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High in the Arctic September 10th, 2017 by

A large supermarket in Anchorage displays an impressive selection of fruit and vegetables, including organic produce. Unsurprisingly, most of the goods on sale are grown outside Alaska. Farming this far north is challenging, with only a short growing season, unpredictable weather and moderate temperatures. Local initiatives such as the “Alaska Grown” campaign, are encouraging people to develop new agri-businesses. You have to be enterprising to succeed, as I recently discovered.

A popular option is to grow salad crops and soft fruits in high tunnels. Tough polyethylene sheeting is draped over sturdy metal frames, protecting the plants within. Peonies, popular at weddings because of their showy, robust flowers, are also grown. They flourish in Alaska during the summer, which is off-season in the lower 48 states, when it is too hot to grow peonies yet high season for weddings in the US.

Rhodiola, a native medicinal plant and member of the botanical family Crassulacaea, is another commercial success. But the most unexpected crop I came across was cannabis, legal in Alaska since 2014. Some is grown outside in high tunnels, but it is so profitable that many growers have invested in custom-built indoor facilities. Plants are regularly fed and watered using a hydroponic system. Artificial lighting ensures year-round production, whatever the weather outside.

A family friend introduced me to Bruce and Judy Martin on the Kenai Peninsula, who are part of the first wave of cannabis growers. Bruce worked in construction for many years and wanted a change. He originally designed a building to service boats during the winter. Fishing is big business in Alaska, both commercially and for visiting tourists, and the boats need regular maintenance. Bruce’s plan started well, but when a major contract collapsed he and Judy decided to move into cannabis growing.

A kilo of cannabis buds will earn Bruce and Judy between $2500 and $6000 a pound, or around ÂŁ4500 – ÂŁ10,000 per kilo, depending on quality. Bruce explained the set up: “We have a total growing area of 2,000 square feet (185 square metres), covering two rooms. In the first room, we take cuttings from the mother plants and suspend them in large tanks, where water and nutrients are regularly sprayed to encourage root development. After about three weeks they are moved to larger pots before being transferred a further three weeks later to the main production facility.”

Although Alaska legalised cannabis growing for medicinal and recreational use and sale in 2015, it wasn’t until 2016 that the legal framework was fully in place for producers to start supplying licensed outlets. Bruce and Judy harvested their first crop in December 2016 and have been regularly producing around ten kilograms per month of buds and leaves. The leaves are less valuable than the buds (around $1500 per kilogram) because they have lower amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound for which cannabis is renowned. Bruce explained that there was still a steady demand for leaves to produce “edibles”, which the Alaska Division of Public Health describes as “foods and drinks … made with marijuana or marijuana oils”, such as “cookies and other treats”.

Growing cannabis even on a modest scale requires major investment. “It cost us around half a million dollars to set up the production facility” said Bruce. Judy mentioned the many certificates they’d had to get before being allowed to start selling and the need to test cannabis batches for potency. “Testing is mandatory and costs us $2000 each month,” said Judy. Plus, Bruce and Judy lose two kilograms of product required for the tests. Costs are high, regulation is intense and official monitoring of operations is relentless. A monitor shows feeds from multiple security cameras, keeping a watchful eye on what happens outside the building and all nooks and crannies within.

I have mixed feelings about commercial cannabis growing for recreational use, but the more I look at the overall trade the more it makes sense. Regulating cannabis reduces criminality, safeguards consumers against adulterated products and also creates jobs. And there are significant numbers of people using cannabis for medicinal reasons, where there are proven benefits. The US’s experience with Prohibition (of alcohol) shows that an outright ban doesn’t work: better to regulate, educate and normalise consumption while advising people of potential and harmful side-effects. It is surely much better to treat adults in a mature way when it comes to cannabis, as clearly shown by the Alaska Division of Public Health.

Alaska has already earned around $2 million in taxes from growers and shops. In a neat political move, Bruce told me that “cannabis taxes on the Kenai Peninsula go straight to supporting schools.” Despite the long and successful campaign to legalise cannabis in Alaska there is already a ballot measure to repeal the 2014 decision, due to be voted on by all registered voters in October 2017. There are still diehards who see cannabis use, even for medicinal purposes, as sinful and leading inevitably to harder drugs, but the evidence for this happening is weak. Maybe the loss of funding for schools – which were facing major budget cuts – will help swing the vote and maintain the hard-won status quo.

The intense regulation of cannabis in Alaska suggests that the state is itself equivocal about legalisation, though the main reason for the tight scrutiny is because the US federal government still prohibits the “use, sale and possession of all forms of cannabis”. Banks are nervous about handling money associated with the trade and all transactions are in cash. Cannabis growers cannot ask for advice from cooperative extension staff, since they are partly funded by the Federal government.

This doesn’t seem to matter, since Bruce and Judy get advice from fellow growers nearby and there is an active online community buzzing with information about all aspects of cannabis production. I admire their hard work and commitment. Bruce and Judy have taken a calculated risk in becoming cannabis growers, but so far, their hard work and diligence has paid off. They’re also bringing a little cheer to fellow Alaskans.

Thanks to
Richard and Linn especially, for making the visit possible. And to Bruce and Judy for their warm  welcome and open discussions.

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