- Monday, August 12, 2019
Mat-Su Farmers Feeding the State
Ben Vanderweele doesn’t mince words when he talks about the younger generation entering farming. He said the biggest obstacle is a four-letter word — work.
Vanderweele, a 10th-generation farmer, and his wife immigrated from the Netherlands in 1967, landing in Palmer. Their sponsor was also a farmer and gave them jobs. The couple started selling at a vegetable stand just a mile from one of their current fields. They now have over 200 acres in production, with a large amount of land unfarmed every year to help with longevity.
The Vanderweele family, including three grown children, farms over 100 acres of potatoes and around 80 acres of mixed vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, peas and, of course, carrots.
“Alaska carrots, they are popular,” said Vanderweele. “If you harvest them late in the season, they have a lot of sugars in them.”
Vanderweele said it is easier to grow than sell, so getting his produce into the supermarkets was important. He is an approved vendor to Fred Meyer, Carrs Safeway, Walmart and some food wholesalers. He has been supplying Carrs Safeway for over 50 years and was the first approved Alaska producer to supply Fred Meyer. The approval process is tough, and once you’re in the system your work has just begun. Signing on with a supermarket means you commit to delivering to a certain volume of produce. That requires growing much more than that volume. Focusing on a few crops leaves room for other farmers to fill the gaps.
“There is a lot of opportunities for Alaska farmers to grow different products,” Vanderweele said. “Over the years, we have specialized in crops with a bigger volume. We are quite efficient in larger crops, though we do still sell smaller quantity items at the farmer's markets.”
Field harvests are done by a mixture of local teenagers seeking summer work and long-term employees earning a living wage. The hours are long, the work is constant and the crops keep growing. The four-lettered word — work — is embraced here, whether it is for a summer or every year.
This report came from ACEP’s Amanda Byrd, who was recently in Palmer filming for a documentary on food security and Alaska agriculture for AgriLogic Consulting. She visited local growers in the area and conducted interviews on food production and food security.
Cabbages are harvested from one of Ben Vanderweele fields. Photo by Amanda Byrd.