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Upper Valley Agriculture: Yaks at Sunny Hill Ranch

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Yaks

There is growing emphasis in Alaska on locally produced food, including meat.  While cattle can be, and are, raised in the Upper Susitna Valley, many species of cow are not adapted to the severe cold of an Alaska winter.  There is another animal that is perfectly suited for the conditions, though, yaks.  KTNA’s Phillip Manning visited Sunny Hill Ranch earlier this week to see yak ranching in action.

Bull

Yak bulls, while perhaps not as large as their bovine cousins, are still impressive.

YAKLDY

Proof that Anita Hill is the “yak lady.”

Anita Hill is the “Yak Lady.”  It says so right on her custom license plate.  She and her husband Steve Hill have operated Sunny Hill Ranch for about four years.  After I arrived, they took me to a large pen, where I could already discern dark, furry shapes moving around.

For those who have never seen a domestic yak in person, they resemble something of a cross between a bison and a cow, but considerably lighter, and with much shorter legs.  Steve Hill says a large yak bull might get up to 1500 pounds.  Compare that to a brahma bull, which can weigh upward of a ton.  As the more tame members of the herd approached the fence to greet me, the Hills explained why people raise yaks.

STEVE: “Meat and Fiber.”
ANITA: “Some People ask me about milking.  I only milk them when I have to.”

The fiber gets brushed off of the animals and washed so it can be spun into yarn.  As for the meat, Anita and Steve Hill say that the market is growing.

“There’s a good market for it, because it’s very lean.  There’s no fat on it; it’s not marbled like beef.”

Anita Hill says the meat can largely be used as a substitute for beef in recipes, although it does cook somewhat differently.  Right now, the Hills sell their meat primarily at farmers markets, but that may change in the future.  Steve says that one day they would like to:

“…get some restaurants in Talkeetna serving yak burgers…If you’re going to get them doing that, you have to have the supply to meet the demand.  You can’t say, ‘Here’s one, and I’ll have the next one six months from now.’”

Steve says that it would take a herd of about fifty animals in order to consider selling on that scale, which he estimates will take another two or three years.  That plan almost got yanked out from under the Hills with a recent, sudden change from the USDA, however.

“About two weeks ago, the USDA, all of a sudden…out of the blue, said ‘Yak’s not an amenable species.  We’re not going to inspect it any more,’ which would have taken this herd…and all of a sudden now it’s worthless.  I can’t sell it to the public.”

That’s because a USDA stamp is required for commercial sale of meat.  Fortunately for the Hills and other yak ranchers, there was help to be had.  Jim Watson is board president for the International Yak Association, or IYAK.  He spoke to me from his ranch in Montana about the potential impact of the unexpected change.

“It resulted in the almost immediate cessation of interstate commerce in yak meat and yak products, which disrupted the business models of yak ranchers throughout the country, because they had standing orders to go to grocery stores, restaurants, and distributors which were suddenly not valid any more.”

Watson says IYAK rallied its members through email and social media, and encouraged them to write to members of Congress, specifically those on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“…Apparently, that worked very well, because the USDA contacted me a few days later and provided us with the alternative we requested.”

While a final decision is still pending, Watson says it’s looking good for yak ranchers.

Back at the Sunny Hill Ranch, my yak education continues.  One of the reasons that yaks are an attractive species to raise in Alaska is their resilience to cold.  Many types of yak originate in the Himalayas, and Anita Hill says they are a major asset to the people of the area.

“In Tibet, they use them for everything.  They are the family animal.  They use them for packing; they use them for meat.  They use them like oxen.  They’re actually called ‘the grunting ox.’”

Tibet can get pretty cold, so yaks adapted over time to tough out frigid winters with their thick coats of fur.  Anita Hill says yaks as young as a week old can survive

Even baby yaks can handle the cold of an Alaskan winter.

Even baby yaks can handle the cold of an Alaskan winter.

temperatures well below zero because the herd will work to keep them warm.

That strong herd mentality also comes in handy with one of the other hazards to raising livestock in the Last Frontier.

“The yaks will attack a bear.  They’ll attack anything that comes in harm’s way…even the dogs.  Annie [the yak] was up–I had just her and two younger ones–and a coyote came and harassed them.  She bent the fence trying to get to that coyote, so they’ll attack a bear.”

Steve Hill says, between the yaks and the family’s three large dogs, he hasn’t seen a bear on the property in the four years he and Anita have lived in the Susitna Valley.

For Steve and Anita Hill, their yaks are like an extension of their family.  Every one has a name and a personality.  Twice during my tour, yaks would come to the fence and poke their heads through, hoping I would scratch them behind the ears.  While many of them are destined for a dinner plate eventually, it’s clear that they’re happy with the life they live at Sunny Hill Ranch.

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House District 10 Candidates: Roger Purcell

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

There are three candidates running for State House Seat 10 in the general election on November 4th.  One of them is Roger Purcell, who is not running with either major party, but rather undeclared.  Purcell joined K-T-N-A’s Phillip Manning on Wednesday to talk about his priorities for the state and District 10.

Roger Purcell is a registered Republican, but did not seek the party’s nomination to represent District 10.  He has run against the incumbent, Representative Wes Keller, in the past in an unsuccessful primary bid.  Purcell, who was formerly the mayor of Houston, says that he and some others who are running independently chose to do so in order to be able to dissent with members of the Republican Party when they disagree.

