Driving through downtown Wasilla or Palmer, it's sometimes easy to forget that the Matanuska-Susitna Valley began in many ways as an agricultural colony. But, just a few steps off the main road, there are many farms producing fresh meat, dairy, and produce for hungry Alaskans.
VanderWeele Farm is currently operated by Ben and Suus VanderWeele; the family farm also employs all three of their children. It produces potatoes, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, red and green cabbage, various lettuce varieties, kale, onions, beets, and other vegetables. The majority of VanderWeele vegetables are grown from transplants, which are started in a green house. After thirty-three days, they're transplanted outside. The exceptions are carrots and radishes, which are grown from seed sown directly in the ground.
Many have the misconception that farmers plant once, wait a while, and then harvest once, but VanderWeele, like other farms in the Mat-Su, plants and harvests continually throughout the season. "We seed every week and we plant every week," Ben VanderWeele says. "Once we start selling, grocery stores do not want any lapses, you have to have [produce] all the time." The first planting on the VanderWeele farm usually goes in about the May 1, which is necessary for multiple harvests but risky in Alaska weather.
For example, in 2013 the VanderWeeles planted their potatoes in early May only for the weather to dump four inches of snow on the ground May 18. "You couldn't see a single plant," VanderWeele says. "We thought we'd lost the works, but it did ok."
Despite the challenges, VanderWeele is successful in getting produce out of the ground and ready to sell. Carrs-Safeway, Fred Meyer, Wal-Mart, and Three Bears all stock VanderWeele produce, in addition to a few other wholesalers and restaurants.
VanderWeele does have one unique buyer, and that's the Alaska Chip Company, owned by Ralph and Darcy Carney. Ralph Carney approached VanderWeele about getting potatoes for the company, and VanderWeele provided him with a half a dozen varieties to choose from. Carney settled on one, which VanderWeele Farm now produces exclusively for the Alaska Chip Company, one of the few agriculture processing plants located in Alaska.
VanderWeele states easily that the produce coming from his farm is not certified organic. "The only reason we are not organic is that we use commercial fertilizer," he says. All of the produce on his farm is pesticide free, a boon of the Alaska environment, which has few insects and is isolated from many agricultural diseases. He says that in years where the fields are arranged in such a way that there are trees nearby, they use an...