Tenant farming with precision

Nancy Tarnai

Through tenant farming, Jennifer Becker found a way that a young person can launch an agricultural business without the ominous debt load typically associated with starting a farm.

In her second year of business, the ever-resourceful Becker supplied multiple families at Eielson Air Force Base and North Pole with a summer’s worth of locally-grown vegetables via her Pioneer Produce CSA (community supported agriculture) business.

Growing up in Rhode Island, Becker couldn’t have predicted a future in Alaska agriculture. While at the University of Maine earning a bachelor of science degree in forestry and parks and recreation, Becker’s interest in the outdoors piqued. Then she read “The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living.”

Photos couresty of Pioneer Produce
Jennifer Becker uses a precision seeder at her farm in North Pole.

“Before reading that book it hadn’t hit me that you could live like that,” Becker said. “I realized it was something doable.”

At the age of 21, Becker came to Alaska to work on a Forest Service field crew in Juneau. Later she signed on with the Coastal Management Program, where she learned that an office setting was not to her liking. All the while she worked as a deckhand on a fishing boat and for KTOO public TV in Juneau, Becker had farming in the back of her mind.

In Juneau, the goal seemed insurmountable. “There was not a lot of community support for it,” Becker said. “People thought I was totally crazy and asked me why I would pick a life like that. Fairbanks is more supportive; it’s been proven time and again to be true.”

So Becker headed north and worked two seasons for Mike Emers at Rosie Creek Farm. She loved farming so much she became even more determined to start her own place. A fortuitous visit to Craigslist eventually connected Becker with North Pole hay farmers who were willing to lease some land. She first went to look at the property in March 2010. “It didn’t look like much,” Becker recalled. Adjacent to the Richardson Highway, it simply was not the dream Becker had envisioned but she decided to forge ahead. “It was a huge leap of faith,” she said.

After reading up on tenant farming, Becker settled into a wall tent on the land and got to work. She raises beets, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, potatoes, onions, lettuce, kale, chard, broccoli, cabbage and winter squash, which she sells to customers in North Pole and 38 CSA members at Eielson Air Force Base.

Photo courtesy of Pioneer Produce
Jennifer Becker pulls an early season radish from the ground at her farm.

Since she doesn’t have a greenhouse, she worked with Dart A&M Farms in Manley Hot Springs to get her plant starts.

She farms on a little more than two acres and has found fencing to be a major expense. Obtaining farm supplies has been a big challenge but she has gotten a lot of help from the land owners, who loan her their tractor and other equipment. Another obstacle can be the weather. “It’s not bugs or pests,” she said. “It’s that the weather can be too hot or too cold.” She lost a lot of transplants last year due to the extreme heat on planting day.

Other challenges include labor and weeds, but Becker finds farming rewarding because it allows her to be outside all day. She injured her back in the spring and had to learn not to lift large loads. “It solidified my idea that sustainable agriculture needs to be sustainable on your body,” she said.

Her goals are to continue the CSA at Eielson and expand in North Pole, get more land in production and improve the soil as much as she can with cover crops and manure application. Someday she’d like to raise chickens but is now making herself tackle one thing at a time. “I’ll concentrate on the veggies for now.”

A bonus from farming is that Becker can always count on having good food to eat. “My fridge is literally filled with vegetables.” She would like to encourage others in her age bracket to farm. “People are knocking down my door for vegetables,” she said. “It can seem daunting for somebody so young to get started but just ask around and make it happen. There’s a way.”

When she isn’t farming Becker enjoys live bluegrass music, dancing, reading, being with friends and traveling. “By a lot of people’s standards I’m not a success,” Becker said, “but I’m really proud of what I do. I work really hard and I’m not afraid to ask for help when I need it.

“I want to say I lucked out but it’s been a lot of planning and hard work,” Becker said.

Contact: Jennifer Becker

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.