“We can do what’s right one-hundred percent of the time because we didn’t have to go back and respond to what they said.  I was taken aside by a legislator and told how it was going to be when we got to Juneau with the party, and I totally disagreed with what they were saying…” (more…)

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Passengers Identified in Fatal Bus Rollover

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Alaska State Troopers have identified all three people who were on board a Princess tour bus that rolled over near Mile 173 of the Parks Highway on Friday morning.  All three were Princess employees.

The driver was identified as 25 year old Brian Lanning of Trapper Creek. Lanning received non-life-threatening injuries in the accident.  One of the two passengers on board was declared dead at the scene.  She has now been identified as 21 year old Po Chong of Malaysia.  The surviving passenger has been identified as 22 year old Wendy Shen of Taiwan. Shen’s identity was previously withheld because her injuries were initially seen as life-threatening. Julie Benson, spokeswoman for Princess Cruises, says that, as of Monday, Shen was resting comfortably and “doing well.”

The accident was reported around 8:00 am on Friday.  The Alaska State Troopers Commercial Vehicle Enforcement division and Bureau of Highway Patrol are investigating the cause of the crash.

Tour Bus Rollover on the Parks Highway Results in One Fatality

Friday, September 5, 2014

A tour bus rollover near Mile 173 of the Parks Highway has resulted in at least one fatality.  Alaska State Troopers say the report of the rollover came in just after 8:00 am on Friday.  The bus belongs to Princess Tours, and trooper spokeswoman Megan peters says that three people were on board, including the driver.  EMS and troopers responded to the scene from Cantwell, Trapper Creek, and Talkeetna.  Troopers say that the driver initially reported that both passengers had suffered “significant injuries.”  Just before 9:30, one of the passengers was declared deceased.  The Parks Highway remains open as troopers investigate the cause of the crash.  The identities of those on board the bus have not been released.

Permanent Vehicle Registration Vote Delayed Again

Thursday, September 4, 2014

On Tuesday, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly voted once again to delay the vote on an ordinance that would allow permanent registration of vehicles that are more than eight years old.  While that would mean a significant convenience for many in the borough, there were concerns about what would happen to funding for roads in the borough.

Assembly Member Jim Colver is sponsoring the proposed ordinance. On Tuesday, he introduced an amendment that is targeted at mitigating the lost revenue for roads.  Under the original proposal, funding for local RSAs would have dropped by about two-thirds.  Under the amendment, that funding would fall back to 2013 levels, a decrease of just over one quarter.

The overall cost to the borough would remain the same under both versions of the ordinance, around $2.4 million per year.   With the amendment, the bulk of that would not come from road funds, but from the portion of vehicle registration fees that are paid into the borough’s areawide and non-areawide general funds.  Areawide dust control matching funds, which are $710,000 for the current fiscal year, would be capped at $500,000 per year, and a reserve would be built to continue matching funds into the future.  That reserve is estimated to be approximately $1.4 million by 2018.

Any change to taxes and revenue for the borough comes with a number of complications.  As a result, the Borough Assembly voted unanimously to delay the vote on the ordinance and amendment to November.

Four Rescued Near Deshka Landing

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Early Wednesday morning, a stranded fishing party was rescued by helicopter near the Deshka Landing in Willow.  According to the Alaska State Troopers, Lloyd Hester of Willow took three family members who were visiting from Texas on a fishing trip in his boat.  The group got lost, and the boat was grounded when they tried to find their way back. The troopers were contacted Tuesday evening. The group decided to camp for the night and meet with an Alaska Wildlife Trooper boat in the morning.

The weather turned for the worse, with cold and rain moving in through the night.  The family was unable to keep a fire going, and could not stay dry in the worsening conditions.  Hester, who is 76 years old, became hypothermic, and the group requested assistance.  The Rescue Coordination Center was contacted, and a HH-60 helicopter was dispatched.  The group was rescued at about 5:30 am on Wednesday and transported to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.  Hester was treated for hypothermia and released.

More Than A Win, Constitution Party Candidates Want Ballot Access

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

by: Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN

Alaskans will have one more option in the governor’s race: The Division of Elections will allow Constitution Party candidate J.R. Myers to appear on the ballot.

The Alaska Constitution Party has just over 200 members, and it was first recognized by the state in 2011. Because the organization is so new and small, it doesn’t qualify as a political party under statute. Instead, it’s lumped in with the Green Party and Veterans Party as “political group,” a sort of electoral purgatory where candidates have to collect signatures to get their names on the ballot. (more…)

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Alaska Aces, Kelley Cup to Visit Talkeetna

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Upper Valley hockey fans have something to look forward to this week. On Friday, Talkeetna will play host to the three-time East Coast Hockey League champion Alaska Aces.  According to a statement by the team, the Aces will arrive by rail on Friday along with the ECHL trophy, the Kelley Cup.  The team will spend the day touring the town, and will hold a photo session with the cup at 5:00 pm in the Talkeetna Village Park.  The trip is a joint effort by the Alaska Aces and the Alaska Railroad Corporation.

Assembly Delays Vote on Vehicle Registration Ordinance

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The vote on a proposed ordinance that would change vehicle registration rules for many in the Mat-Su Borough was delayed at Tuesday night’s Borough Assembly meeting.  The ordinance is the result of a recently-passed state law allowing municipalities to choose whether or not to make the changes, which Borough Manager John Moosey outlined on Wednesday on KTNA’s Su-Valley Voice.

“Essentially, what the bill has said is any vehicle eight years or older has to be registered one time for the life of that vehicle.”

While that would mean a convenience for many vehicle owners in the borough, it would also mean a hit to revenue totaling about $2.4 million across all of the Mat-Su.  That money goes toward road maintenance funds and fire service areas.  John Moosey says the borough is going to take a closer look at the implications of the revenue loss. (more…)

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