The Tongass Rainforest isn’t what you’d picture as a candidate for farm country. The terrain is rugged, the soil unstable, and it rains over 100 inches a year. The vast majority of Sitkans get their meat and dairy products off a barge, shipped hundreds of miles. But Bobbi Daniels of the Sawmill Farm is determined to change that.
Bobbi Daniels struck gold. Except it was green and squishy. “I’m getting grapes,” she said, plunging her hand into a cardboard box chock full of them.
We were behind-the-scenes of the produce section at Sea Mart Quality Foods. “Everything loves grapes. The chickens, the geese. I won’t give it to the rabbits. They’ll get belly aches,” she said, stacking the bags atop a box of sweet corn.
If the Sawmill Farm is an ark, Daniels is Noah. She has 500 mouths to feed every day. But rather than order hay or grain online, Daniels collects cast off produce from the grocery store. Like these grapes. A few are starting to bruise on the end. “People just aren’t going to buy them and so the grocery stores are really in a hard spot.”
That’s where Daniels comes to the rescue, her shopping cart a teetering cornucopia of greens that she loads into her box truck. I hopped into the passenger seat and there was a carton of quail eggs at my feet.
Daniels: Don’t smash those.
KCAW: Ooo they’re beautiful!
Daniels: I know! Quail are so cool. Quail are cool. I just love quail!
And those eggs – a lovely coffee colored shade with brown speckles – are a token of victory for Daniels. Just three weeks ago, Sea Mart began offering her eggs to customers. “They keep selling out, so I think that’s the best response you can get. That I can’t keep up.”
Our next stop was Baranof Island Brewing Company, where Daniels collects the spent grain for poultry feed. Adam Chittick said this saves the brewery thousands of dollars in disposal fees. “We’re dropping off somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 lbs. a week to the landfill when she doesn’t come. When she comes, it’s a lot less than that. It’s a huge burden lifted off of us,” Chittick said.
Daniels ran her errands with the focus of a honey bee, gathering nectar for the hive. At first glance, you’d think she’s a fisherman, in XtraTuffs, but make no mistake, Daniels is a farmer. A farmer on a mission.
Daniels grew up in Indiana and worked on farms. “When I was little, it was family farms and by the time I graduated from college, it was big agro-business.” When she moved to Sitka in 1998, she was troubled by the food cycle.
“We’re taking thousands of tons of food that is perfectly good to feed animals and we’re barging it out of Sitka. And then we’re barging this factory farmed poor-quality meat back to Sitka. That’s insane,” Daniels said.
So, Daniels started the Sawmill Farm in 2001 to attempt to close that loop. Financially, the farm isn’t breaking even but they they’re making some progress. This year, they secured 1.2 acres of land at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park on a month-to-month lease. While they can’t dig holes to protect the landfill cap, Daniels has devised a system of pallets and shipping crates for fencing. They’ve also run an electric fence around the property to keep bears at bay. Daniels and her business partner hope to have rabbit and chicken meat on grocery store shelves soon.
The learning curve for island farming has been pretty steep. Sitka’s last commercial farm was a dairy, which closed in the 1950s. “There’s nobody to turn who did this first to get any advice from really. There was the public farm at the Fortress of the Bear before the bears were there, but it was never commercial to the extent that we are.”
On the Sawmill Farm, eagle and mink predation was terrible this winter. And try as she might to get the settings right on the chicken enclosure, the chicks kept piling on top of each other, killing the ones beneath. “When you come in in the morning and that’s the scene, it just breaks your heart on every single level. We don’t want animals living in miserable conditions. That’s not the kind of farming we don’t like,” Daniels said.
Even though she was counting on those broiler chickens for profit, Daniels is determined to figure out what went wrong before ordering more. She’s an animal lover first, farmer second.
It’s time to visit the farm. We turn out the ducks for the day.
Daniels: In here and swimming in the pond….
And then stop by the goat herd, where Missy from Wrangell is getting milked today.
Daniels: You’re going to…(squirt noise). After that, you’re milking a goat! (squirt noise)
Her goat herd is spoiled rotten. She feeds them alfalfa that’s been misted with molasses and allowed to ferment. At one point, Missy swings her face towards me and we’re snout to snout.
KCAW: Should I let her smell my breath?
Daniels: That’s how they get to know you.
KCAW: Oh I see.
Daniels: Hello Missy.
KCAW: I did brush this morning. (Daniels laughs)
Selling raw milk is illegal in Alaska, but Daniels gets around that by selling shares of the herd. If you buy the goat, you get the milk. And because you can’t have goat milk without bucks to start the breeding process, Daniels envisions one day loaning her bucks to other farms. “Kind of have a buck library, where you can ‘check out’ the buck of your choice for your own goats,” Daniels chuckled.
That’s really the second part of Daniel’s mission: to support families and small-scale farms around Southeast who want to localize their food. Southeast is starting to take notice. This year, Daniels won the Path to Prosperity Contest, securing $40,000 for business development.
“When I eat a rabbit, when I cook a rabbit – okay, I still can’t do the killing, I’ll admit that – but I’m there and I’ll do everything else, I’ll skin and gut and all that kind of stuff, but if you waste anything, there’s this huge awareness that something died for my dinner,” Daniels said. “And you look at your plate and what you eat and how you eat differently when you are involved in making it happen. And I think it’s a really good change.”
Daniels is frank that the Sawmill Farm will never be able to keep up with the demand in Sitka. But more important to her than putting meat on the table is telling people the story of where it came from.