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Got seed? Alaska's largest organic farm goes up for auction.

Suzanna Caldwell
After growing tons of potatoes each year, and supplying a large portion of Alaska's organic seed potatoes, the founder of Ebbesson Farms is ready to park the tractor. Courtesy Ebbesson Farms

The largest organic farm in Alaska is set to be sold off next month. The 1,000-acre Ebbesson Farm outside of Fairbanks -- of which 160 acres are certified organic -- will be sold off in chunks to the highest bidders in mid-September. Owner Sven Ebbesson hopes that whoever buys up the farm will continue with its organic-only approach, but still, organic farmers across the state are sad to see him go.

“The fact that they're as big as they are and successful, they've been a good spokesperson for certified organic in Alaska,” said organic farmer Mike Emers, “It will be a big loss.”

Rare breed

Certified organic farms are rare in the 49th state. According to state organic certifier Barb Hanson, there are only 11 or 12 in Alaska -- and that includes organic processors handling foods like coffee and birch syrup.

Only a handful of large farms -- including Ebbesson Farm, Emers' Rosie Creek in Fairbanks and the Rempel Family Farms in Palmer -- have gone through the process to be certified organic, a USDA certification process that holds farmers to strict regulations that forbade the use of most chemicals pesticides and fertilizers.

Hanson said farms that make less than $5,000 each year -- a level at which many of the small, farmers-market farmers operate at -- can still call their product organic and not have have to go through the federal certification process, which costs between $1,000 to $2,000 each year.

“Organic is difficult to do,” she said. “The produce is not as big or robust, can be subject to more degradation and sometimes doesn't look as pretty as conventionally grown produce.”

But for Sven Ebbesson, 76, who has operated the farm with his wife Barbara since 1986, becoming certified organic wasn't a question for the family. They don't like using chemicals on their fields, Ebbesson said, and the whole family believes in the idea of organic agriculture.

“It's a way of life,” he said via cell phone from one of his rainy potato fields Thursday. Wet weather kept him from harvesting some of the estimated 150,000 pounds of seed potatoes he hopes to collect this year.

Emers said the process of becoming certified organic can be complicated and overwhelming. He was grateful to have the Ebbessons as a resource when he went through the certification process in 1999.

“They were so nice and so wonderful to walk through what it took to be certified,” Emers said. “They're inspirational in that they're doing things the right way.”

“Farming is tough up here, and to have Sven out, the picture is really sad,” said Mark Rempel, whose Palmer farm is now the de-facto oldest and largest organic farm in Alaska. “But their position is difficult.”

Ready to retire

Sven Ebbesson, a long-time University of Alaska professor currently in charge of research for the Norton Sound Health Corporation, and his wife are ready to retire. After decades of farming on the 1,000 acre farm – of which 200 are cleared for growing – they are ready for a break.

The Ebbessons got into farming potatoes 20 years ago. The idea was give the farm to their son, Nils, when they retired. But Nils “left us for a beautiful girl in North Carolina,” Sven said, and with their two other sons not interested in farming, they're selling.

The primary focus for the farm has been potatoes. At their farm's peak productivity, the Ebbessons produced over 385,000 pounds of potatoes each season, with their potatoes found in supermarkets across the state. This year, with operations winding down, the farm is expected to produce 150,000 tons, mostly as seed.

That seed will especially be a loss to the organic farmers still growing in Alaska.

With strict restrictions on what can be planted on organic farms, Emers said he'll probably have to look out of state to find his potato seeds that are the started for the four to five tons of potatoes he grows every year.

Rempel said he stores some of his seeds, but that Ebbesson, who had larger storage facilities, was a place he could go to supplement his own.

“It's going to leave a hole in the supply chain for us, a big one,” he said.

Ebbesson said he hopes whoever buys the farm continues growing organic produce there. The land already certified as organic will retain that covenant unless the new owners decide to not maintain organic operations. He isn't sure why more Alaskans haven't looked into growing organic produce, but given the current demand for it across the country, continuing seems like good sense.

“The farm has great possibilities for a young person with a little bit of energy,” Ebbesson said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@alaskadispatch.com