In addition to fishing, we wanted to see something of Alaska’s agriculture. So one day in Anchorage we got on the scenic Glenn Highway and drove north for less than an hour toward the village of Palmer in the Matanuska Valley.
There’s lots of fertile farmland in the Matanuska Valley, which sprawls over hundreds of acres below the Matanuska Glacier. The glacier melt-water, carrying its heavy load of silt, feeds the Matanuska River; the silt for centuries has been deposited over the wide flood plain as rich topsoil. Way back in 1935 the valley was chosen as the place in which to establish the Matanuska Colony; it was one of the most ambitious welfare projects promoted during the Great Depression by the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Great Depression occurred during the same wretched era of the Dust Bowl when thousands of starving Oklahoma farmers headed west on Route 66, seeking the promised land of California. Everyone knows the story of the migrating Okies; John Steinbeck immortalized their tribulations in print in his novel The Grapes of Wrath.
But few people have heard about the Matanuska Colony. During the same Great Depression that devastated the Oklahoma sharecroppers, the farmers of the upper Midwest were also hard-hit; the New Deal came up with a plan to relocate 203 of those poorest farm families to Alaska and give them homestead land for a new start.
On May 10, 1935, a train dropped these 203 families, along with a few tons of their household goods, at the Matanuska railway station. Those first few months the colonists lived in a tent city in Palmer. They were awarded their 40-acre land parcels by way of a lottery. Land clearing and building homes and barns were delayed by bureaucratic boondoggles. Many colonists found Alaska too harsh; after four years, 60 percent of the original colonists gave up and left. But the others stuck it out and succeeded with their farms.
Arnold and Emma Havemeister, along with their daughter, Helen, were one of those original families. In the lottery they drew tract #167, and on Christmas Day 1935 they moved into a one-bedroom house on their new farm. Two more children, Annie and Bob, were born to the Havemeisters.
After Arnold’s sudden death in1942, Emma and the children kept the farm going, selling produce from their garden and milk from their cows. Emma passed away recently at a venerable old age, but son Bob and his wife Jean still live in the original colony house and continue work the dairy farm with the help of family and a few employees.
When we stopped there to visit them that afternoon, Bob was on his way to the hayfield to begin mowing the first cutting; his daughter gave us a tour of the barn. They have 80 milking cows, with a rolling herd average of 23,000 lbs per year. The herd is fed grain, along with hay harvested from 400 acres of land the Havemeisters work every year; 170 acres belong to Bob and Jean, and the rest is rented land.
Alaska’s dairy industry suffered a major heart attack in the late 1980s when the major processing plant filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy; the state took control for a few years but eventually closed the plant; that action eliminated the only market to which the few remaining dairy farmers could ship their raw milk, and they went out of business. But the Havemeisters did not want to quit dairying.
In 2012, they built their own pasteurizing facilities adjacent to their milk house. Now they can process their milk 3-4 times a week, bottle it, and sell it under their own label in stores from Anchorage in the south to Talkeetna further north. Today they are the only dairy farm remaining in Alaska.
The Havemeister dairy cows in pasture.