Editor’s note: The Country Today Regional Editor Heidi Clausen and her husband, Dave, hosted a 13-day trip to Alaska with agricultural highlights for 24 readers of The Country Today and Old Allis News magazine earlier this summer.
PALMER, Alaska — Greg McMullen grew up in America’s Dairyland and farmed near Hartford, but several years ago, he left the state to try his hand at something new: dairy farming in Alaska.
“Wisconsin farming was just too easy,” joked McMullen, who works for Havemeister Dairy near Palmer.
Havemeister Dairy recently became Alaska’s last dairy farm after another operation in the Fairbanks area dried up its milking herd due to difficulty finding help. Among the Havemeisters’ biggest threats is that it’s completely surrounded by subdivisions, according to Steve Brown, University of Alaska Extension agriculture/horticulture agent for the Mat-Su/Copper River District.
Brown said there were 10 dairies in the state when he arrived a decade ago from Kansas. Attracted to Alaska by its many outdoors opportunities, such as mountain climbing, he was told that his agricultural knowledge would come to a screeching halt when he moved to Alaska, he said, “and it has.” Many farmers still use equipment dating back to the 1940s and 1950s.
“It’s easy to be a farmer here; you just have to forget everything you learned elsewhere,” he said.
He said Alaska is the only state with an Extension mileage reimbursement rate for snowmobiles — a cheaper and often more convenient mode of travel. The popular Alaska State Fair is the only one with a seal-skinning contest and 4-H classes for reindeer and musk ox.
Perhaps considered outdated by Wisconsin standards, Havemeister Dairy, owned by Bob and Jean Havemeister, changed with the times a few years ago, adding an on-farm milk processing plant. The plant was built off-site in Maryland, mostly with used equipment.
“There was only one joint they had to weld on-site,” said the Havemeisters' son, Ty, a former stockbroker who oversees the plant.
All the farm’s milk is bottled and sold in gallon jugs as whole, 2 percent and skim, mostly to Three Bears and Fred Meyer stores but also to a few coffee shops and restaurants, which also buy cream in gallon jugs. Skim and whole milk are mixed to make 2 percent. Ty said “there’s no lack of market” for their half-and-half, which usually is cheaper than their competitors’ products.
The farm’s pasteurizer can handle 520 gallons an hour, and they can bottle about 900 gallons an hour, Ty said. They charge about $5.25 per gallon, McMullen said.
Jean said it was costly and time-consuming to get their milk into stores initially, but it hasn’t taken long for the market to develop.
Within six months of starting on-farm processing, they were selling out, Ty said. An area Italian restaurant goes through about 50 gallons of milk in a week.
“It’s really as fresh as somebody can get,” he said.
The Havemeisters deliver the milk themselves a couple times a week. Processing is done on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
The last one standing
As the last dairy farm in the state, the Havemeisters face unique challenges. Because suppliers aren’t just down the road, farmers must be able to service much of their own equipment.
“We have spare everything on hand,” Jean said. “You can’t call somebody just to come in like you can in the States.”
The farm was built from a kit in the 1930s. Bob’s parents, Arnold and Emma, came here in 1935 when the federal government offered some 200 Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan families hit hard by the Great Depression a chance to start fresh in Alaska.
“It was a complete deal, house and barn up to forks and shovels,” McMullen said.
The Havemeisters drew a lot for a 40-acre tract in the fertile Matanuska Valley. Arnold passed away when Bob was 2, but Emma kept the farm going.
“She couldn’t go back to Germany; there was nothing to go back for,” said Jean, who’s originally from Marshfield.
Bob, 77, was born on the farm and dropped out of school to farm at 16. He and Jean still live in the original colony house.
“He enjoys it or he wouldn’t be doing it,” Jean said of her husband.
She said they haven’t missed a milking since a 1964 earthquake. When necessary, the vacuum pump is run off a tractor.
The Havemeisters milk 80 cows twice a day in a homemade double-three parlor constructed in the late-1960s. The parlor was an upgrade from a 12-stanchion barn.
“We have robbed every museum we could find to get pieces and parts,” Jean joked.
