Site Visit: Reindeer Farm in Palmer, Alaska, Faces Unusual Business Obstacles
By Prianka Sharma, Assistant Chief Counsel
When you think of the climate that is most prevalent in Alaska—cold harsh winters with lots of snow—you may also think of winter animals like reindeer.
In Alaska, reindeer are simultaneously a mythical relic enjoyed in stories by children and families, as well as a tasty meal. While in Palmer, Alaska, Advocacy staff visited Williams Reindeer Farm. Founded by Tom and Gene Williams in 1987, the farm is now run by their daughter, Denise Williams Hardy, and her family. The farm is home to a herd of 100 reindeer, 2 Rocky Mountain elk, a bison named Dolly, a yak, and Rocky the moose. Gene Williams grew up on the farm when it was operated as a dairyfarm, and the original home is still standing on the property today.
Reindeer and caribou belong to the same species; however, caribou are wild and reindeer are easily domesticated. The word “caribou” is derived from a Micmac Indian word meaning “pawer of the ground.” Caribou were a source of food and clothing for gold miners and Alaska Natives alike. Reindeer breed from September through November, and their offspring are born in the spring, weighing 8-15 lbs. Reindeer are highly adapted to cold climates, and their feet act like snowshoes. Thus the farm experiences very few losses in Alaska’s cold harsh winter months.
Denise Williams Hardy gave Advocacy staff a tour of the farm and the unique opportunity to feed the reindeer, including bottle feeding a baby reindeer. While staff participated in these activities, Ms. Williams Hardy spoke about an unusual state law that prohibits anyone except Alaska Natives to own Alaskan reindeer. Therefore, when her family converted the dairy farm into a reindeer farm, they had to purchase and transport their reindeer from Canada. This became the subject of litigation, and following a legal settlement in 2004, they won the legal right to own their reindeer.
Ms. Williams Hardy said that they look for opportunities to grow revenue year-round, not just during the winter holidays when most people want to visit the farm. Although pumpkins are not native to Alaska and do not grow there, she has started offering a Fall Festival because so many customers want a pumpkin patch experience. She buys pumpkins and places them in a field, and offers hayrides and fall food. Her customers get to have a true “pumpkin patch” experience, and she can show off the farm.
Ms. Williams Hardy states that they also engage in live animal sales; however, they end up paying to fly the animals back to the contiguous United States because the requirements for driving the animals through Canada to get them to the lower 48 states are so excessive. One of these rules would only let her check on her animals every 12 hours, and the shipping crates are so small that the animals are unable to turn around. She ships them via FedEx, which allows her to travel with the animals to ensure their safety throughout the journey.
Ms. Williams Hardy mentioned that she interacts with many certification programs within the Department of Agriculture. She stated that for the most part she is able to stay abreast of all the requirements. Her biggest issue is getting timely responses from the agency once she submits a certification or re-certification application for the various requirements for livestock owners, handlers and sellers. On one occasion, she applied for a certification showing that her herd was free of chronic wasting disease, and it took the agency nearly five years to process her application. On the whole she stated that agencies need to figure out better ways to streamline their application processes so that small business owners aren’t tasked with producing the same repetitive information over and over.
Advocacy was in Alaska for Regional Regulatory Reform Roundtables July 9-11.
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Prianka Sharma is an Assistant Chief Counsel for Advocacy whose portfolio includes agriculture, energy, and natural resources. Sharma can be reached at Prianka.firstname.lastname@example.org.