Milestones reached at first farms in the Nenana-Tochaket Agricultural Project

After the first parcels of land were sold in the Nenana-Tochaket Agricultural Project, farmers have made big strides in securing future of food sovereignty.
Published: Jun. 8, 2023 at 9:07 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - After the first parcels of land were sold in the Nenana-Tochaket Agricultural Project, farmers have made big strides in securing future of food sovereignty for Alaska.

“We moved to Nenana and after the first summer, you know, very long, hot days, I thought, wait a minute, I can grow corn outside,” said Tarn Coffey, one of the first farmers in the Nenana-Tochaket Agricultural Project.

The Coffey farm was won in an auction in 2022 and began operations in the spring of 2023. After clearing a portion of the land, the Coffey Farm is already growing its first batch of crops.

These developmental milestones are being achieved by early agricultural projects in Nenana as the state pushes for food security. Currently, there are only two farms within the designated project land but progress is being made at a rapid pace.

“We were able to start clearing May 5 and we were able to get the first corn in the ground May 20,” said Coffey. While much of the early work has been focused on clearing the land, a requirement set by the Department of Natural Resources, Coffey has already begun to experiment with growing produce. His first crops include sweet corn and field corn. However, the farms in the area still have a lot of clearing. Within the next five years, both farms purchased through the project auction must clear at least 25 percent of the land that is deemed useable for agriculture purposes.

While clearing the land remains a first priority for these farmers, the journey of starting the farm has required dedication from day one. First, the farmers had to submit a development plan before they were given ownership of the parcels they purchased. The next step was establishing functional farm land for crops to grow, which has been an involved task.

These farmers face many challenges. “There’s a really lacking in equipment,” Coffey said. “You can’t just go out to the store and buy it, so you either have to ship it up or buy it ahead of time.”

While the future of the first two farms is far from certain, Coffey said he’d like to grow many crops eventually, from hay to bell peppers.

Other associated projects in the area are also focused on future food security.

“Thankfully we were able to secure funding to get 40 acres of land and we’re looking to develop that this year,” said Nels Christensen, a member of the Tlaa Deneldel Community Group. The group is based in Nenana and is focused on food sovereignty and culture revitalization. They acquired land near the Nenana-Tochaket Agricultural Project and are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to achieve similar goals that Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has. “Moving forward we have a three year grant with [Natural Resources Conservation Service] for soil improvement,” said Christensen. “So, soil health is one of our main focuses.”

Even though these projects and farmers are only at the early stages of development, DNR says their efforts will be vital in the long run.

“You know the sweat equity is put in in the beginning but that foundation is going to be essential to bring in years of food security to the state of Alaska,” said Rachel Longacre, the COO for the Division of Mining, Land and Water.