Farming on the Last Frontier

VanderWeele Farm of Palmer, Alaska

Published in the June 2015 Issue Published online: Jun 03, 2015 Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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Alaska is a vast, open, wild place, especially in the minds of those who have never been there. Even in today’s world, made small by 24-hour news channels and instantaneous communication, to much of society, Alaska maintains an allure of romance and mystery.

Famed naturalist John Muir is said to have written in his journal that you should never go to Alaska as a young man because you’ll never be satisfied with any other place as long as you live. That has certainly been the case for Ben VanderWeele, who is approaching the half-century mark in his adopted homeland.

Ben and Suus VanderWeele immigrated to Alaska from the Netherlands in 1967 and began farming almost immediately just outside the town of Palmer. Life in production agriculture wasn’t new to the VanderWeeles; in fact, Ben is a tenth-generation farmer. “My parents had a farm in the Netherlands and lost that through city expansion,” he says. “And urban expansion is encroaching on our area here. I’m totally surrounded by subdivisions now, but I’m stubborn enough not to cave in.”

The VanderWeeles operate around 200 acres, with 100 acres dedicated to potatoes. The rest is dedicated to lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, carrots and a miscellany of other vegetables. All of the produce is packaged on-site and distributed in-state. Their biggest customers are Fred Meyer and Safeway, but VanderWeele produce can also be found at several independent grocery stores.

“We do our own small packaging, and we deliver to the back doors of stores,” says Ben. “We deliver them all ourselves.”

That personal touch is greatly appreciated by Alaskans, who are intensely proud of and fiercely loyal to their own. The state’s agriculture industry has worked hard to build a brand around “Alaska Grown,” and the VanderWeeles have been a big part of that movement.

“‘Alaska Grown’ is one of the most important things we have going for us,” says Ben. “I have that logo on every potato bag and every carrot bag we sell. That kind of sets our products apart from products that come up here from the lower 48. Consumers are extremely loyal to buying Alaska-grown products.”

Rather than shipping seed potatoes from distant seed growers, VanderWeele Farm dedicates 10 acres to its own seed potato production. Since 1979 Ben has bought potato plantlets from Cornell University’s Uihlein Farm in Lake Placid, N.Y. Once the plantlets arrive in Palmer, they are put in soil in the VanderWeele greenhouse, become their G0 stock, and ultimately provide all the seed the operation needs. The VanderWeeles’ primary variety is Russet Norkotah, supplemented by such varieties as Yukon Gold, Daisy Gold, German Butterball, Pike and Cherry Red.

Potato planting for the VanderWeeles runs through the second half of May, and harvest begins shortly after Labor Day. “The rule of thumb used to be to be done by Sept. 20,” says Ben, “but now it’s probably safe to say you should have your crop out of the ground by Oct. 1 to avoid the cold nights.”

When the shorter growing season is mentioned, Ben is quick to point out the help he receives from the extra hours of summer sunlight he receives. In June and July, the sun shines over Palmer for well over 19 hours a day. “It helps tremendously,” he says. “If we get a few days of really warm weather for here—in the 70s—it’s unbelievable how fast they grow. In potatoes, you can almost see inches of growth in 48 hours.

“The standard joke is if it hits 80, we all shut down because it’s way too warm,” he adds with a chuckle.

Like the 10 generations before them, Suus and Ben’s three children—Glen, Michelle and Roger—have found it difficult to outrun the farming in their blood; all three siblings have returned to the farm in Palmer with their young families. Each went away to get an education, and each was ultimately drawn back to the Alaska farmland they love.

“They at first tried some different things,” explains Ben. “Surprise, surprise—they wanted to come back. We realize we’re fortunate to have been able to expand and have everyone be able to come back to the farm. At the same time, though, we work at it pretty hard.”

Ben and Suus VanderWeele and their family could be called the American dream personified. They came from another part of the world and have thrived. Yet, more than that, the VanderWeele family is Alaskan through and through—and they want people to know just how great it is doing what they do up in the Last Frontier.

“I think there is more opportunity in Alaska for young people to come up here and farm,” says Ben.

Those young people had better be careful, though. They might never be satisfied anywhere else.