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Where does a pumpkin grow large enough to second as a carriage? In Alaska, it’s not unusual to see record-breaking pumpkins weighing in at over 1,000 pounds. It might be a stretch to imagine fruit doubling as a vehicle, but that’s heavier than most motorcycles!
Even with its long winter months and location near the Arctic Circle, Alaska has a robust agricultural scene. With more than 20 hours of daylight in the summer, plants have almost twice as much time to grow.
In 1935, the Matanuska Colony, an offshoot of President Roosevelt’s New Deal resettlement initiative to create work for Americans during the Depression era, marked the start of agriculture in Alaska. The experiment sent 200 colonist families to the Mat-Su Valley north of Anchorage to settle on 40-acre tracts. Some of these original farms and buildings are still around today and are the basis for new programs and attractions in the Mat-Su Valley.
Agricultural attractions have been around in Alaska for years, but recently, visitors have become interested in getting their hands in the dirt as well. From you-pick farms, reindeer and bison farms, wineries, breweries, farmer’s markets and events, there are more and more opportunities to experience Alaska grown.
Family owned for more than three decades, Pyrah’s Pioneer Peak Farm, one of the original homesteads during the Colony project, has a successful U-Pick program. Customers can come to the farm and pick from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, such as artichokes, radishes, strawberries, sugar snap peas, raspberries, and crookneck squash, to name a few. Every year, the Pyrahs invite locals and visitors to their Fall Harvest Festival to celebrate the season’s pickings.
Fairbanks is also home to another spectacular garden - the northernmost botanical garden in America. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Georgeson Botanical Garden has a second function aside from being a pretty place to explore. Dedicated to high altitude horticulture, it is also a contributing member of a group of gardens used to research plant culture and conservation.
About 15 miles southeast of Fairbanks, just outside of North Pole is the Chena Lakes Farm. Spanning 52 acres of sustainable land, Chena Lakes features a rustic log lodge where guests can experience life on a farm while dining on a complimentary breakfast of locally grown fruit, eggs, dairy and meat. Visitors can take part in the daily routine of tending to the plants and feeding the donkeys, chickens and turkeys that live on the property.
Alaska’s wild and wooly creatures are also attracting travelers. The Musk Ox Farm on Mile 50 of the Glenn Highway near Palmer allows visitors to get up close and personal with a friendly crowd of an otherwise scary-looking animal. The musk ox is an Ice Age mammal that has long outlived its woolly mammoth and saber tooth tiger companions. It is believed that musk ox became extinct from Alaska in the 1800s, but was reintroduced around 1930. The musk ox is most famous for its wool — or qiviut as it is called by Alaska Natives, and is considered some of the rarest and finest wool in the world. A shop in downtown Anchorage sells scarfs, hats and other items knitted from this pricy wool.
At Williams Reindeer Farm in Palmer, 150 reindeer live harmoniously with 35 elk, 13 horses, a bull moose and a bison. Originally a Matanuska Colony dairy farm, the Williams family has been running the business since 1987. Guests can visit the animals, or take part in activities such as hiking, scavenger hunts and horseback rides.
Alaska’s rich beer brewing history dates back to the Russian occupation days of the 1700s, and continued through the gold rush era of the late 1800s and 1900s. Fast forward another century and Alaskans are on the forefront of the craft-beer industry, using many Alaska-grown ingredients such as birch, honey, spruce tips and berries. Microbreweries continue to spring up across the state, offering not only award winning, high quality beer, but also tastings, tours and retail items. Wine and liquor are not far behind, with distilleries churning out unique Alaska flavors like smoked salmon and fireweed vodkas and wineries producing a range of berry vintages.
The culmination of Alaska’s agricultural bounty is the Alaska State Fair, kicking off in late August. The two-week extravaganza brings thousands to hear music, watch dance performances and eat local foods viewing prized animals, antique tractors, arts and crafts, and the star of the show: colossal vegetables. Local growers set 10 fruit and vegetable world records between the years 1983 and 2009. Apart from 127-pound cabbages and 1,287- pound pumpkins, the fair is also famous for its beautiful display of locally grown flowers. Cool summers help flowers maintain their bright and vibrant colors long into late summer and fall.
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