Sustainable Gardening: Village Success Stories


Apr 5, 2010

It has been an interesting March and very early start of April. Not sure where the last month went but as it seems we are sliding into the final days of what I always USED to think of as spring, my head it planning for things in the ground. The gardener/farmer never leaves the soul!

The Fairbanks Agriculture conferences were even MORE fantastic, sorry I know that’s not the best use of English!, than it was last year.!!

I then was able to take a little time to head south to the lower 48 to see dashes of spring, much needed and absolutely heaven!! It has been a great way to end the month and start a new one.

What was also nice is I got a chance to defuse some, absorb what all I had seen and learned the previous week, then on top of that, get to do more ‘research’ into another area’s agriculture.

Now to roll all of that into some planned thoughts and hopefully future action.

To see the effort that goes into making agriculture an industry in Alaska is amazing. So many people working to further the residents and businesses of the state getting good fresh products continues to amaze me. Everything from putting together more and better CSA’s to seeing if we can form a statewide organization to serve various needs of the industry is great to see.

We saw so much effort being put into food being grown in places such as Galena, off the road system, Igiugig, a tiny Bristol Bay village, and even rainy places such as Skagway.

Galena shared how they were excited to hear last year that they should be able to get a high tunnel, similar to a greenhouse but without heat, delivered into Alaska at a reasonable cost of $1200. This had happened in other areas in Alaska and this gave them some hope. You see Galena has been on this sustainable food ‘kick’ for a few years already.

They hold a food fair in the late summer, help each other learn new ways to garden and are getting more and more of their own villagers involved each year.

Well it seems that this is the story on the high tunnel….

High tunnel (freight included) to Alaska …..$1200
Highway built so high tunnel can be ‘delivered’ …..$2.3 billion
Desire to have fresh local grown food…..priceless

To say that we ALL laughed and many understood first hand would have been an understatement!

Soooo they dug in and went to work salvaging anything and everything they could to help put up small cold frames and sheltered areas and getting still more people involved. We were shown pictures of 5 gal buckets with potatoes growing in them, windowsills filled with starts of things like tomatoes. This village that is northwest of Anchorage, off the road system, in a growing zone of 2, I believe. The roughly 600 people there are putting a large value on growing as much of their own food as possible. This might mean a bucket of potatoes or a full sized garden, but producing food none the less.

We then heard about Igiugig, in the northern part of Bristol Bay with about 60 people in the winter. This village serves a number of lodges and outside visitors in the summer. They have also been working on becoming sustainable for years in some pretty ground breaking ways.

They have a community food scraps for eggs program. Residents bring food scraps to a central location and in exchange are able to get fresh eggs from a community flock of chickens.

The community had gotten a small grant to help start a greenhouse, acquire some low tech garden machinery and other technical help to assist them in increasing their current food production. The village had been growing things like potatoes as a staple for some time to help subsidize villagers subsistence efforts.

They were able to increase their food growing knowledge, potato production and other needed skills to move forward toward still more sustainability with the help of a visiting extension agent.

Although their first attempt at constructing and running a small greenhouse ended when they got close to a full week or 50+mph winds that blew the structure all over the tundra they have not given up.

They are back at it this year with a structure to withstand the winds better and I believe bigger still. I will be watching to see how they do.

What all the communities have in common is that the effort is happening from the ground up. People want to have a hand more in the furnishing of their own food. Part of it comes from the economics of it but also the increased variety we can get by growing some of our own.

After a packed week I headed to the lower 48 for some R&R. Of course laced with just relaxing I got in a time for a bead and then needlework shop visit.

More importantly a great local neighborhood farmers market, time on the water front browsing vendor booths and peeking in on a cheese making facility. (I laugh at myself each time I get near a cheese making facility. When I was attending university there is NO WAY you would get me into food processing and especially cheese processing. At that time it was dominated by large yucky product producing companies, in my eyes. NOW I would give my eye teeth to have had some experience in cheese making … hopefully in time :-)

To see how the farmer’s markets have progressed from mainly fruits, veggies and flowers to now offering local meats, smoked products, fish products, of course fruits, vegetables and flowers. There are local cheese and candy makers. Even a company that was making jewelry from seeds. All local and mostly organic.

