Fresh vegetables will be back on the menu this summer in Anaktuvuk Pass. Gardens in the Arctic is expanding its operations with the addition of a high tunnel and more outdoor growing space, with the hope of starting up the village's first produce stand.
"This year we're bumping it up a notch," said Rainey Nasugraq Hopson, owner of Gardens in the Arctic. "I found funding for a high tunnel and I found a local resident here that is OK with us growing and putting it on her and her husband's property."
She recently got a business license for the garden ahead of the planned expansion.
Hopson has had a private garden at her home for several years and last year decided to run a series of test crops in raised planters scattered around her property.
"I have about 10 raised beds that are anywhere from 3 feet by 3 feet to 6 feet by 3 feet. They're small spaces. Then, I have a really small greenhouse and I have a chicken coop back there, so I put plants on the side of the chicken coop," she described. "It's here and there with some indoor plants, some on my porch. Wherever I can find room, I'll stick a plant, which annoys my husband especially in the spring because we're overrun by plants."
She laughed as she considered how much additional space she'll finally get as a result of setting up the tunnel. The tunnel itself is 26 feet by 36 feet and the property she's been allowed to use is a total of 50 feet by 80 feet, which will greatly boost her growing capacity.
The growing season in the pass begins, in theory, on June 1. However, as she found last year, late-season frost and snowstorms can wreak havoc on newly planted crops.
"Last year it was horrible because we had such odd weather. We had a two-week stretch of snow and ice and it killed all our cucumbers. It was a massive die-off," she said.
Surprise weather notwithstanding, there are about 60 days of dependable conditions each summer, which will go up to about 90 days with the tunnel as the crops will be protected and the effects of cooler temperatures in the shoulder seasons diminish a bit.
She hopes that will mean higher productivity along with the ability to grow certain plants she hasn't been able to in the past.
Hopson has been studying Arctic farming since before she first started Gardens in the Arctic as a test project last year, for which she crowdsourced funding through a GoFundMe site and raised $4,000 to put toward the purchase of raised beds.
"I do a lot of research all winter long, talk to people, email people, read books, and that's my fun time, looking at all these plants and at what other people have done in Canada and various other places in the world that have the same kind of growing zone here," she said. "That's what I get excited about – trying to figure out what actually grows here."
One of the challenges she's been facing so far is not having a comparable farming operation off which to base her business. She's turned to examples of gardens in Canada and elsewhere around the world, but there's no functional model of a similar endeavor anywhere else in Alaska.
That's one of the reasons she dedicates a large amount of effort toward testing a wide variety of species. She starts with about 75 plants each year, ranging from squash and corn to mustard greens, kale, spinach, beets and nasturtiums.
Last year, she even ordered four apple trees, two cherry bushes and some roses, which she is trying to keep alive through the winter in her small greenhouse.
"We're trying to figure out what will actually work, because there's not a lot of information for our area," she said. "So, it's mostly trying to figure out what will grow, and the second part of that is what people will eat and what's the most nutritious."
She tried to grow a particular variety of microgreens last summer that turned out bitter and unpalatable, perhaps because of the peculiarities of growing in 24-hour sunlight. Spinach also didn't fare well, bolting every time.
So far, mustard greens, romaine lettuce, kale and other assorted salad greens have been some of the most popular veggies around town.
"A lot of people love salads because fresh salads are really rare," she said. "If you want to lead a healthier life, it's really hard to in the village if you don't have a whole bunch of variety or options. Pretty much everything is in cans or frozen."
As far as fresh fruit and vegetable selections go for the residents of Anaktuvuk Pass, aside from the staples with long shelf lives like potatoes and onions, options are few.
Carrots don't often make it to the village and when they do, they're the prepackaged baby carrot variety. Once in a while, the store will stock some tomatoes on the vine or grapes. Sometimes, if you're very lucky, you can find strawberries.
"Last month, I bought a half-frozen cabbage for $12 and I was so happy. I was like, 'Yay, they have cabbage here!' It's usually just like an iceberg lettuce and that costs around $8 and they're very tiny and it's pretty much just water by the time it gets here. It's really expensive," she said.
Food that makes its way to the Arctic must travel long distances to get there and often arrives damaged or otherwise in rough shape, be it frozen or bruised, too ripe or not ripe at all.
That's why, though Gardens in the Arctic is a small business, Hopson isn't really looking to make much money with it. She's more or less hoping to break even and have enough to pay a few employees and her bills. Past that, she just wants to bring healthier food to the locals.
"It's crazy how much of our Native diet used to be fermented greens, especially in the wintertime, so I want to get that back. But I have to grow something to ferment," she said. "We eat a lot of subsistence food, but it's hard because we're not nomadic anymore, so you have to have gas to go somewhere and you have to have money for bullets. It takes a lot of resources to go hunting. There's usually a few people in the village that are hardcore about it and they spread the wealth. So, this is another option. This gives us more food security."
Once the garden starts producing this summer, she plans to deliver free boxes of goods to elders each week and hold a farmers market, of sorts, about two days a week.
Of course, that depends on how productive the tunnel actually proves to be. This year is still a test, which she hopes will have bountiful results.
"The people who are funding us, they're interested in actually creating something self-sustainable in our village that will benefit our residents. A lot of people on the North Slope want to put money into something that will help the communities, so this is a way they can do it directly," she said.
Hopson plans to set up the tunnel in May and have it ready to go as soon as she can start planting the first seeds at the start of summer season.
While she's not sure exactly how this summer's yield will turn out, she's glad she's making progress toward creating a truly sustainable farming business in Anaktuvuk Pass.
"It's strange to people when I ask for money so I can grow vegetables here," she laughed. "But the idea is becoming somewhat acceptable. I get a lot of people emailing me for information on how to grow things in Barrow. I know there are people growing in Kotzebue. The idea is slowly gaining momentum and acceptance, so I no longer get weird looks when I say I'm a gardener."
She's looking for donations of gardening books so she can establish her own small lending library for residents. In addition, she's seeking any unwanted gardening tools and supplies that she can use for the tunnel this summer.
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.