Local agricultural support sees cuts as done deal

Agriculture support programs on the Kenai Peninsula will soon be feeling the effects of statewide budget cuts.

The Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District is slated to lose thousands of dollars in state funding if the 2016 fiscal year operating budget passes as it stands.

“This is already a done deal,” said district manager Heidi Chay. “The budget for agriculture is not one of the playing cards the Legislature is negotiating over.”

The Kenai conservation district, which approves its own budget, is proposing $8,000 in cuts to its fiscal 2016 operating budget, Chay said. That will mean reductions in workshops, staff training and travel expenses and less paid hours for Chay’s position. However, she said she may be working extra hours unpaid so that the Kenai conservation district can remain involved in its existing programs.

Last year’s budget was nearly $107,000 and next year’s will be nearly $99,000, Chay said.

Alaska’s soil and water conservation districts rely on grant money to accomplish projects beyond basic services, Chay said.

The Kenai conservation district currently has two federal grants, one for $86,000 from the Farmers Market Promotion Program through the United States Department of Agriculture, and a $75,000 grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the Schoolyard Habitat projects, Chay said.

Because of these, their assistance in local markets and school programs will not be touched for at least one more year, she said.

Alaska has 12 conservation districts, which are legal subdivisions of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. The conservation districts provide services throughout the state, which vary depending on the needs of the region.

“We’d like to see the state investing in agriculture the way it invests in the resource extraction industries,” Chay said. “After all, everyone needs to eat, and Alaska is at the end of a very long and vulnerable food chain. And the signs of agriculture’s growth potential are all around us.”

A five-member board of supervisors, one full-time district manager (Chay) and a part-time project coordinator run the Kenai conservation district.

Locally, the Kenai conservation district supports the development of sustainable agriculture, farm enterprises and farmers markets and leads Schoolyard Habitat projects at five local schools, Chay said. The Kenai conservation district administers the State’s Weed-Free Forage and Weed-Free Gravel programs, which aim to limit the spread of invasive plants on the Kenai, she said.

The Kenai conservation district also helps support all four central peninsula farmers markets.

Staff train vendors and promote the events with advertisements and the local food directory, Chay said. The Kenai conservation district also manages the “Farmers Fresh Market,” which is the Central Peninsula’s only food-focused event that is going into its third year and opens from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, she said.

The conservation district coordinates with other local entities such as the Central Peninsula Garden Club, Kenai Peninsula Farm Bureau, Kenai Local Food Connection and Cooperative Extension to accomplish its goals, Chay said. The district helps organize and provide funding for annual events such as the Kenai Peninsula Ag Forum.

“The district is extremely frugal, and we have worked hard over the past four years to diversify funding sources so we depend less on the fickle state for operating funds,” said Chay. “These cuts mean that we’ll have to get creative, raise fees for services and spend more time on fundraising. I’ve already cut back on paid hours given the deep cut to state funding in the current year.”

Alaska’s conservation districts receive organizational assistance and funding through the Alaska Association of Conservation Districts non-profit, or AACD.

The entire budget for the association will be cut if the budget passes as is, said Director for the Division of Agriculture Franci Havemeister.

Chay said the cuts to agriculture have effectively already been passed, but the association has reserves to make it through one more fiscal year.

“There is no funding for AACD or districts in any version of the budget being considered,” Chay said.

The Legislature has allocated an average of $600,000 each year to the association through the capital budget, which has averaged out to $40,000 per conservation district per year between 2011 and 2015, Chay said.

It is not written into state statute that the Legislature is required to provide annual funding to the association, Havemeister said.

“(Funding) has come through capital appropriations approved by the Legislature and then passed through (the association) to the districts,” Havemeister said. “Project specific capital money has also been appropriated to individual districts over the years. Allocations have varied dramatically from year to year.”

The Kenai conservation district will also be losing direct funding from the Division of Agriculture, which is a subdivision of the Department of Natural Resources, Havemeister said.

The division will be losing $400,000 which included funding for the Ethnobotany and Farm to School programs as well as four positions effective July 1, 2015, Havemeister said.

Funding for the Natural Resource Conservation and Development Board, or NRCDB, a branch of the Department of Natural Resources, was cut this past session, Havemeister said. This resulted in a $2,500 direct loss to each conservation district, she said.

 

Kelly Sullivan is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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