A Local Look at Fruit Farming in Alaska
Every farmer begins by growing his first crop. For local Palmer FFA advisor, agricultural teacher and farmer, Don Berberich, that first crop was when he was eight years old and his dad snuck a store bought watermelon into his failing crop. He found the watermelon, and Don was hooked.
Decades later Don continues to explore the possibilities of growing new, exciting crops in Alaska. Don is a fruit farmer in Alaska. For the past seven years Don has owned and operated Juice, Jelly & Jam, a fruit growing and processing operation in Palmer, AK. Fruit farming isn’t very big in Alaska, but Don thinks the potential for growth is huge in the state.
Opportunities in Alaska Fruit Farming
Operating on just a few acres, Don grows a wide variety of crops, from red and black currants, raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, apples and honeyberries. Don has extensively researched and experimented with several varieties of these fruits, finding just the right varieties to withstand Alaska’s temperamental weather. Don gets excited about new varieties that are developed every year.
“There are new varieties developed by breeders all the time. They are crossing all kinds of different varieties from around the world. For example, honeyberries (haskap berry) originally from Mongolia, later bred in Canada, have this flavor combination of raspberries and blueberries. Testing these varieties just gets you excited about making jellies from it,” said Don.
Challenges of Fruit Farming in Alaska
The challenge for Don isn’t actually the weather or the varieties he can grow, it is the labor required to grow and harvest this often delicate crop.
“The hardiness issues isn’t that big of a deal anymore, but trying to find enough labor to maintain and pick the crops is the biggest limiting factor,” said Don. Currently Don operates his fruit farm with one employee during the summer. His operation isn’t large enough to justify buying and shipping expensive harvesting equipment from the Lower 48.
Product Creation: “The Artistic Part” of Fruit Production
Part of the labor time goes into processing his product. Don does sell some raw product to farmers markets in Southcentral, Alaska, but his passion is is creating products with his harvested fruits.
Currently, Don produces jelly, jam, savory sauces and candy from his annual harvest. His artistry comes out in his experimental kitchen where he test launches at least three new products each year.
“New product creation is kind of like being an artist and making a new painting,” Don said. “I like trying something out, looking at what else I can make from the crops that I’m growing. You go to the grocery store and you see a sauce and think, ‘What would that be like if it were made out of berries?’”.
Last year, his favorite product was a Spiced Currant Sauce, a red currant and onion marinade sauce that is a suprising, and delcicious change from most tomato based sauces. It is perfect for everything from red meat to fish, said Don.
Don’s innovation leads him to thinking about new markets to sell his product into. He favors selling to local restaurants and lodges, getting the opportunity to interact with people using his product and learning about what the market wants.
Advice to Folks Wanting to Fruit Farm In Alaska
Don continues to grow is business, and encourages others to get into the fruit market, but with this sage advice passed down from other local farmer Ben VanderWeele:
“Start small. Don’t get into a lot of debt. I know the next three pieces of equipment I need, but I’m not going to get them if I can’t afford it. You just have to work really hard. If you are afraid of hard work don’t even go into it. The satisfaction of growing a good fruit product is second to none. It is so easy to grow good, clean, pristine products in Alaska.”
Learn more about Juice, Jelly and Jam or if your interesting in getting some delicious local products give Don a call at 907-355-4419.