Two hours southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, on a farm carved out of the wilderness, most days you can find Scott Plagerman, Alaska’s last commercial dairyman, watching his milking robot hum away. A bubble gum pink udder, sprayed clean, moves into a cluster of laser-guided suction cylinders. Inch to the left. Inch to the right. Latch. Then the milk starts to flow.
Plagerman’s farm, Alaska Range Dairy, is the only supplier of fresh grade A cow milk in the entire state. The dairy has 35 milking cows that live in a heated barn seven months out of the year and range in grass pasture in the summertime. They make 200 to 240 gallons a day, a fraction of the milk consumed in the state, but their share is growing.
There’s nothing easy about running a dairy in remote Alaska. To do it means growing your own grain, troubleshooting veterinary problems, fixing broken equipment yourself, and bottling and distributing your own milk. Never mind the expense of keeping cows warm when it’s minus 30, and shooing bears out of the fields. Plagerman says he likes the challenge of going it alone.
“And the reward, if it works,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Dairying is all Plagerman knows, and he’s counting on a niche market in Alaska to be able to keep his business running for the long haul. His family has farmed dairy cows for at least four generations, most recently in Washington state. Since he started milking in Delta Junction a year ago, he’s found that locals who rarely get really fresh milk or have never lived anywhere near a dairy farm have a thirst for his mostly grass-fed, nonhomogenized, glass-bottled stuff, even at a higher price. He hopes that the locavore market, his automated milker, and the relatively regulation-free farming in rural Alaska are enough to sustain his business into a future that looks increasingly complicated for small dairies everywhere.
Wild foods like fish, moose, and berries are plentiful in Alaska, but the state’s relationship to certain perishables like winter produce and milk has always been fraught. The vast majority of the state’s groceries come from elsewhere. To get to Anchorage, milk and produce must travel a minimum of 1,500 miles from Washington. And, especially in pandemic times, all kinds of things delay that trip. Empty dairy cases have been a regular sight in grocery stores statewide over the last two years, a sometimes spooky reminder of the Alaska’s tenuous food security.
To understand how Alaskans relate to milk is to understand some of the most important dynamics of the state’s food culture. With regard to food, Alaska might be thought of as an island, annexed from the larger commercial structures of the Lower 48, long reliant on food from elsewhere. There’s an intense pride about the wildness of the place and wild foods, but there’s also a longing to be part of the wider culture, to share in the “Americanness” of the Lower 48 food experience, with its robust commercial and agricultural offerings — its stone fruit, shishito peppers, and blackberries; its Trader Joe’s Thai peanuts, In-N-Out Burger, and Chipotle. What’s more quintessentially American than pouring milk on a bowl of Cheerios or dunking an Oreo in it? Without it, who would Alaskans be?
Many longtime residents, especially in the rural part of the state, grew up on powdered and boxed milk, sometimes mixed in old milk jugs as parents tried to pass it off as the real thing. As a result, many still aren’t fond of it. Others have a nostalgic soft spot for canned milk in coffee or cocoa. Even long before the pandemic supply chain problems and the rise of inflation, fresh milk, when available, was expensive, especially in communities off the road system, which are primarily Alaska Native.
“In the villages, there’s virtually no refrigerator milk,” says Sarah Coburn, an assistant state veterinarian who works with dairies. When she first moved to Alaska, she lived on the North Slope, a rural area in the northern part of the state to which most of the travel is by small plane. You may be able to get fresh milk, she says, but it could be close to its expiration date and may be $10 or $12 a gallon.
The impulse Plagerman observed — the one that might drive people to pay a little extra for milk that isn’t shipped hundreds of miles — is the same one that drove Presbyterian church women in Fairbanks to fill books with recipes for white cakes 100 years ago, even though it was hard to get butter, sugar, fresh eggs, and white flour. There’s a magic that comes with its novelty and a legitimizing quality to having direct access to it.
