By Nancy Tarnai
Not a day goes by that Sven and Barbara Ebbesson don’t eat potatoes and it’s not because they are in a contest or trying to prove a point. They just love potatoes.
Every summer they grow tons of potatoes at their family farm north of Nenana, so they have an unlimited supply of tasty, organically-grown tubers. They refer to their Ebbesson Farms as “a thousand acres of happiness.” While both had an interest in farming it was their son Nils who motivated them to buy land over 20 years ago and turn it into a farm.
When Nils married a North Carolina woman and relocated south a few years ago, his parents kept the farm going. They credit Nancy and Alan Homberg with helping and supporting them throughout the years. They also have summertime guests from as far away as Wyoming and Sweden to help with farm work.
“We have the best time with friends who really like farming,” Sven said. In their 17 fields, the Ebbessons grow 12 to 15 different varieties of potatoes and produce certified organic seed potatoes sold by nurseries around the state. “We get letters every year thanking us for the quality,” Barbara said. “Nils set the standard.”
They started with Swedish Peanut, and have added German Butterball, Cal White, French Fingerling, Caribe, Shepody, Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn, All Blue, Nordonna, Norkota and more.
Farming is not as simple as it may appear, Sven said. “You have to be very careful with what you are doing. I’ve always been impressed with how smart farmers are. Farmers have to use the right amount of fertilizer, deal with bankers, know the seasons and the weather and figure out machinery. Farmers are very clever people; I’m not, so I get people to help me.”
Despite Sven’s humble attitude he has a doctorate in anatomy and a prestigious academic and medical research career. Sven was acting director of the Institute of Circumpolar Health Studies at UAF 1992-1993 and is at present a senior scientist for Norton Sound Health Corp. in Nome.
Sweden was his home till he was 15 and his family relocated to Kansas. Barbara hails from California’s Napa Valley, where she was surrounded by, but not involved in, agriculture. The two met in Germany when Sven was in the U.S. Army and Barbara was a nurse. They have been married 48 years and have three sons and four grandchildren.
Wherever life took them, the Ebbessons were drawn to agriculture. In Virginia they raised cattle on a big beautiful farm that is now owned by author John Grisham. They even lived for a spell in Puerto Rico. When medical research brought them to Alaska, they cast about for a suitable farm.
The Nenana land they purchased was heavily forested and had to be cleared, which the entire family tackled together. They decided from the beginning the farm would be organic and went through extensive paperwork and inspections to get the official designation. “We really believe in the organic way,” Sven said. “Up here you can get land without chemicals and grow healthy foods that you know have not been contaminated with anything.”
While potatoes are their only product the Ebbessons grow rye and field peas as cover crops to give the fields a chance to rest. They plow under the crops to improve the soil. One of their biggest challenges besides the weather is weeds. At one point they had so much lamb’s quarters that Barbara said maybe they should try selling that instead of potatoes.
With lots of hard work and ingenuity (cultivating soon after planting) they have gotten the weed problem under control. Sven raved about the soil on the farm’s plantable 160 acres. “It is wonderful for potatoes,” he said. “And there are no stones. Growing up in Sweden we harvested more stones than potatoes.”
He credits the Alaska sunshine for helping create a wonderful product. “The quality of our potatoes is exceptional,” he said. The goal is simple: “to grow more and more potatoes,” Sven said. Barbara said continuing as an organic farm is important too.
In the off season the Ebbessons travel to Europe and work on their hobby of tracking their ancestors. At home in Fairbanks they eat a local diet of moose, fish, berries, vegetables and lots of potatoes. “I feel guilty if I buy a sweet potato,” Barbara said.
Contact info: ebbessonfarms.com
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.