Fairbanks Daily News Miner: Murkowski introduces legislation to bolster Alaska agriculture, food security

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced legislation on Tuesday that, if approved, would be folded into the national Farm Bill with the intent to improve agriculture in the state.

The ARCTIC Act, or Improving Agriculture, Research, Cultivation, Timber, and Indigenous Commodities Act, proposes to strengthen several aspects of farming and food security in Alaska, according to Murkowski’s office.

“By helping more Alaskans access healthy foods; supporting Alaska’s farmers and our seafood, floriculture, and forestry industries; addressing low-income Alaskans’ housing needs; and expanding Tribal self-governance, my Improving ARCTIC Act focuses on Alaskan’s priorities, and will work to make our communities healthier,” Murkowski said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to including these important provisions within this year’s Farm Bill.”

The titled Farm Bill comes up every five years to address several agricultural and food programs that range from commodity and specialty crops to agricultural trade and research, low-income family nutrition assistance, as well as farm support programs, rural development and forestry.

Murkowski’s ARCTIC Act proposes to expand micro-grants for food security by eliminating a 3% cap on states’ administrative costs and offer the grants directly to applicants rather than through a competitive process.

It would create a grants and loans program for food distribution in rural and frontier communities, and enhance the SNAP benefits program “to allow Alaskans living in rural communities unconnected by road to be able to charge their SNAP EBT cards for the cost of freight to deliver the foods they order as long as the food is not transported within the same community.”

The act would also allow food banks and pantries to use its federal funding to to purchase locally produced food to supplement USDA commodities and provide forgivable loans for small commercial food producers.

Another component would create the Denali Housing Fund, allocating a $5 million annual amount to construct or rehabilitate housing for low- and moderate-income families or to provide housing for public employees.

According to Murkowksi’s office, the act would also bolster Alaska’s seafood industry by requiring country of origin labeling for crab, expand eligibility for the wild-caught fish and shellfish programs under the Department of Agriculture, support domestic seafood production and requiring a market name for genetically engineered fish and for cultivated or farmed fish.

On the forestry front, the legislation would expand the community wood energy and innovation program to include funding for processing and distribution of woody biomass products, including purchasing mobile biochar units. It would also reduce the requirements and provisions under the American Grown Act.

Murkowski also touted the act as improving tribal self-determination through several provisions. Those provisions include allowing tribes to administer USDA procurement of locally grown and tribal produced food for assistance packages, supporting Alaska Native reindeer herds, having the USDA coordinate with Alaska Native communities when prioritizing grants for rural water projects and expanding tribes’ authority to allow them to enter into self-government contracts with the USDA on certain forestry and conservation programs.

Alaska agriculture, game and forestry industry leaders commended the ARCTIC Act.

Delta Junction cattle rancher Scott Mugrage, president of the Alaska Farm Bureau, called it a effort in “building programs that support Alaska’s farmers and ranchers, improve research to understand the needs and benefits of farming in arctic climates, providing Alaska with the tools to build a robust food system that supports local production and improves access to nutritious food.”

Bryan Scoresby, the state’s director of agriculture, noted the significant interest in the micro-grant program, especially when the state still imports 95% of its food from Outside.

“By removing the 3% cap on administrative costs, this will allow the Division to increase capacity and improve efficiency to better serve Alaskans who apply for a micro-grant,” Scoresby said in a written statement.

Scoresby added he supports the forgivable loan program “that would improve viability of a private business enterprise and benefits cash flow and profitability when principal repayment and interest expenses are eliminated.”

Samantha Kirstein, the community director for the Fairbanks Community Food Bank, said it would benefit organizations like hers.

These improvements will make huge differences in allowing the people of Alaska to become more food secure,” Kirstein said.

Jodie Anderson, the director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension, said the ARCTIC Act would help bolster Alaska’s agriculture industry.

“While producing food and fiber is challenging in Alaska, the number of farms has been growing steadily each year,” Anderson said. “Additional federal support, such as in the Improving ARCTIC Act, can help further critical agricultural research that is necessary to not only support Alaska’s agriculture industry but to also provide the innovations needed to address production and food security challenges state-wide.”

By:  Jack Barnwell
Source: Fairbanks Daily News Miner