Readers have told me that they love this book, and consider it to be the most enjoyable book of all the books that I have written. It is composed of many short chapters, each one a vignette describing an incident of day-to-day life here on my own small dairy farm or on other family farms, whether close by me or far across the world.
You can purchase your own copy of the book—with my autograph—by clicking on the “Contact me” button and sending me an Email.
October 16 was a red letter day for our farm. That was the day I went to Albany and signed the papers, which certified our Triumpho Family Farm Conservancy Easement. This is a legal document, filed in the county clerk clerk’s office of Fulton County and Montgomery County; it guarantees that our farm land will never be “developed” and will always remain in agriculture.
The next place we visited in the Palmer area was the Musk Ox farm where we took a tour. Its official name is the Musk Ox Producers’ Corporation. It is a non-profit organization with a mission “dedicated to the domestication of the musk ox and to the promotion of qiviut production as a gentle and sustainable agricultural practice in the Far North, with a focus on public education and providing income opportunities to Alaska natives.”
We bought our tickets, and while waiting for the tour to begin, we browsed in the shop where lovely hand-knitted qiviut sweaters, scarves, socks and caps were for sale. Qiviut yarn is stronger, warmer and lighter in weight than sheep’s wool, and softer than cashmere wool. Qiviut yarn is light as a feather; a qiviut sweater weighs a few ounces.
On the tour around the farm pastures, we learned more about qiviut; it is the soft underwool beneath the longer and shaggier outer wool of the musk ox. It is plucked by hand from the coat of the animal during the spring molt; then it is cleaned and spun into yarn. Although the animals we saw had finished molting, they were still covered by their long and shaggy outer coat of hair which hung to the ground.
The musk ox cows with their calves were in wide-open pastures, with strong fencing. The musk ox bulls were in a separate spacious pasture. Our tour guide explained that musk oxen can survive outdoors in the harshest arctic winter and do not need any shelter. In the wild, they are undaunted by the fiercest snowstorms, since nature has made sure they are well-insulated by their thick two-layer coat, the shaggy outer coat over the fleecy under coat.
This was actually my second visit to the musk ox farm, because my first visit had been in 1984, shortly after it began being developed. At that time it was called “The Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative.” In 1984, I wrote about in my Dairyman’s Journal column for Hoard’s Dairyman magazine. A reader from Virginia by the name of Ben Herschberger read the column and sent me an interesting letter, telling me about the time he flew some Alaska Fish and Game Department personnel over Nelson Island for a musk ox count during the winter of 1981.
He wrote: “Nelson Island lies between Nunivak Island and Alaska’s Bering Sea coast. Around 1970 a herd of ten musk ox from Greenland was transplanted to Nelson Island. Over the next ten years the herd grew to over two hundred-fifty head. Nelson Island is just inland from Nunivak Island. It hardly seems like an island because it is separated from the mainland only by a river. The villages of Tununak, Toksook, and Nightmute are located on Nelson Island. Our family of five lived in a trailer at Bethel for almost a year—quite an experience!”
Ben’s mention of Bethel conjured up a vision of the little village (population 3,681) on the banks of the mighty Kuskokwim River that empties into the Bering Sea, adjacent to the equally mighty Yukon River. Together, these two rivers spread out and create a mammoth delta—a gigantic mud pie that makes the Mississippi delta look like a frog pond.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is dotted with myriad swamps and lakes teeming with fish, marine mammals and birds. This means plenty of food and skins for the Yup’ik Eskimos who live in countless tiny villages throughout the delta region. Roads are non-existent there. Travel over the entire region is either by boat or small plane. So I could understand thoroughly when Ben continued:
“We did charter flying in that area. Since it is the only way to go, there was a lot of it to do. During the summer months we were very busy, with daylight lasting until around eleven o’clock at night. However, we were not far enough north to see the midnight sun. My flying in Alask was mostly in Sessna 207s. 210s, 185s, and a Seneca II.”
In 1983, Ben and his family returned to his wife’s family dairy farm in Virginia.
He wrote: “Our oldest son is eleven, and another is nine. So already we have some help for the dairy farm. We are operating only a small forty-acre farm at present, but have an additional two hundred acres rented.”
He closed his letter to me by saying, “I wouldn’t mind hearing more of your Alaska experience, and I would like to see an article on the demise of dairying in Alaska.”
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.
Meadow La Brake at her home in Moose Pass, with display of her art, carved & painted on old barn boards. Her subjects include salmon, bears & Alaska wild flowers.
