The growth in local food production is evident in the thriving farmers markets across the state. The number of markets has quadrupled, growing from 13 in 2006 to 56 markets in 2021, making farmers markets one of the most successful and sustainable agricultural industries in the state. The Alaska Farmers Market Association – an Inletkeeper initiative – is part of our local foods programming, which aims to build a food system that reduces environmental degradation, enhances food quality and safety, and stimulates the local economy with quality jobs and by keeping money spent on food local.
In the winter and early spring of 2023, the Alaska Farmers Market Association (AFMA) hosted “Virtual Socials,” reaching out to new farmers and new food-system-focused folks. The first few online gatherings introduced the project and presented the results of a survey: a survey produced by AFMA and taken by beginning and young farmers across Alaska, inquiring about their interest levels in a statewide network led by farmers- for farmers, as well as, polled about common barriers, and their ideal focus and direction for a statewide network.
Those findings started the conversation and carried us through activities designed to get to the root of what is motivating farmers and why they choose to grow food. The passion demonstrated by the young farmers in this network is inspiring and should be a beacon of hope for the future of farming in our state.
The network zeroed in on land access, policy change, skill share, food security & sovereignty, climate resilience, and farmer mental health. This list is not only commendable but also essential for the future sustainability of our agricultural sector. In order to support the next generation of farmers able to carry out this crucial work, we must be in conversation with them:
- One of the most significant hurdles beginning and young farmers face is the limited access to affordable land next to viable markets. We believe it is crucial for lawmakers and stakeholders to support and collaborate with food system organizations and policy initiatives that aim to protect farmland and help facilitate the transfer of it. Many of the farmers engaged in our network are farming in residential-zoned areas, with subpar soil conditions, and many are landless farmers- some with leases and most with handshake deals.
- Current agricultural policies may not adequately address the specific needs of beginning and young farmers. We look towards the National Young Farmers Coalition as our thought leaders regarding policy change. Most of our network’s findings are echoed in the “Young Farmer Policy Agenda” and National Young Farmers campaigns. Locally, we look up to Alaska Farmland Trust, Fairbanks Farm Access, and Alaska Food Policy Council to help guide us through the structural challenges facing this new generation of farmers. By engaging with the Beginning and Young AK Farmers Network, lawmakers and stakeholders can gain valuable insights into the challenges faced by our demographic and work together to shape policies that foster a supportive environment for everybody’s success. We believe policies prioritizing equitable land access, investments in farmer-to-farmer training, climate action, and keeping small farms as the cornerstone would be pivotal in encouraging more young individuals to pursue a career in agriculture.
A strong network of knowledgeable farmers is the backbone of a resilient agricultural community. We need to create a support system where farmers can rely on each other for advice, resources, and encouragement. Prioritizing farmer-to-farmer training isn’t just about passing on information; it’s about nurturing a culture of collaboration, resilience, and perpetual learning.
Food Security & Sovereignty:
- Our farmers are motivated to make a positive impact in their communities. We are not just cultivating the land, we are sowing the seeds of access to safe, nutritious food, grown in a way that respects the ecosystem. We need new farmers who lessen the impact of supply chain disruptions and prioritize environmentally responsible farming methods so the land and water remain fertile and productive for our wild foods and communities who depend on their abundance.
- Climate change poses a significant threat to agriculture worldwide, and this is especially true in Alaska. The Beginning and Young AK Farmers Network’s emphasis on climate resilience demonstrates their commitment to sustainable farming practices. Farmers depend on weather patterns to sow, water, and reap their harvest in sync with the seasons. Without climate action, the damaging effects of extreme, unprecedented weather events will continue to escalate.
Farmer Mental Health:
- Farming presents unique challenges that can significantly impact mental health. It’s a labor-intensive, isolating, and unpredictable endeavor. Moreover, it requires significant trust and capital to make the leap to full-time farming. We support and look forward to collaborating with allies who understand mental health is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. At the Beginning and Young AK Farmers Network, we acknowledge and address these challenges to cultivate a healthier, more resilient future.
If you are a lawmaker or stakeholder, we urge you to recognize the importance of the Beginning and Young AK Farmers Network’s mission to empower the next generation of Alaska farmers to succeed and steward the land & waters; and consider supporting their initiatives through various means, including: shopping local, financial assistance, and policy advocacy aligned with our listed priorities. Please invest in the future of our new farmers to ensure the growth and prosperity of Alaska’s agricultural sector for generations to come.