Farming in Alaska is increasingly possible

Longer growing seasons and food scarcity are turning more people to agriculture.

 

“All right,” announces Jenni Medley, wiping her hands on her faded black Carhartts and consulting a clipboard. “The birds are bagged. Total number is 70.” 

It’s 3 in the afternoon, and just outside a small commercial processing facility in Homer, Alaska, Beau Burgess, one of Medley’s farming partners, stands in a miasma of blood, chicken guts and swirling snow as another farmer sprays him with a garden hose. The temperature is 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Medley, Burgess and three other employee-owners of Blood Sweat & Food Farm have been butchering chickens for seven hours, and they still need to freeze the birds, process their hearts and livers, clear some land for garden beds, and then feed the cows, rabbits and pigs, all in sloppy mud and weather that one local calls “blustery as all get-out.” Welcome to farming in Alaska.

Medley believes the 12-hour days are worth it. Thanks to built-up organic matter and ash from nearby volcanoes, locals say that Homer has some of the best soil in the Northern Hemisphere. Water is plentiful, and land is so affordable that after three years in business, Blood Sweat & Food recently bought a new 10-acre parcel. Combined with the milder winters Alaska has experienced lately, this makes farming irresistible — especially for the Blood Sweat & Food crew, who hail from dry, overworked places like Texas, Colorado and New Mexico. “I love the high desert of New Mexico,” Medley says. “But there’s no water. If I think about what I want to be doing, I just can’t do it there.” 

Farmer Jenni Medley waters the pigs on a chilly April day at Blood Sweat & Food Farm in Homer, Alaska.
Krista Langlois

Alaskans are also hungry for local food. Wild game, fish and shellfish are staples of the Alaskan diet, but vegetables, perishables and store-bought meat are usually imported from far away, at tremendous cost. In many villages and small towns, the produce at the local store is limited to a few stalks of wilted celery or a bin of mealy apples — if there’s any produce at all. Even shelf-stable food isn’t readily available, since bad weather can delay shipments to remote communities.

For decades, Alaskans accepted this as the cost of living on the Last Frontier. But as cheaper technology and a changing climate make growing food easier, more Alaskans are turning to farming. The United States has lost more than 131,000 farms over the last three decades, with a 4 percent drop between 2007 and 2012 alone. The number of small farms in Alaska, however, jumped by 67 percent from 2002 to 2012. Direct sales from farmers to local consumers are growing here at a rate 13 times the national average. 

The reasons for this trend vary, but among the farmers I talked to, climate change came up frequently. Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the country, with winters some 6 degrees warmer than they were 60 years ago. The warming climate has brought new insect infestations and wreaked havoc on some wild game, but it also means apple trees and other plants that were once unable to survive here are now thriving.

“Some people are total climate deniers,” says Kyra Wagner, manager of the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District. “But they’re still seeing unprecedented aphid infestations or imbalances in the fish harvest. They may not blame it on climate, but there’s an awareness that something’s changing. Everybody is a little weirded out.” 

 

Farmer Jenni Medley checks on seedlings beneath a grow light in Homer, Alaska. Along with climate change and concerns about food security, new technology is expanding the possibilities of what can be grown in the Far North.
Krista Langlois

Alaska’s history is littered with failed agricultural enterprises. Around 1883, explorers noted that seeds planted in Arctic Alaska could be harvested in just 27 days because of the ’round-the-clock sunlight. In 1912, industrious farmers in the state’s interior produced the equivalent of $2.4 million worth of produce. The following year, it snowed in August, ruining crops.

During the Great Depression, the U.S. government tried to establish a utopian farming colony in south-central Alaska by relocating dozens of families from the Midwest. The experiment fell apart after seven years, largely due to the short growing season and the difficulty in getting produce to market. In the 1970s, Alaska tried yet again, spending $200 million to develop a dairy industry. It, too, fell into financial ruin.

Today, 95 percent of the food purchased in Alaska is imported — a figure on par with other states, but one that’s nonetheless worrisome in such a remote place. “After Hurricane Katrina, it took two weeks to get food into parts of New Orleans,” says Arthur Keyes, director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture. “And they’re connected to the rest of the country. We’re over 2,000 driving miles from Washington state. If we have a major crisis like an earthquake or fire or we lose a port, can you imagine how long it’ll take food to get here?”

Add to this a changing climate that’s occasionally decimated wild berry harvests, impacted salmon runs and altered the migration patterns of caribou and walrus — important food sources for many Alaskans — and the state has some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation.

That’s one reason why born-and-raised Alaskan Emily Garrity started Twitter Creek Gardens in Homer nine years ago. “I do feel at times like our food security is threatened,” she tells me over tea in her cabin, which on this April day is reachable only by foot or snow machine. “That’s a big deal, and I’d like to be part of the solution.”

Outside, the only sign of spring is the lengthening daylight. The clouds are dark and low, spitting flurries. Four feet of heavy snow still blankets the ground. But Garrity revels in the bad weather: After several warm, soggy years, she says, it finally feels like a real Alaskan winter.

But the volatile weather underscores the challenges that Alaskan farmers still face. Climate change isn’t a simple trajectory toward warmer weather and longer growing seasons. The weather is also becoming more erratic and unpredictable. Garrity doubts that anyone starts a farm in Alaska because of climate change alone; rather, the increased affordability of high-tunnel greenhouses, hydroponics and other season-extending infrastructure are expanding the possibilities of what crops can be grown. Four of the five top counties receiving discounted high tunnels from the Natural Resources Conservation Service are in Alaska.

Alaska is still unlikely to overtake California as the nation’s salad bowl anytime soon. Alaskans have tried commercial-scale agriculture in the past, and learned that growing food to export makes little sense in a state where transportation costs are high and shipping routes limited. As the Alaska Food Policy Council and others concluded in a 2014 report, one reason Alaska’s past farming experiments failed was because they assumed that the only way to grow a food economy was to export to the Lower 48.

Today, the new wave of farmers may have shed those assumptions, but they face their own challenges. In the rainy archipelago of Southeast Alaska, for instance, the owners of Farragut Farm have to wait for a tide high enough to float their skiff so they can row their produce out to a sailboat, then sail four hours to the nearest town to sell it. In Homer, when Blood Sweat & Food wanted to raise a type of pig that could cope with cold, damp weather, the farmers had to fly the piglets in by airplane. And at Garrity’s farm in April, the garden beds are still covered in snow at a time when farmers elsewhere have already planted.

Nonetheless, Garrity receives some 15 applications a year from young farmers who are drawn to Alaska’s untapped agricultural potential. “The first time I set foot on this land, I stuck a spade in the soil,” Garrity says. “It was pure black, and I knew: We can grow food on this land.”

HCN correspondent Krista Langlois lives near Durango, Colorado, and frequently covers Alaska.