Before contact by non-Native peoples, Alaska Native diets didn’t include dairy. But milk meant something to the early white prospectors and missionaries coming to Alaska from Outside, who introduced it to Alaska Natives. During the Gold Rush, it was an essential part of a pack-in, despite its weight and expense (canned condensed milk cost more than liquor at the time). “It was both like a quick energy fix — it was full of calories and sugar — and it was a connection to the life they had left behind,” says David Reamer, an Anchorage-based historian.
In the first half of the 20th century, dozens of small dairies with a few cows each opened and closed around early Anchorage, he says. The thing about getting fresh milk in Alaska then, as now, is that the cost to produce milk locally has never been able to compete with what it costs Outside, where grain is cheaper and there are much larger commercial dairy operations producing much more volume, even with the cost of shipping.
“Just those economies of scale, like the way milk could be produced in the Lower 48, just couldn’t be replicated in that scale,” Reamer says. “Everything was too small, too fragmented.”
Matanuska Maid, a state-owned dairy operation that bought raw milk from small farmers north of Anchorage, shuttered in 2007, after 71 years, unable to make the price of milk competitive. The smaller Matanuska Creamery followed, but shuttered in 2012, unable to pay farmers enough for milk. Late last year, Havemeister Dairy, a large operation that supplied grocery stores, shut down due to lack of labor, the cost of land, and aging equipment.
“I feel like in the Lower 48, it’s just kind of hard to really quite grasp how different things are. There’s just like a lot more support [for small farms],” says Coburn. “In Alaska, where it’s just so many fewer people, and so many fewer farms, their passion for producing and providing for the community is really, really special.”
Plagerman and his family — his wife Connie and children Kyle, Jessica, and Cody — moved to Alaska in 2008 to take over the remote farm property near Delta Junction. Delta, population 1,000, sits deep in the interior of Alaska, where temperatures can climb into the 90s in the summer when the sun shines almost all night, and then drop far below zero in the winter when the snow gets deep and the days are short. They first started growing hay for the equestrian market, and began dairying. They also have a small herd of bison.
The Plagermans moved north because urban sprawl and land use regulations began to encroach too much on their business. “They were forcing the small farms out of business,” says Plagerman. “That’s the point I like to stress, that government regulations are killing family farms when out the other side of their mouths they say they’d like to support them.”
Thankfully Delta has lots of land and far less government.
“Population and farms don’t get along so that’s the big key. We don’t have population encroachment and don’t see it coming for a long time,” he says.
Aside from the Plagerman’s, the only other commercial dairy in Alaska is located on Kodiak Island and sells goat milk.
“The big costs for a dairy — feed costs, labor costs, energy costs — that’s the challenge everywhere, and then you double or triple or quadruple those to be in Alaska,” says Coburn.
Plagerman’s cows eat both local grain and hay. In Alaska the growing season is very short. For hay, you may only get one cutting per year, while in other states in the Lower 48, you get multiple cuttings per year. Supplements must be shipped, as well as parts for machines. If something breaks in a milking machine, the cows must be milked by hand, or another backup system has to be in place until a part gets delivered. The Plagermans brought experience to Alaska, but still needed ingenuity to get their milk to market, Coburn says. Outside of Alaska, most dairymen are raising cattle and milking, not processing food.
“He’s a dairy guy from way back, but he had to figure out the processing and bottling; all of that is not typically one family,” she says. “Doing all that would be broken up between different companies, different facilities.”
Plagerman says technology makes his farm competitive. His barn floor is heated, and manure gets cleared and collected by a machine that resembles a big Roomba. Most important: his milking robot. Each cow wears a monitor that lets the robot track all kinds of data, including its milk output, quality, and any signs it might be getting sick.
“It’s kind of like a Fitbit. It’s monitoring their movement and their digestion,” he says.
The cows walk up to the machine when they are ready to be milked and munch grain while the machine works away.
“The robot is the only way we could dairy here because we don’t have enough labor to have somebody full-time just milking the cows,” he says.
