"There's definitely a large disappearance of good farm ground," said Ben Vanderweele, a longtime vegetable farmer in the Valley. He and his wife moved to Alaska in 1967 from the Netherlands.
"I remember when we came here, there were 27 dairy farms, if I remember right, there were either 15 or 18 potato growers," Vanderweele added. Now there are just a few dairies left, and the Vanderweeles are one of only a handful of farmers who produce potatoes.
Over the past few decades, the Vanderweeles have watched as hundreds of acres of pristine farmland in the Matanuska Valley were transformed into subdivisions, making more room for suburban sprawl.
"It's a very easy commute from here into town and the other is the views you have out here with the mountains close by," said Jess Hall, the owner of Hall Custom Homes.
Hall is the owner of a fairly new development -- Mountain Ranch Subdivision -- in the Springer Loop Road system in Palmer. The property was previously owned by a farmer. "It's just a fantastic spot," he said.
But new homes aren't what farmers want to see sprouting on fields that were once used for crops. "Just buying up the best farm property in this area, to me, it's just totally disgusting," said Vanderweele. "They're just out there to make a quick dollar, I mean, there's a lot of other property they can buy," he added.
The housing boom in the Valley has slowed down, but developers say there is still a need for new homes. Many choose to live in the Mat-Su area and commute to work in Anchorage. The drive to and from Palmer makes for a fairly easy commute.
Hall defends his decision to purchase the property where Mountain Ranch Subdivision now sits, despite what it was used for in the past. "It's up to the owner of the land to decide what they want to do with it," said Hall. "If the farmer owns the land and he wants to sell it, he puts it up for sale, then another farmer can certainly buy it, it's available for whomever."
But the price per acre for property in Palmer nowadays would create a financial strain on any farmer. "We're working people for a living and it takes millions and millions of dollars to buy up some large tracts, so it's just not realistic," Vanderweele said.
When Vanderweele and his wife moved to Palmer in the late 1960s, they paid $400 an acre for farmland. The last piece of property they purchased just a few years ago came at a price tag of $20,000 an acre.
"If you're just a young whipper-snapper out of college and you want to start a farm, it's totally impossible. The economics are not there," said Vanderweele.
It's economics that prompts farmers to sell their land and get the highest possible price for it. The average age of a farmer in the Mat-Su is 65. Some have no other choice but to sell when they retire.
"When my folks got ready to retire, they did the same thing, they sort of sold it off in pieces," said Wayne Bouwens. He moved to Palmer at the age of 5 -- his parents were Colonists. According to Bouwens, the battle to protect Valley farmland from development began decades ago. "We tried to get the state to buy up their agriculture rights back in the ‘60s and the state didn't want to do it," he added.
While some of the few remaining farmers in the Matanuska Valley will eventually sell their property, Ben Vanderweele won't be one of them.
"We get phone calls every so many months, 'You want to sell some property?' and as long as I'm alive, there's nothing for sale on our farm," Vanderweele said. "I think the next generation is probably the same."