Heidi Rader can’t stay away from farmers markets.
Her first job was selling roses and tomatoes at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market. Now she is selling her own produce at the Downtown Market and has recently published the “Alaska Farmers Market Cookbook.”
The draw is a natural one, as Rader has a passion for locally grown food that extends to her education, career and free time. Growing up in Fairbanks, she helped out with her family’s garden. “I just gravitated that way,” she said. She completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and then switched to agriculture, earning a master’s degree in natural resources at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “I liked the practical applications,” she said.
As the tribes Extension educator with the UAF Cooperative Extension Service and Tanana Chiefs Conference, Rader teaches agricultural skills in remote areas of the state. She offers numerous classes, such as the Alaska Growers’ School, Master Gardener online course, workshops in subsistence gardening, canning salmon, composting, extending the growing season and soils.
By starting her own farm this year, Rader said it was time to practice what she preaches. “I’m always telling people to have a garden,” she said. Prior to building their own home, she and her husband rented a cabin and only had room for a bit of container gardening.
Her Little Alaskan Garden is a slice of heaven enclosed by a moose fence in Sheep Creek. “I was kind of curious what I could do,” Rader said. “It’s been a lot of work but fun too. I’m figuring out the microclimate here. It’s been a challenge to keep things watered.”
Rader was pleasantly surprised at the food her garden produced. “I pretty much threw the seeds in the ground and I’ve had to contend with moose, voles and a couple of mid-season frosts.”
With no running water the garden was rain dependent. One of Rader’s goals is to get a water source. Another is to incorporate her passion for agriculture with business and educational skills. “I try to help people start small farms,” she said. Her advice to anyone wanting to get a start at farming is to first work for other farmers. Her experience includes jobs or internships at Happy Creek, Ann’s Greenhouse, Basically Basil, Calypso Farm and Fairbanks Experiment Farm.
“Start small and do what you can after hours and see what you are capable of,” she said. “There has to be more than money; there has to be passion.”
In a 60 x 60 plot Rader successfully grew potatoes, peas, herbs, strawberries, squash, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, snap beans, onions an d beets. “I did what was easiest, what I could plant from seed,” she said. “A plot this size should support yourself and 10 other families. I’m curious to get the numbers.”
In addition to produce, Rader has 11 chickens. “They are a lot of fun,” she said. “I like to cycle the nutrients into the farm. I feed the chickens weeds and vegetables that bolt and their manure will go back into the soil.”
She even formed a “friends of the hens” group, with each member taking a day to visit the farm and gather eggs, eliminating the need to deliver eggs to buyers.
Although Rader is busy with her job and farm she eked out time to publish a recipe collection, “Alaska Farmers Market Cookbook.” Organized by seasons, the book features recipes Rader has tried in her own kitchen. She hopes it will inspire people to buy, grow and prepare locally grown food.
There is everything from potato/carrot soup to roasted broccoli with cumin. Rader’s favorite recipes of all are the rhubarb pie with saffron and Mayan zucchini brownies.
Choosing recipes, deciding on the photographs and getting the book published were one thing; now Rader faces the challenge of marketing. “It’s a big learning process,” she said. “There is a whole cascade of different skills.” She had such a good time preparing the cookbook she’s thinking of doing another one.
She sells the book at farmers markets and at her website, www.heidirader.com. She sees the book and her own farm as an extension of the other aspects of her life. “It helps me develop professionally and helps me be a better teacher. It’s easy to tell people what they should do. “I’ve had this dream for 10 years to be a farmer.”
Rader really loves the fact that her farm is right out her back door. “I get what I need for cooking right there and watching everything grow under the midnight sun is fun.”
Rader will be at the Monday Downtown Market through Sept. 24 (not on Labor Day).
This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at email@example.com.