Plagerman’s cows are a friendly bunch with names his daughter picks, like Doris, Rachel, and Tina. On a day in early April when there was still snow on the fields, they chewed hay in the barn with one side open to let in fresh air. A pen held three calves, who popped their heads out of the bars, looking for lunch.
Plagerman’s cows eat hay and grains that he grows on his land — barley and peas, but not corn because the climate isn’t right for it. The milk is pasteurized more slowly at a lower temperature than milk from larger operations. And it comes with a layer of cream on top, perfect for scooping into coffee. Some dairy-sensitive customers tell him the lack of homogenization makes it easier to digest.
Three times a week, Connie Plagerman and a neighbor don white coats and hairnets and set about bottling. They pump 800 gallons of pasteurized milk into a machine that sprays it into clear glass bottles and snaps on red caps. Those get dated, and loaded into a cooler. They travel to stores by truck. The milk hasn’t made it into many major grocery cases yet, but it’s offered at smaller retailers, like health food stores and small groceries. Getting into larger groceries as a specialty item is the goal.
Alaska Range milk is high-end stuff — it comes in gallon jugs or half-gallon glass bottles that cost between $5 and $8, depending on where they are sold, with a $3 bottle deposit. Commercial milk prices in urban Alaska range from about $4 per half gallon to nearly $7 for organic, grass-fed. That slightly higher price has dogged many Alaska dairies.
“[The market for milk] has been good, [but] we have experienced that in the last few weeks economics, gas prices, people are cutting back a bit,” Plagerman says, referring to the market fluctuations related to the pandemic and Ukraine war. “The milk is higher-priced, because it costs more to grow [grain] here. It’s a better product, in my opinion. But people sacrifice quality for price at some point.”
Plagerman tastes his milk regularly and critically, like a vintner tastes wine. A sip of Alaska Range Dairy milk floods the mouth with fat, salt, and a faint, pleasant, earthy funk. Usually, when small farmers sell milk to big dairies, all the milk gets mixed together to equalize the slight differences in flavor. But that’s not possible in Alaska.
“That’s the challenge of small dairy, is you’re not blending 10 other farms to equalize out those flavors, so we have to be very careful,” he says.
That flavor actually tends to be a selling point.
“Whatever it is they’re feeding them, I think that’s imparted in the flavor. It’s just really like legit whole milk,” says Jessica Johnson, one of the founders of Blue Market, a small Anchorage grocery store focused on selling items in bulk or with reduced packaging. She’s carried Alaska Range Dairy milk since last fall and has customers who come in regularly to pick up and drop off bottles. They are people who care about how the milk is packaged, she says. The unique flavor also has a following.
Johnson grew up in Alaska. She describes a feeling that is informed by being far away from the relative abundance of foods in the rest of the country — the same sort of feeling that encourages Alaskans to bring certain hard-to-get foods home in their suitcases when returning from other states.
That might be why, when Drew Harlos and his wife Jennifer picked up some milk from Blue Market for the first time, they cracked it open in the car. The stuff just seemed real, he said.
“It smelled like milk, if that makes any sense,” he says. “The stuff we buy in the store is almost flavorless compared to this.”
The Harloses explained to their children that the food came from cows in Alaska. Alaska kids rarely get to connect fresh grocery store foods to their origins. “I have a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old and we’ve tried to tell them about milk and farms. I was like, ‘This milk comes from here, there are cows here,’” he says. “That’s way different than, ‘Here’s this big jug and I don’t know where it came from.’”
Plagerman is betting his livelihood on more customers like the Harloses discovering his milk and seeing its value in a place that’s so far from other dairies.
“We kinda hope to get it to maybe more stores, the bigger stores are kind of crucial,” he says. “We’d like to get more people aware of it.”
If it works out, he says, he might be able to pass his farm on to his children like the dairymen who came before him.
Julia O’Malley, a third-generation Alaskan, is an editor and James Beard Award-winning writer who lives in Anchorage.
Nathaniel Wilder is a photographer from Anchorage who loves all things Alaska.
Fact checked by Victoria Petersen
Copy edited by Paola Banchero and Nadia Q. Ahmad