Kake tribe digs into compost business
By Robert Howk
Alaska Journal of Commerce
Publication Date: 11/03/03
What do you do with huge amounts of fish-processing waste and massive piles of sawdust? The village of Kake in Southeast Alaska has the answer: mix them together.
Kake Tribal Corporation is digging into the gardening compost business, and it got some help recently from the United States Department of Agriculture.
The Alaska USDA Rural Development program awarded a $47,326 grant to the village corporation Oct. 23, through the USDA's Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program.
"This program is designed to spur economic growth by producing high value products from commodities," said Bill Allen, USDA's Alaska Rural Development state director. "In the case of Kake, it makes perfect sense," he said. "It is something that, once an investment is made in marketing, would appeal to the wholesale and retail marketplace."
The nutrient-rich compost will be sold under the brand name of "Totem Soil," said Kake Tribal Corporation President and CEO Sam Jackson. The name was chosen because Kake is home to the world's largest (132-foot tall) totem pole, he said. And while the product will be new to consumers, the method for making it is as old as Tlingit culture.
"Our business plan is 10,000 years old," he said. "Our ancestors did this for years. They'd put kelp products and fish products and wood waste products together every fall, so when they planted in the spring they would have nice rich soil to work with."
Kake is located on Kupreanof Island, about halfway between Juneau and Ketchikan, and the village corporation generates jobs and income for more than 700 shareholders. Most employment is based on the seafood and timber industries.
Jackson said one of the main activities in the region is harvesting of salmon for roe. The fish eggs have a high market value, but the flesh from the late-run fish is unsuitable for human consumption. However, the slimy leftovers are perfect for adding to compost. He said the process uses every type of fish byproduct, and nothing is discarded.
All that decomposing fish can cause a stink, and Jackson said the main processing operation is located about seven miles away from the village.
"Initially when you're doing it, it has an odor to it," he said. " But when you're done with it, it is really dark, rich soil that smells like the forest floor and will enrich anyone's garden whether it's a novice or a professional organic vegetable grower."
Currently, eight Kake residents are employed through the project. The corporation hopes to eventually ramp up production to two shifts, employing 18 workers.
While the job description involves the handling of fish guts all day, Jackson said that hasn't kept prospective employees from taking on the work.
"They're motivated by the salary, and by the potential that the product has for year-round employment," he said. "In Kake we have a fishing economy that is struggling because of market conditions, and a logging industry that is nearing the end of its life in a couple of years, so people are looking to transition into something else."
The day before the marketing grant was awarded, Jackson said, the village received an important shipment: An automatic bagging machine that can crank out 7,000 eight-quart bags a day, ready for delivery to local and Outside markets.
And there appears to be no shortage of material to keep the crew busy.
Jackson said the corporation produced enough compost to fill about 170,000 eight-quart bags in 2002, and this year they churned out "four or five times" the amount produced the first year. "We estimate that we have a little over $3 million in potential inventory in our windrows (timber slash piles) down in Kake," Jackson said.
The federal grant funds will be used to develop a marketing plan and to design packaging materials. To get the job done, the village corporation has hired the Anchorage-based firm of Aadland Marketing to create brochures, design display ads, and get the word out.
"We feel that with their expertise and help, and the utilization of the USDA grant, we can hit the ground running with sales as early as November and December of this year," Jackson said.
Initial markets for Totem Soil include plant nurseries and chain stores in the Pacific Northwest and Southcentral Alaska. The product has been certified with a "Seal of Quality" by the Rodale Gardening organization as a high-quality, organic container mix.
Funding for the VAPG program is contained in the 2002 USDA Farm Bill, and more grant applications are being solicited.
"This program is open to any process, as long as you are the producer," said Alaska USDA spokesman Wayne Maloney. "As long as you add value to a product, it could be a fish product or an agricultural product."
For more information on the grant program, interested parties can call 907-761-7722.
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