Homer sponsors first state Farmers Market conference

Directors of Alaska farmers markets came together last week for the first Alaska Farmers Market Organizers Conference in Homer. The idea of Homer Farmers Market Director Robbi Mixon, organizers from 18 state farmers markets attended the three-day event, held at Second Star, a local resort hotel.

“Being in a room full of your peers and sharing stories and experiences really gives you some confidence and feel great about what you’re doing,” Mixon said.

The conference featured three days of talks, socializing and even films. Arthur Keyes, director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture, gave Friday’s lunch keynote address, where he promoted the growth of small farms, particularly with nearby access to farmers markets. A Palmer farmer, Keyes in 2006 founded the South Anchorage Farmers Market.

“It’s a great time to be in ag,” Keyes said. “It’s a sustainable, economic, quality of life, health issue, community issue. This is our industry.”

Mixon credited former Agriculture Division employee Amy Petit with the idea of starting a statewide conference of farmers market organizers, but the idea hadn’t seen fruition. When Mixon and the Homer Farmers Market recently received an $80,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture farmers market promotion grant, as part of the grant she included “solidifying statewide networks.” That made organizing and holding a statewide conference possible.

Keyes spoke to the theme of agriculture supporters working together to promote local markets and farms. One challenge is protecting agricultural soils — land viable for farming.

“We’re land rich and soils poor,” Keyes said of Alaska. “I get it. As a farmer, it’s the basis for everything I love. It brings joy in my heart. It starts with soil.”

Keyes said farmers markets succeed because of nearby farms.

“What makes it viable in my opinion, this community event, this economic event, this health event that we call farmers markets, is they have farms that have viable access to the market,” Keyes said.

Alaska has a strong advocate for agriculture in Juneau, Keyes said: Gov. Bill Walker. In his 40 years living in Alaska, Keyes said he’s never seen as big an advocate for agriculture.

“In his State of the State speech, he talked agriculture,” Keyes said. “Everything — he talks ag. Woot, woot!”

As cities grow, development puts pressure on good farm land. It’s important for farmers market and community agriculture supporters to advocate for local farm land.

“If the attitude is ‘we have a community where the farm doesn’t fit in,’ that’s the low-hanging fruit we have to go after,” Keyes said. “That’s the land right there that can create this market, create communities.”

Mixon said the first farmers market conference led not just to networking, but also a push to continue working and meeting together. Looking ahead, she said organizers plan to redo an existing Alaska Farmers Markets website, set up an email listserv, form a board of directors and apply for grants to support efforts.

“At the end of the conference, we all decided we wanted to restart this Alaska Farmers Market Association and get together more often,” she said. “That was exactly why I wanted to get everyone together, to learn from each other’s successes and failures, and what we needed to do as a state collectively to move our farmers markets forward.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.