Lessons from the “Bear in Grocery Store” video

This video is referenced in the article below:

By Erik L. Ness
American Farm Bureau Federation

People in the news business like to see items that are off-beat and humorous to belay the serious headlines of the day. They often run these “kickers” at the end of a television or radio newscast. Recently a kicker story about a bear cub running amok in the produce section of a family-owned grocery store in Ketchikan, Alaska, received a lot of attention. Folks who live in Alaska, or have spent time there, know things like this happen there, while citizens in “the lower 48” would be totally shocked at such an occurrence.

One of the things noticeable in the video footage of the cub was the sheer amount of colorful, fresh produce available in that store in a remote southeast Alaska grocery store. Ketchikan, like other towns along the “Inside Passage,” is reachable only by plane or boat, but it is a thriving lumber and fishery community with a rich history. Most of the fresh produce, fruit, meat and dairy still comes in by ocean barge from “down south.”

A couple of decades ago a cook on a commercial fishing boat in that port dare not miss the arrival of the fresh fruit and vegetables, which were vital while the crew was out to sea. Those items could sell out fast and a minor glitch in the long transportation chain could disrupt the supply line. One Alaska native noted, however, that the reliability of this supply chain of food and other items “is better today than at any time in my life.”

Barges move north and south daily through the Pacific waters and are supplemented by air and trucking networks that keep the state well supplied. The little secret of the matter is such disruptions in food processing, supply and transportation can happen to any state in this nation under the right circumstances, according to Bryce Wrigley, Alaska Farm Bureau President, of Delta Junction. He recalls the lack of food in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina right on the edge of the Louisiana bread basket.

Wrigley, who grows barley, wheat and field peas, said opportunities in Alaska start with the statistic that, “we import 95 percent of what we eat.” The Farm Bureau leader says he and his fellow Alaskan farmers are constantly looking for ways to improve their local and regional food security and processing possibilities. In fact, Wrigley Farms is currently building the only commercial flour mill in the state in order to provide Alaskan-grown grain products to local communities.

Wrigley says Alaska is a “microcosm” of what’s happening in the other states as it tries to preserve its limited farmland and create an industry that attracts the next generation to the farm. Development pressures certainly exist in Alaska’s fertile areas. Rich with soil and sunlight, the Matanuska Valley boasts some 278 diversified farms covering 38,391 acres northeast of Anchorage.

Other commodities produced in the largest state are potatoes, hay, sod, nursery crops, grass-fed cattle, chickens, hogs, sheep and lambs. Native Alaskan Inuit tribal members run herds of reindeer for meat and hides. Some ranchers on Kodiak Island have switched to bison from cattle because they can stand up to bears. Other livestock operations raise elk or yak. All of these producers are proud of the strides they’ve made in a state that is rough and tough and beautiful as they come.

The result of Wrigley Farms’ new milling operation means more growers in the area can produce more barley and wheat, which will be processed for large and small groceries stores in the state. Wrigley notes that consumer preference for locally grown food is an established cultural fact in his state. He hopes this ramp up will provide enough additional income for local farmers to encourage their children to stay and continue to grow with the agricultural dream of America’s Last Frontier.

Erik Ness is a regular contributor to AFBF’s Focus on Agriculture commentary series. He is a media consultant and a retired staff member of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.