There is hope for villages and our rural areas. I KNOW we can grow and produce at least some of these products.

None of these companies are big, have huge inventories or ship their products far from home. They all spend time trying to improve their products and offer something the customers want.  I do believe it is possible for many areas to offer products to support the variety of different businesses that are in the areas; processing facilities, lodges, guides, restaurants and of course schools. These can help to supplement the local year around markets and provide opportunities for small companies.

It is just a matter of exposure, belief that it is possible and support from all of us. Maybe overly optimistic but I guess that is what keeps me going in bush Alaska.

~ Victoria Briggs


5 Responses to “Sustainable Gardening: Village Success Stories”

  1. secret TalkerΔ Says:

    I always find that Vic’s posts on gardening are interesting. The idea to grow potatoes in buckets is creative but more than that learning about Igiugig where all are working together is inspiring.

  2. alaskapi Says:

    Igiugig appears to be working very hard on a variety of projects to take hold of it’s future.
    I’m hoping to hear much more about how their projects grow.

    I’ve read about Galena’s food projects a few times. It’s exciting seeing people work at all the things that go into having more control over their food supply.

    With our all too short growing season each setback feels monumental… a whole season lost at some level… but each failure folks turn into knowledge for the next run at the growing season will add to success as time goes on.

    Keep wondering if we can get an Alaskan forum for sharing gardening/farm growing info and ideas going so folks can share the details of their projects and ask each other questions…
    I love seeing all the summer sun pics of places north of me but reality in my borough is that we get 90 inches of rain a year and much of July and August are very, very wet- creating growing conditions which try a gardener’s soul…

  3. Jim Says:

    I’ve used buckets to grow potatoes and it works well. Some varieties are better for the purpose than others; Johnny’s recommends Finnish “finger” potatoes. You can start them in April and transfer them outdoors after the freeze risk goes away; so you can extend your growing season by a month or so. By mid August you can get enough potatoes out of a bucket to make a nice batch of potato salad. The plants are kind of pretty too. But they are a bit more exposed to wind.

    Another “trick” with potatoes, if you have any, is to simply store them in the dark starting around February. Let the sprouts grow out and get long– 12 inches or more (the potatoes will shrivel up). At planting time, cut each potato into piecers so each piece has a long sprout, and carefully plant so a couple inches or more of the sprout sticks out of the ground. In a few days the part of the sprout sticking out of the ground will start growing leaves. I may be imagining, but this seems to speed up the potato growth by a couple weeks.

    True seed potatoes are the best for this purpose, but if you can’t get any of those in February, use organic potatoes because non-organic grocery store potatoes may have inhibitor chemicals to slow the sprout growth. A village could have someone bring back a bag or two of organic potatoes from somewhere like Anchorage in Spring and try this out. Similarly you can use grocery store garlic or shallots in the garden, but again use organic.

    Finally, another good thing about potatoes is, if you have enough of them, they will give off heat and keep themselves warm from September until around February. Apparently the conversion of sugar to starch gives off heat but the process eventually ends. I saw some commune farmers using large insulated plywood bins for potato storage. They said they had to start heating the bins around February, but the potatoes heated themselves from September through January.

    I love potatoes!

  4. Jim Says:

    The University of Alaska has an IMS (Institute of Marine Science) and an agricultural station. But do they focus adequately on research to sustain Alaska’s primary food sources? Are they trying to protect our basic food resource assets?

    For example, what work are they doing to sustain salmon and potatoes as food for Alaskans?

    I’m concerned salmon may no longer be sustainable as an Alaskan food source. We may soon learn more (when/ if salmon runs don’t show up or are inadequate this year). I’ve got a gut feeling this won’t be a good year. Hope I’m wrong, but something global seems to be happening that we can’t control.

    If Alaskans can’t eat salmon, that would leave some people with potatoes and whatever traditional land based resources might survive, like caribou and blueberries.

    What’s our University doing about this?

  5. Mr Rotovator! Says:

    A little off the subject perhaps, and I know that keen gardeners are lectured by lots of people to become more environmentally friendly, but it is also crucial to consider on the human cost. For example, some makes of rotovators are made with child labor in the Far East. So PLEASE consider where new rotovator is sourced when you buy. A rotovator manufactured in Europe may not be cheap, however it’s a very fundamental decision.

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