“It works good for us,” McMullen said, adding that milking takes about three hours, and they can fill their 1,500-gallon bulk tank in 2½ days.
The farm got its start with Holsteins and has maintained a closed herd. Recently, they bought a Red Angus bull to breed heifers at about 15 months of age. Cows are artificially bred through All West Select Sires in Washington. Baby calves remain with their dams for the first three days.
Bull calves are sold to small-acreage owners and 4-H’ers, and some cull cows go to dog mushers.
The herd averages about 65 pounds of milk per cow per day. Cows receive a bromegrass and timothy mix and pelletized custom grain mix at a rate of about 15 pounds a day.
“It’s basically glorified rabbit food,” McMullen said, adding that they paid $435 for grain in the past six months to Alaska Mill and Feed, which ships the mix in from Washington.
The farm includes about 400 acres, including 170 owned acres. They feed about 1,800 round bales a year and “just barely make it,” McMullen said. All bales are wrapped.
Musk ox make comeback
Not far from Havemeister Dairy is the Palmer Musk Ox Farm. Alaska’s Matanuska Valley is home to a couple of musk ox farms, and this nonprofit enterprise aims to domesticate musk oxen, which are native to Alaska but were on the verge of extinction in the 1950s.
In 1954, in an effort to reintroduce musk oxen to Alaska, John Teal began the Musk Ox Project with a few calves from Canada’s Northwest Territories. He stayed with them in Vermont for about 10 years before moving the project to Alaska.
Supported by funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and help from the University of Alaska and volunteers, the project began Alaska’s first domestic musk ox farm in Fairbanks in 1964. Teal later gathered his second set of calves from Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea.
The project became a nonprofit in 1984, and all income goes back into the farm. In 1986, the herd was moved to Palmer, where about 80 head are raised on 75 acres. Musk oxen typically live to be 12 to 18 years old.
The musk oxen here are raised for their downy-soft under-wool, shed in the spring and among the finest in the world and also very expensive; qiviut is worth about $280 an ounce, and a stocking hat crafted from musk oxen qiviut can fetch hundreds of dollars.
Qiviut is harvested by combing the musk ox, and as much as 5 to 9 pounds can be gathered over a three-month period. Qiviut garments are said to be eight times warmer than those made with sheep wool, and they don’t shrink or itch.
Tipping the scales
Alaska may only have about a 90-day growing season, but the extra hours of summer sunlight in the Land of the Midnight Sun help make up for that, yielding giant produce including 60-pound cabbages and 100-pound zucchinis.
Brown said Matanuska Valley farmers grow some of the biggest produce in the world, and competition is fierce at the Alaska State Fair, which draws about a half-million visitors.
“They’re always trying to outdo the last record,” he said.
In the shadow of Pioneer Peak near Palmer is Pyrah’s Pioneer Peak Farm, operated by Ted Pyrah, 82, and family, who moved to the farm in 1979 to run it as a welfare farm for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The church discontinued the welfare farm program in Alaska in 1988, and the Pyrahs took out an option to lease the 277-acre parcel from the church and run it as a U-pick fruit and vegetable business. Rhubarb is the only crop sold commercially to retailers.
The farm also raises several varieties of certified potato seed, 18 acres of sod and 140 acres of grass hay for horse owners.
The farm’s 25 to 30 acres of vegetables attracts many families from Anchorage, and they purchase produce by the pound. Pyrah said they might see about 650 people in one day. Some Asian restaurants send their employees to the farm daily, picking up vanloads of produce.
Moose pose a challenge and have been known to take out 750 cauliflower plants in a single night. Wolf urine is used as a deterrent.
Brown said the Matanuska Valley is pretty much a desert, with an average precipitation of 13 inches annually, but vegetation stays green in the summer because much of the precipitation comes as a “constant, misty rain.”
The region also has extremely deep topsoils, at about 20 feet, he said, and this is replenished each year by a quarter-inch of glacial silt.
While Alaskans used to produce much of their own food, Brown said, it has become more cost-effective in recent years to ship it in from other states such as Washington.