of farmland in the past decade, much of it from failed state-sponsored agricultural projects. Now officials are ready to start on two new projects to spur farming in Alaska.
The two projects -- one near Kenny Lake just south of Glennallen and another near Big Lake -- would open up thousands of acres. Both projects are enthusiastically backed by farmers. They say large, cheap lots that are good for agriculture have become scarce.
"It's incredibly critical," said John Devens, a Kenny Lake hay farmer who helped push for the project there. "Alaska has a lot of agricultural potential, but we need the land."
Both projects could cost millions in government funding.
The one near Kenny Lake is under way.
The state has spent $400,000 in the past two years putting in a gravel road near Mile 90 of the Richardson Highway and building a bridge across a buried section of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The road provides access to 3,000 acres of spruce and aspen forest that has shown promise for farming because of its soils.
State agriculture officials hope to begin selling the first of nearly a dozen lots ranging from 80 to 360 acres starting next year. The cost will likely be $200 an acre or less because the land is undeveloped, agriculture officials said.
The land would be restricted to agricultural use, though the property owners wouldn't have to grow crops. They could let the land sit idle or do other things with the property as long as it didn't interfere with future farming.
Near Big Lake, state officials have bigger plans. They want $2.5 million in federal funds to extend South Big Lake Road 1.5 miles west and build a bridge across the Little Susitna River. The work would open a path to 16,000 acres of farmland in what is called the Fish Creek area. The money was included in a federal transportation bill this year and should be reintroduced next year, according to a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
A mix of marsh and dry country squeezed between the Big and Little Susitna rivers, the land has long been eyed as an agricultural prospect because of its good soils and proximity to Anchorage. It also includes thousands of acres that could be developed for timber and recreational use.
Together, the projects mark the state's first major foray in years into new agricultural projects.
Alaska's troubled history with state-sponsored agriculture is marked by costly high-profile failures, and officials have shied away from big projects in recent years.
But state officials say they need to open new land to give farmers opportunity and keep agriculture expanding.
"We know there's interest out there," said Division of Agriculture Director Rob Wells.
Accessible land dwindling
The state has hundreds of thousands of acres, but farmers can't just set up anywhere. They need good soils, good growing weather and roads to get equipment in and their products out. They also need big lots -- often 100 acres or more -- if they're growing hay or raising cattle.
Much of the land that could be used for farming is inaccessible or remote, Wells said. Meanwhile, the amount of state property reachable by road is dwindling, he said.
In the past eight years, the state has sold about 57,000 acres of farmland, most of it in Mat-Su and Delta Junction, according to the Division of Agriculture. Much of that had been returned by farmers in Delta Junction and Mat-Su who went bankrupt on state-sponsored barley and dairy projects.
That has left the state with about 6,000 acres of road-accessible farmable property, Wells said. Most of that is around Fairbanks and Delta Junction with a smattering in the Upper Susitna Valley around Trapper Creek and Talkeetna.
"We don't know where we're going to go next," Wells said.
Farmers said opening up new land could lower property prices and bring more people into farming.
Agriculture needs a boost so it can become self-supporting, said Sam Lightwood, a cattle rancher in the Kenny Lake area who first homesteaded his 150-acre plot in the 1960s.
Right now, the industry is so small that many farmers buy goods Outside or do without services, he said. For example, in Kenny Lake there is no veterinarian, and residents purchase most of their major farm equipment Outside or have to drive 150 miles to Palmer to shop at a store with a limited supply, he said.
Mat-Su Borough officials also like the idea of building roads to Fish Creek because it might create a market for thousands of acres of borough-owned land in the same area that could be sold for recreational cabin sites or other uses.
Neither farmers nor borough officials, however, want to pay for the necessary power lines and roads, which could cost millions. Just putting in a basic road system at Fish Creek, for example, was estimated at $20 million in a 1984 state plan.
For farmers to make money, somebody else -- likely the state or federal government -- has to pay those costs, said Bob Franklin, who owns a slaughterhouse in North Pole and heads the Alaska Farm Bureau, which represents more than 250 farmers statewide.
Borough officials, meanwhile, say they have more pressing projects, including a port at Point MacKenzie and roads closer to Palmer and Wasilla.
State money needed
Despite the mixed record, state officials and farmers defend the latest agricultural projects, which they note are much smaller.
Devens compares the money spent on developing the land with the money the state spends to market oil and gas leases.
"This land is worth something," he said. "But they're going to have put some money into it to get something out of it."
Wells says the state has learned from the big failures. Point MacKenzie is an example, he said.
The state spent more than $20 million in the early 1980s to develop 15,000 acres for dairy and hay farms to boost the dairy industry. Roads were put in. Power lines were installed and 31 properties were sold in an auction that attracted more than 2,000 bidders. But most of the farms went under within half a dozen years. Eventually two-thirds of the properties ended up back in state hands after the owners defaulted on millions in state loans.
Since then, however, the state has been steadily reselling that land. Only four of the original 31 lots remain in state hands, including two in the process of being sold, he said.
Most of the land has been bought by farmers who have restarted dairies or in some cases branched into nontraditional farming. One man has set up a bird-hunting club, for example.
Unlike in the past, the state doesn't dictate what farmers have to grow on their land, Wells said. It also doesn't mandate strict development guidelines, such as in the 1980s, when the state required dairies to be up and running within a few years.
Some parcels are sitting idle as a result of the looser requirements, but Wells notes even that property is protected by agricultural covenants that forbid owners from subdividing them for housing or nonagricultural uses.
Reporter S.J. Komarnitsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-6711.