After our successful fishing for salmon and halibut, the Alaska holiday continued with a visit to the Moose Pass Summer Solstice Festival on June 16 & 17. Sponsored by the Moose Pass Sportsman’s Club, the celebration has been held annually since 1978. The event was located at Moose Pass town park (35390 on the Seward Highway). It was just a half-mile down the road from our lodging at Alpenglow Cottage (www.alpenglowcottage.com). Our lodging hosts, John & Annie Gaule, are regular volunteers at the festival.
The solstice festival always attracts a large crowd of visitors. A sea of white tents was set up in the town park. There were craft booths, food endors, a bake sale, a beer garden, and libe music furnished by two bands. I strolled into the food tent and bought two generous slices of rhubarb crisp. It was absolutely delicious! It had been baked earlier that morning by Meadow La Brake, from the gorgeous rhubarb garden patch by her lawn.
John reeled in this fine King salmon.
From Moose Pass it was about an hour’s drive down the scenic Seward Highway to the small boat harbor at Seward. The road follows the shoreline of the long stretch of water known as Turnagain Arm. (It got its name from Captain Cook’s 3rd voyage in the Pacific in 1790, when he explored the coast of Alaska, hoping to find the “Northwest Passage.” He sailed up Cook Inlet, then sent a crew in a small boat to probe the inlet further. The crew was headed by Master Mate William Bligh, later of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. The boat reached the northernmost point of the inlet, finding only a river emptying into it, but no passage, so they turned back; and Bligh wrote in the ship’s log “We turn again.”)
Arriving in Seward, We parked in the lot adjacent to the harbor and walked directly to the Fish House office, where we bought our non-resident fishing licenses, and also made reservations for a halibut fishing trip the next day. The young lady at the desk booked us on a boat that would be going out with a total party of six fishermen, tourists like ourselves.
“Make sure you’re at the dock by quarter of six tomorrow morning,” she told us. “The name of your boat is The Striker, and it’s brand new.
With that accomplished we drove back to our lodging in Moose Pass for supper and an early bedtime, in order to be up bright and early next morning for the return drive to Seward, and our first day of fishing.
It was hard at first to get to sleep that night because at 11:00 p.m. it didn’t actually get full dark. The sun had set about 10:30, but never got far below the horizon, so there remained a fairly bright twilight. Finally I put a black mask over my eyes and was able to drift off to dreamland.
We were up in the morning at 4:30 for coffee and snacks, then drove off to Seward. At the small boat harbor we walked along the jetty, finally locating The Striker tied up among a host of many small craft. We met our captain and got aboard, We stowed our carry-on thermos bottles of coffee, and our sandwiches for the day. When the captain saw that Nan had a couple of bananas in her lunch, he said she had to dispose of them. He said bananas were bad luck aboard ship. It seems the jinx goes way back in time to some unfortunate episode. So Nan reluctantly took her bananas topside and hid them somewhere on the boardwalk, hoping they would still be there at the end of the day.
As it turned out, two of the scheduled fishermen failed to show up, so there were only four of us, plus the captain. He started the engine and the craft slowly pulled away from the mooring and continued at slow speed until we were out of the small boat harbor. When we were past the breakwater he gave it full throttle and pointed the bow to the wide open Bay of Alaska. The scenery along the shore was spectacular, with the mountains of the Chugach Range rising straight up alongside the bay. The mountain slopes were still streaked with snow in June. We cruised for the better part of three hours over a rolling swell, finally dropping anchor near a small island in 100 feet of water, at a location the captain knew from past experience to be productive of fish.
The captain rigged the fishing rods, baited the hooks, cast each line over the side, and fastened two rods to each side of the afterdeck. It wasn’t long before there was action. First one of the other guys reeled in a rockfish, about five pounds; then Nan got one, then my turn, and then the fourth guy. The captain tossed the rock fish into the fish well.
But we wanted halibut, so after half an hour the captain hauled up the anchor and cruised further out in the bay to anchor at another spot. This proved to be much better. Nan reeled up a halibut, which the captain grabbed with the gaff and lifted aboard. He estimated it would weigh close to 50 pounds. The halibut thrashed around on the floorboards, thumping his tail on the wood, until the captain whacked him with the bat and slid him into the fish well too.
Before long one of the guys had a halibut in the boat also. And finally I hauled one in. Then we headed back to harbor, to weigh our catch, and have the fish filleted and frozen.
This photo is from our August 2018 Celebration, a century birthday of our farm
John holding Nan’s red salmon, it weighed 9 pounds.