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Why I Farm Roadtrip
Brought to you by Beck's
When Natalina Sents moved the gold tassel on her graduation cap to become an Iowa State University graduate, she wasn't headed for a full-time job. She was embarking on the journey of a lifetime. Partnering with Beck's, the largest family-owned retail seed company in the United States, Sents is setting out on the Why I Farm Roadtrip - a year-long, 50 state tour documenting agriculture's diversity and revealing the untold stories of America's farmers.
Why I Farm Roadtrip: Bryce Wrigley
Life as a farmer can be a winding journey. Bryce Wrigley grew up on a farm in Idaho, but opportunities in Alaska drew him north. Throughout the last 20 years, his family's place in Delta Junction has grown to include a flour mill. While transitioning from raising sugar beets and pigs to barley for flour is a big change, Bryce has seen an even bigger change in himself.
As a young man in Idaho, Bryce was the third generation coming back into his family's farm. "From my earliest memories I've always worked with my family. I remember being with my dad every day." Bryce recalls. "We would talk about finding a dry farm somewhere and we would pencil out costs and profits and losses and different things like that. For as far back as I could remember, my whole upbringing was talking about the economics of farming, techniques and trying different things."
Unfortunately, as his own young family grew, there wasn't any room for the farm in Idaho to expand. Bryce was going to have to create his own path. "I was reading in Successful Farming, back in 1982. They had done an article about this barley project that the governor of Alaska had decided to start."
At the time, oil money was rolling into Alaska. The governor recognized the oil revenue was temporary and eventually would decline and go away. With the long term in mind, the Alaskan government began developing agriculture while there were the resources to do so.
"They selected Delta as the first phase of that ag development. There was about 100,000 acres here that they set up for the first round." Bryce remembers. "They selected this area because it had already been growing grain. Back in the 50s there was homesteading here and people raised some barley. They knew that barley could be raised in this area. So, they lotteried a bunch of ground off and the state put up a bunch of money that people could borrow to clear it because financing for agriculture was virtually nonexistent in Alaska."
Bryce's agricultural journey started to turn. "It's just one of those things, you read about it and it keeps coming back into your mind. You just can't get rid of it. That's the way it was with me. I could not get that out of my mind. I thought about it all winter long, made a few phone calls up here, talked to some of the farmers, and talked to some of the folks at the state level."
By spring, his curiosity became unbearable. "Finally, I decided just to get it out of my system. I was going to have to come see it. So we had all the crops planted in May of '83 and I told my dad, 'I think I'll run up there and take a look at that stuff in Alaska.' He said, 'Well I'm not doing anything, I'll go with you.' So, we jumped in my little Toyota pickup and drove straight through, 60 hours, and got here. We stayed a week looking around and drove back down."
Just like old times, Bryce and his dad figured all the way home. By the time they arrived in Idaho, they'd made their decision. They were moving to Alaska. "We stayed with the family and got the crop out. As soon as the beets, which was the last crop, were out of the ground, we parked the equipment, said see ya later guys, we've got to get up there."
In order to get loans to clear land to farm, the Wrigleys had to establish residency. "We came up and the first winter we cut firewood. There was no other way to make a living. We didn't have jobs. We went out every day and cut firewood out of the berms that people had been clearing, hauled it to Fairbanks and sold it here. That was the way we lived that first winter.It was an adventure. A big adventure." Bryce laughs. "I moved up here with two little kids, ages two and four, and then my wife."
As the years passed, their family grew. Now, Bryce and his wife, Jan, have five adult children. Over time, the farm grew as well. For a while they had hogs, which ate the barley they grew. Along the way, they learned to deal with the markets, sparse resources and idiosyncrasies of farming in Alaska.
More twists and turns in their farming adventure came along. "About 2005 is when Hurricane Katrina happened." Bryce explains. "I remember watching the TV and seeing this aerial shot, they were focusing on these people on top of a building. The guy on the TV said that somebody had killed his neighbor for his food. And I don't know why, but for some reason, that really struck me. I thought about what would we do in Alaska if something like that happened. Another earthquake like '64 or some transportation disruption? We don't really raise very much here, like less than five percent. So that kind of started the wheels turning in my mind."
Alaska's food security began to weigh on him. "For a couple of years I tried getting somebody else to start a flour mill." Bryce recalls. "Finally, I decided if it was going to happen, it wasn't going to happen with anybody else. So, I talked with my family and we talked about it. We didn't even know what a flour mill looked like. In 2011, we actually took a family trip outside, went to a couple flour mills to see what kind of equipment, see what the process was, and learn a little bit about it."
By the time they returned to Alaska, they were planning their start. They began with a very small, labor-intense mill to test the waters. "This is very much a hands-on operation." Bryce explains. As the demand for their barley products including flour, brownie and pancake mix has increased, they've built upAlaska Flour Company. Thebusinesshas grown to include Bryce's son Milo, his wife Leah, and another daughter-in-law, Heather.
Now, customers all over Alaska and as far as Texas are enjoying a variety of healthy barley foods. Many diabetics have welcomed success in controlling their blood sugar, thanks to the beta-glucans in barley that act like a sponge, holding and slowly releasing the starchy sugars they digest. Different cracks of barley are available as flour, couscous and cereal.
"Why do I farm? I started farming because I liked driving tractors and combines. I mean that was it for me. It started out because I was just selfish. And now, it has morphed into doing something that is larger than ourselves and benefits as many people as we can. When we started raising "people food" and realized we had a good product that people liked and needed, there was a different level of satisfaction that comes from doing something for somebody and then hearing that they liked it, or it's good for them, or it helped them out. I always used to tell people that I farm because I can't stand not to. And that's still true, but it's coupled with that different sense of purpose than what I had before."