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Rural Alaska

An Arctic vegetable farm steadily takes root and flourishes in Anaktuvuk Pass

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: 5 days ago
  • Published 6 days ago

The high tunnel at Gardens in the Arctic is packed with plants this summer. (Courtesy Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson)

Red romaine, purple potatoes, and blue tomatoes are still not the norm in Anaktuvuk Pass, but Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson is aiming to demystify them, one color at a time.

"It's not weird anymore that there's this woman who grows things with compost and has chickens and that's exactly what I was going for," she said, laughing.

She's the proprietor of Gardens in the Arctic, a local farming operation comprising a high tunnel, a backyard garden, some greenhouses, and a smattering of planter boxes.

"It's interesting to me how normal it's become. It's going on five years since I started growing food in my backyard and getting people involved," she said. "It's not as interesting anymore, which is awesome. That's what I want. I want it to become a daily part of life where there's fresh food every summer. People call me and ask me if I want coffee grounds for compost or the store, before they throw away their old produce, they'll ask me. The next step is just to get more and more people involved. It's getting to the point where people are starting to get proud of it."

At the start of the 2016 growing season, Hopson received some money for a high tunnel, which she's since installed, and was expanding her growing operation into a full-fledged small business.

Her harvest last year was more than a dozen pounds of greens, but she was also able to grow a handful of test crops.

This year, she's going all-out with a surprising bumper crop of strawberries, more types of greens than she can count, and a few experiments, like bush and ground cherries.

"We've got two cherry bushes that are doing really good. They're kind of like dwarf trees. They're not going to make fruit this year. It will probably be another couple of years," she explained.

She's also growing summer squash, cabbage and snap peas, Russian tomatoes, and runner beans, among other things.

Her crops are divided into three types:

"I know for sure some things are going to sell. Fresh lettuce greens like romaine, iceberg, red romaine, they sell really good. I have a whole section of things I know are going to sell that people love here. That's mostly for salads, kale, things like that," she said. "I have a section of long-term things that hopefully will make it to the end of the season so they can sell, like carrots. This year I got potatoes and I'm trying one or two colored potatoes. I'm trying to introduce people to something different, purple potatoes and blue potatoes. They're supposedly really yummy, so hopefully they'll be a hit."

Her cucumbers have already died of sunburn, though.

"Sometimes you learn the hard way," she said.

Then there are the experiments. Last year, that included raspberry bushes, which, shockingly, didn't die.

"It was really, really surprising," she said. They survived the winter and have sprouted new growth since summer began.

She and a handful of helpers have worked since May getting the garden going again. They started by digging out the old boxes and the foundation from the snow. Then, they erected the tunnel structure, and hit up the local kids for help.

Last year’s high tunnel beds had to be dug out of the snow. The plants from the last harvest were kept in the ground to help insulate it and reduce nutrient loss over the winter months. (Courtesy Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson)

"It changed a little this year. The first two years it was a local teacher. I might have gone in twice and they helped plant plants. They did compost, too," she said. "But this year it was awesome because one of the teachers actually started an agriculture class. So, his whole entire class was talking agriculture, growing plants and learning about different ways to propagate plants, basic botany stuff. So, these kids already had a basis of knowledge before I even went in there. They got more excited about it too, more interested in seeing what was going to happen. I think that showed in what was coming out of the high school; they were super happy plants."

They started several of the seeds for plants like tomatoes. She usually can count on a certain number of those seed starts not working out, but this year, they mostly did.

"What am I going to do with all these plants?" she laughed. "It was an awesome thing to have to deal with but it was incredibly panicky for like two weeks, trying to get them all planted. That's a good problem to have. That whole high tunnel is just packed full of plants that have gone absolutely nuts. Since we got everything in time, everything is super happy."

By becoming the resident plant lady of Anaktuvuk Pass, Hopson has also found herself taking up an unexpected role. She's become the local consultant for other people who want to try their hand at gardening.

One woman, who grew a few crops in a greenhouse last year, came to Hopson looking for some advice. She said she ended up with way too much kale that her family didn't want to eat. This year, she was much pickier about what she was going to grow.

"That's what I'm aiming for — opinions and specific tastes," said Hopson.

She's happy gardening culture in town has developed to the point where people know what they like and don't like.

"My goal is to offer healthy alternatives especially during the summer and become more self-sustainable," she said. "A hundred percent of our produce in this village comes from out of the village. About 95 percent of that comes from out of Alaska. That's super scary. If something happens with the planes, we wouldn't get any produce. Back in the day we were nomadic. We'd walk around and pick the plants, but now we have to go really far to get nutritious plants because we're in one place now. That's kind of an Iñupiaq value, being more self-sustainable and self-reliant."

This year, she hopes to have enough produce to sell more than just greens. She plans to continue saving some from each harvest to put together boxes for elders, as well.

She's also been toying with the idea of pairing with a few other people in town for a farmers market later in the season.

"There's a lot of people who make bread, doughnuts, cottage foods," she said.

Some seeds didn’t appear to sprout, so students from Nunamiut High School who are helping grow the vegetables dug in the planters to see if they could find the seed to determine if they failed after sprouting, or didn’t germinate at all. (Courtesy Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson)

Over the next few weeks, she thinks she'll be able to start harvesting. She said she's considering hiring some of the high schoolers from the agriculture program to help out in the high tunnel when the plants pick up speed and become too much for one person to handle.

That's another component of this, she said. Getting kids involved early and bringing the produce to the elders means everyone in town has the opportunity to be involved.

"The more food you create by yourself from scratch, the healthier it tends to be. I want that to be normal," she said. "That's my philosophy."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

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