In the land of the midnight sun, the endless sunshine can raise monster 130 pound cabbages, 1,200 pound pumpkins and 35 pound broccoli from the fertile soils of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. We flock to farmers markets to reap the rewards of valley farmers and savor the flavors of our Alaskan-grown produce. As the frost begins to settle and the season ends, Alaskans grow nostalgic for freshness in anything. Jason Smith, a UAA alumni who graduated with an undergraduate degree in geomatics and a master’s degree in business administration, is bridging the fresh food gap in Anchorage.
Residing inside the old Matanuska Maid building in Spenard, Alaska Natural Organics is Smith’s hydroponic vertical farm, where he harvests produce for restaurants and the Anchorage community.
Alaska Natural Organics was approved for funding in 2014 and provides fresh, locally grown produce to many local Alaskan restaurants including 49th State Brewing Company, Midnight Sun Brewing Company, Hearth, Bear Tooth Theatrepup, Romano’s, Ginger, Rush Espresso, Sacks Cafe, Snow City Cafe, Spenard Roadhouse, South Restaurant + Coffee House and Pangea. Beyond local restaurants, Alaska Natural Organics also sells their basil through Carrs and Fred Meyer. Marketing their Alaska grown produce has come with its own unique set of challenges.
“One of the challenges we have is that everyone says they want to buy local, but there’s people down in the southern California working for a whole lot cheaper, and it brings the price way down. That’s been a hurdle,” Smith said.
Locally grown produce may be worth the extra money. With higher nutritional value and the potential to improve the local economy, buying local could help Alaskans invest in their community.
“On the one hand, local means higher nutrition value. The nutritional value of produce degrades very quickly days after harvest, so you’ll increase the nutrition if you buy it as fresh as possible,” Smith said. “It helps our economy, it stabilizes jobs in the state and it gives us a bit more independence from outside sources. We got one road and a port to bring our food here. It’s a perpetual task so our food can come into the state.”
Bear Tooth, one of Anchorage’s local restaurants make use of what Alaska Natural Organics has to offer, and is even looking into buying basil from the vertical farm all year round. The popular Spenard restaurant uses an average of 15 pounds of basil a week, mostly being used in pesto sauces.
“We are working to get [basil] from Alaska Natural Organics, we are getting some from them currently. He’s someone who can produce for us in a way where we can use year round. Our goal is to be able to go all out with them,” Stephanie Johnson, general manager at Bear Tooth said.
Bear Tooth who uses a myriad of Alaska grown and made products from around the state, seeks out local products to showcase in their restaurant.
“It’s always ideal for us whenever possible because you lose a lot of flavor the farther away something is. Everything being fresher is ideal. When you work with locally grown food, people are far more willing to work with you. The Bears Tooth had a pretty strong commitment [to local products], prior to me being here. It’s something I’ve been doing at other places as well, so I brought my enthusiasm for it,” Natalie Janicka, Executive chef at Bear Tooth said.
With more awareness for locally grown produce and items in Alaska, awareness is growing and farmers and consumers alike are taking advantage.
“I think years and years ago when we first wanted to start carrying Alaskan grown products there were far less distributors. It was a lot of going to the same three produce distributors. At one point, the only thing that you could get was lettuce, that made sense for us at least. It was super challenging,” Johnson said. “It’s getting easier all the time. There’s such a culture of local food now.”
Options for local food when the winter chill begins to settle over the state are more abundant than previously thought. With Alaska Natural Organics providing fresh greens year round, one can taste the fresh and nutritional bounty of a local grower in the comfort of their favorite restaurant or bought from Carrs or Fred Meyer.
Fresh basil from Alaska Natural organics can be bought at Carrs and Fred Meyer. Other options for locally grown and made products is the Center Market, Alaska’s only year round farmers market located in the Sears mall. The market operates in the mornings and afternoons on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year.