The folks at this non-profit farm outside Palmer were doing sustainable agriculture long before it was cool—or before most people used such a term. Located 45 minutes from Anchorage, the Musk Ox farm project was conceived in the 1950s as an agrarian opportunity to villagers in Western Alaska, and today it’s a fascinating look at an animal (and a way of life) that was perilously close to extinction.
Meet the Wooly Mammoth’s Neighbor
The musk ox—one of the Arctic’s oldest living species, and once a contemporary of the wooly mammoth and saber-toothed tiger—possesses a soft under-wool called qiviut. In the early 1950’s, anthropologist John Jerome Teal Jr. recognized that the best—or sometimes only—way that rural Alaskans could earn a cash income was to leave home and seek work elsewhere. Teal’s dream was to domesticate a geographically appropriate animal, and bring an economic opportunity—gentle and sustainable agriculture—to a part of the world that had previously known none. By 1969 Teal split his new organization into two separate entities: The Musk Ox Farm, to focus on the domestication of the musk ox and to harvest the qiviut fiber; and Oomingmak, a cooperative of Native knitters who would take the raw fiber from fluff to yarn and then to beautiful, hand-knit garments. Both organizations carry on the vision of John Teal today.
Warmer than Wool
Every spring, qiviut is combed from the musk ox and native knitters expertly turn it into hats, scarves, nachaqs (Eskimo smoke rings), and other clothing; the proceeds help supplement their subsistence lifestyle. Not only does qiviut feel great, it’s also plenty warm: It’s actually eight times warmer than sheep’s wool by weight.
Photo Ops with the “Bearded Ones”
You can take a 40 - 45 minute tour of the farm, where you’ll see about 80 musk oxen, and perhaps even some babies. Since they’re friendly creatures, they may come right up to the fence to greet visitors. Your guide will tell you all about these unique creatures—whose native name, Oomingmak, translates to “the bearded ones”—but will also offer an educational tour of a unique working farm, as well as sharing the history of Palmer and how this great project continues to grow.
Of course, don’t leave without checking out the the gift shop, where you can buy gorgeous qiviut products created by the Alaskan fiber artists—a beautiful and lasting souvenir.
If you're visiting in the fall, be sure to spectate or participate in the Musk Ox Farm's annual Running with the Bulls. The trail cuts through pastures and takes you past 70+ musk oxen, with the option of a 10k, 5k, or 1k Kid's Fun-Run. All proceeds go towards taking care of the animals on the non-profit Musk Ox Farm. Don’t miss out on this uniquely Alaskan one-of-a-kind race!