Why is it so important to know your farmer? The simple answer is that you rely on them. You rely on them to follow quality and safe food practices. You rely on them to provide nourishment. You rely on them to have consistent and available product - no matter the circumstances of the world. Their actions and investments make a positive difference and matter.
The Origin Story
Alaska's food supply chain became far more complex post subsistence farming, hunting and growing, which was its mainstay up until the 1950's. Restaurants, grocery and institutional food service demands grew, as did conventional distribution systems making it more challenging to know the people on which you relied. The economy boomed in the 1970's and so did the links in the supply chain. The distance and time from grower to consumer could easily exceed 2,000 miles and 5 days and frequently longer for both.
Alaskans recognized that their reliance on the current supply chain made them vulnerable to natural disasters and commercial supply chain interruptions. As food insecurity became a national concern, communities throughout Alaska came together discussing their independent challenges at providing access to adequate food resources to stave off hunger and malnutrition. As awareness grew, private and public resources supported more diverse and locally based systems. According to the USDA, the latest data (2020) reports over 10% of the US population (13 million) remain without access to adequate food. That number continues to rise today.
This reliance compelled Bryce Wrigley and his son, Milo to look at ways they could provide a solution that would improve food security for Alaskans. As a result, they built a fully integrated food manufacturing facility at their Delta, Alaska farm now known as the Alaska Flour Company. Today Alaska Flour receives their raw resource directly from their own farm, grown regeneratively to supports the highest possible nutrient value. Alaska Flour sells their product line into retail, as well as direct-to-customer through their on-line store making them the quintessential farm-to-table business.
"We had, what I would call a complete reset of our mind that took us on a new trajectory," says Bryce. That exercise translated to seeking out better information on soil science, human health and food processing. What occurred, as a result, is what author, Paul Hawken hails as agency, in his new book Regeneration. "It is the ability to take action or to choose what action to take."
The Wrigleys took a leap of action.
What makes Alaska Flour Company unique?
"Certainly, Alaska", Bryce replies to the question of what makes them unique. In fact, the company produced a film raising the awareness of the health benefits of barley and introducing viewers to the Alaska Flour Company. The location and beauty surrounding their farm and manufacturing facility is stunning.
In line with managing the seed, soil, planting, harvesting, cleaning, processing and packaging, the management systems of their own supply chain affords an opportunity for evaluation for continuous improvement and the ability to tell that story.
As a result of the adopted regenerative practices, Wrigley Farms has been no till since 2010. There are many benefits of no till including building up of organic matter that supports healthier plants (and foods). The investment in soil management trials and testing of new crops is on-going. Science and measurement are employed with ever present trials going on at the farm including new cover crops and better ways to manage seeding, growing and harvesting.
Adopting regenerative practices and relying more on organic matter reduce non-organic inputs that were conventionally used in the past. Bryce chuckles a bit when he states, "Temperatures can regularly drop to minus 50F below zero which has always assisted in reducing the necessity for fungicides and pesticides." The soil in this region is highly mineralized allowing for consumers to more adequately realize the benefits in their foods.
Alaska Flour Company has had a positive impact on food security in Alaska. You can find its products at legacy retailers, food coops and hubs throughout the state. Awareness has been raised of its availability and consistently reliable and short supply chain. The company has employed traditional methods such as demonstrations of their product in retail, participation in various food events and promotion of its on-line, direct to door store.
"Food is not produced at the grocery store" - Bryce Wrigley"
The influences of the policies and process surrounding the pandemic raised the awareness of food security, once again. Commercial buyers sought out Alaska Flour Company to fill their shelves, as deliveries were missed from conventional supply chains. The on-line store also drew customers modifying their traditional ways of food purchasing.
"It is important to remember, that the whole process is not something we can flip a a switch", Bryce explains. "Providing people with food security, requires us to plan far ahead beginning with what and how much we must plant." It is a common message that comes through from independent farmers and fishers, that the reliance cuts both ways. Consumers seeking a reliable and consistent resource can count on food producers, as long as they recognize that the food producers are being supported by the consumers in good times and bad. Food processing and distribution is a business, no matter its size, specialization or seasonality requiring a stable customer loyalty.
In the spirit of demonstrating how the Alaska Flour Company approaches food security in Alaska, they offer tours during the summer season. "It raises the awareness of the entire process of our business and greater understanding of the investment made in providing abundant and nourishing food."
Have you asked a farmer lately about A1C levels, as it relates to diabetes? Would you find it interesting to know they have a growing body of knowledge on human chronic diseases and the role their foods can play in reducing or preventing disease?
It is stunning that the study of human and soil health go hand in hand with regenerative farmers. In the case of the Alaska Flour Company, they recognized early on that the barley they grow has a low Glycemic Index and as a result could have nutritional value for those with diabetes. It went beyond theory when they were contacted by a physician who had success with their barley products with his diabetic patients.
The barley grown by Alaska Flour was developed in 2009 and offers another health benefit - it is easier to digest than other barley species. Easier to digest, low Glycemic Index, high in both soluble and insoluble fiber and low in gluten all contribute to the merits of the barley produced and manufactured by Alaska Flour.
Certainly, Bryce, Milo and family are hitting the mark of improving food security, but they are also offering a critical link to a supply chain concerned about health, food and climate.
Farm To Table Tours With A Little R&D On The Side
Alaska Flour Company hosts summer tours of its farm and processing facility through a sign-up on their website during season (May -August). "The intent is to introduce our company as a solution to food security challenges and raise the awareness," says Bryce. "We did tours once a week for the locals and later expanded to add tours for those visiting Alaska." The tour started with a history of Wrigley Farms and a chuck wagon ride into the fields where visitors were shown basic soil health principles in keeping with regenerative farming practices. Up close in the field, standing on the soil, they learned about no till and cover crops and the benefit to the food grown and product they now sell.
At the mill, the visitors learned about the next stages of milling and production. They were invited to taste samples provided of the favorites and participated in taste testing of some new products that were being considered by Alaska Flour. The full engagement by these visitors from farm to research and development of new products proved to provide valuable feedback. Beyond raising awareness of food insecurity, visitors left with a better understanding of the complexities and inputs of the food supply chain, including the people.
"People left these tours with a better understanding of how the supply chain works", Bryce explains. "It is reassuring from the visitor feedback that, indeed, they benefited from learning about food insecurity and the role Alaska Flour Company and others play in improving reliable and consistent access.
Alaska Flour Company addressed food insecurity by building a food processing facility in Alaska. As the story above tells, that journey has taken them into retail grocery, an on-line store and regenerative agriculture practices. The investment and their commitment has been large.
We should not forget that there is another very important commitment that must be made. A commitment by local and regional food channels, as well as consumers. Shifting supply chain purchasing habits may be challenging, but they are necessary to maintain the assets of a community, such as a food producer. Businesses like Alaska Flour Company can not be called upon only when conventional supply chains are interrupted. They are there day in and day out fulfilling their commitment and their customers should consider doing the same in return. It's called food security.
We are pleased to report seeing Alaska Flour Products throughout Alaska and most recently at the Frontier Trading Post in Seward (story here).
PBS FIlm - Inside Alaska