Fairbanks — Should Mount Redoubt go on a crazed rampage of eruptions to the point that Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport was permanently closed, most road traffic out of Anchorage was shut down, and enough ash floated in the air to prevent Interior air traffic, Marianne Stolz should fair better than most.
Stolz and her family are locavores, part of a growing movement of people who attempt to keep their food consumption as local as possible. There are plenty such folks in the Interior, all operating on different comfort levels. For some, it is a conscious effort to support local producers and businesses. For others, like Stolz, it is a lifestyle, one that she’s almost mastered.
“I wouldn’t say I am the ultimate (locavore), but I certainly try pretty hard,” she said with a laugh. “I do spend a lot of time at it, and It’s definitely a lifestyle. When we go on vacation, we go hunting. Most of August we’re out picking berries. Part of it is fun, but part of it is to fill the freezer. Part of it is priority, but part is lifestyle. I wouldn’t want to have it different.”
For Stolz the idea of being as self-sufficient as possible began while growing up in Germany. There everything was close at hand, fresh and, in many cases, organic.
“I think it makes great sense and that’s the main reason I am trying it here. I learned how to butcher, make cheese, make sausages. And there’s the garden, but gardening here in Alaska is very different. I try to adjust my menu to what’s available,” she said, adding that a typical dinner might be sheep or fish harvested last summer and vegetables stored from last summer’s garden or Farmers’ Market. “If you plan ahead you can do pretty well.”
Stolz also keeps goats to make her own cheese, gets eggs from a neighbor, makes caviar from the fish she harvests and grows almost everything she needs in her 20- by 20-foot garden plot. What she can’t produce she purchases as locally as possible. But this raises the question: What is local?
How far is local?
In her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver selects a 100-mile radius for the food she’ll eat. Her conclusion is that virtually everything she wants can be found in that span. That may work for her, and others, in the Lower 48, but In Alaska, with shorter growing seasons and fewer production facilities, the question becomes how far will someone go to get the products and foods they need?
Strict locavores have a watershed definition of what local is, Fairbanksan Anne Foster said, and for many that’s a 200-mile radius.
“But we need to include all of Alaska as local,” said Foster, who recently launched a locavore Web site at alaskalocavores.wetpaint.com. “That might be a stretch mileage-wise compared to what someone in the Lower 48 might define as local, but we’re much more limited here. For me, I’ve defined my locavore that if I can’t get an Alaska made thing, I at least try to get something organic or being produced by a small producer. I try to make the best choice possible.”
A case in point: The only larger-scale cheese producer in Alaska is based near Anchorage. Delta Junction supports the largest regional meat producer. There is no grain or rice production in the state, and Alaska-grown apples or peaches are just a dream for many. While there is no denying Native Alaskans survived thousands of years with what’s available in the state, for many modern-day Alaskans that diet “would be too restrictive,” said Alice Stickney, wildlife biologist and budding locavore.
Stickney said she was inspired by Kingsolver’s book to renew her passion to eat the freshest (as in locally grown) foods, something she had daily while growing up on a farm.
“I was always interested in eating local foods, but after reading the book I starting thinking about not only the food miles, but that you don’t know what you are getting when you buy from a supermarket,” she said. “So the more you know your producers the more transparent that relationship is. Plus the less the food has to travel the healthier the food is. And it tastes a lot better. There’s no comparison.”
Stickney, who began making a “concerted effort” two years ago to keep it local, said she smokes fish, makes yogurt and keefer, a liquidy yogurt drink, with locally produced milk, picks berries in the summer and stocks up on what she can at the Tanana Valley Farmers’ Market for canning and freezing, It was difficult at first.
“I had been eating locally, but it hadn’t been such a concerted effort,” she admitted. “I still went to Fred Myer for mushrooms and salad stuff, but if you’re a locavore, I learned you don’t get salads in the winter. It was a challenge. I had to learn more about eating seasonally. I had gotten used to, like most of us, that you can eat anything you want anytime.”
“Instead of buying grapes in the middle of winter, which have to come from very far away, plan ahead and take a weekend in August to go berry picking and save for the winter,” Stolz added. “Try to find substitutes for what you normally eat.”
While Stolz and Stickney are about as hard-core as anyone about being a locavore, both admit they purchase food from cooperatives or organic farms in the Pacific Northwest. This is in part to control the quality despite the distance. Both work with suppliers they trust to be organic and local to that region.
Shop local, not global
One aspect of locavorism includes supporting local suppliers and businesses that carry locally produced products. Alaska Feed, for example, carries “probably two-dozen” Alaska-made products, said store manager Steve Davila. Davila said he stocks milk and ice cream from Northern Lights Dairy, ice cream from Hot Licks, meat from Delta Sausage and Meat Company, locally produced eggs and even halibut and salmon pizzas made in Hoonah.
“I’d say there’s a lot of people interested in supporting Alaska products,” he said. “Certainly, some folks want to be green, but there are many who are proud of Alaska’s history of self-sufficiency and want to encourage that to continue.”
Christi Shell, assistant director of Calypso Farm & Ecology Center, agrees with Davila’s assessment. Calypso hosts gardening, ecology and small livestock seminars and also does community shared agriculture (CSA), providing locally grown, organic produce to share-purchasing area residents on a weekly basis.
“Especially because we are so isolated in Alaska, it is really important to focus on our local businesses and patron them as much as possible,” Shell said. “People are really starting to think about where their food comes from.”
Where to start
An archivist at the University of Alaska Rasmussen Library, Foster hopes her Web site will help people see the benefits, not just economic, but healthwise, of supporting locally produced products. Her hope is that the people will post ideas on gardening, where to buy local products and anything else helpful to becoming a dedicated locavore. She said there are plenty of locavrores around Fairbanks, they just need to be organized.
“The Web site is my attempt to organize everyone,” she said. “I wanted to pull it all together.”
But for Foster, her locavore transition has come one small step at a time. Living in a condo hasn’t allowed her to garden, so Foster adjusted her schedule to make sure she hits the Farmers’ Market each week during season. She enrolled in classes though the UAF Cooperative Extension Service (her first wheel of cheese will be ready soon), and researched where to buy local products.
She said the process has been a slow, step-by-step affair that is constantly rewarding. Foster estimated three-fourths of her purchases are at local businesses, and 50 percent of her food is locally produced. She believes anyone can make the transition to a locavore lifestyle with a little conscious thought, but that change doesn’t need to come all at once.
“I do one thing at a time,” she said. “You go bit by bit and find a source (for whatever you need), then make a change. Then you make another change. You don’t have to change all at once. You can do small things over time and continually add to that, and in time you’ll really make a difference.”—Glenn BurnSilver
(This article originally appeared as the Sundays cover feature in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, April 5, 2009.)