In running the Farm Aid 1-800-FARM-AID hotline for some years now, I have the privilege of getting to know farmers from every weather-beaten corner of the nation. Alaska, too, you might ask? You betcha.
Farmer Loretta Tonoian, 83 years young, says hers is the “northernmost farm on the American continent.” And I’ll eat my hat if she’s not also the northernmost Armenian-American hog farmer on the planet. Loretta raises hogs on her small farm near Fox, Alaska, north of Fairbanks, and less than 100 miles south of the ARCTIC CIRCLE.
Years ago, Loretta moved to Alaska to farm by herself after raising her kids and divorcing her husband: “He didn’t like to work. He liked to watch me work.” She’s Armenian—”My family was chased out by the Turks”—and her grandfather started a farm in California’s San Fernando Valley in 1851. She says her family took care of Barbara Stanwick’s farm and other celebrities’ farms.
Despite physical disability that confines her part-time to a wheelchair, Loretta’s tough as nails, swears like a sailor, and takes no guff from anyone. But she’s also compassionate, kind, very funny, and always ready to help out neighbors and down-on-their luck youth who need a helping hand or a place to stay. She and her partner help in the community and regularly host young people at the farm. Please don’t tell Loretta I said so, but I think she’s actually a soft touch, at least when it comes to her animals. When it gets severely cold, she’ll let her littlest piglets inside the house to keep warm. I know: I’ve heard at least one of them critters happily squealing in the background when Loretta and I are visiting on the phone.
It so happens that our Farmer Resource Network, despite having more than 500 farm support organizations enlisted as referrals for our hotline, doesn’t have too many Alaska-based referrals. So when Loretta called recently to report that her water source had frozen and her truck had konked out when the temperature dropped to 40 below, I was worried about her welfare. But she was primarily concerned about her 80 or so hogs because she was running dangerously short on feed.
So I contacted another Farm Aid Alaska friend, John Giacolone, aka “Yukon John,” to see if he might be able to help Loretta out. Yukon John attends the Farm Aid concert every year, and it may well be that he’s logged more miles to attend our annual shows than any other loyal Farm Aid concert-goer—and that’s saying something, because he’s got a lot of competition in that department!
Yukon John, bless his heart, was glad to help Loretta. In the true spirit of Farm Aid, he first called Loretta directly to check in with her, making sure she herself wasn’t frozen stiff. He then made contact with our old friends, the Missouri Rural Crisis Center/Patchwork Family Farms, getting their advice on how to help out a hog farmer like Loretta. And then while on a business trip in Fairbanks, he took the time to rent a truck, stock it with 20 bags of ground barley and 10 bales of straw, and deliver the load straight to Loretta. John reported that it was a nice day for such work, a balmy 8 degrees.