As food costs soar, Arctic gardeners flourish

When Rainey Hopson quit smoking four years ago, it took only a few months for her to feel the benefits. After that, she wanted to continue her quest for better health so she decided to start a garden to provide luscious greens and vegetables for herself and her family.

"After I quit smoking, I felt like I had a superpower," she said. "So I decided to get even healthier. I bought 50 pounds of whole-wheat flour, I stopped eating hotdogs. But living in a tiny, rural village, a lot of times we don't get vegetables at all and when we do, there's not a huge variety."

Hopson lives in Anaktuvuk Pass, where gardening isn't exactly a popular pastime. But her Arctic locale was a mere bump in the road and Hopson, originally from Point Hope, got to work researching cold-weather growing.

"This is what I do now all winter: I obsess about what I'm going to grow all summer and how I'm going to grow it," Hopson said, adding that she also took a cold-climate permaculture class online to learn more about soil and climate.

Fast-forward a few years, and now her outdoor garden is flourishing, as is her small greenhouse. Hopson doesn't have a big, high tunnel, and most of her crops are grown in her 10 raised beds out in the elements. And while she has done her research -- and there are plenty of other green thumbs scattered throughout the Arctic -- Hopson said she kind of had to make it up as she went along. There have been Arctic residents growing crops and gathering plants for centuries, but each region and subregion is different -- different soil, climate, weather patterns -- so there is no one method for Arctic gardening. Anaktuvuk is nestled down on the edge of Brooks Range, so it's not exposed like the coastal North Slope communities are, for example.

"I live in a place that, interestingly enough, I can grow things outside and that really surprised me," Hopson said, adding that she has success now after a couple of years of trial and error. "There are a lot of barriers and struggles to growing vegetables that are not native to this place at all."

This summer has been especially favorable when it comes to seeing the fruits -- and vegetables -- of her labor. Above-average temperatures statewide have given her plants an extra boost. And while you might think 24 hours of daylight helps Hopson's garden grow, for some plants all that sun hinders progress. The short growing season -- about 65 days in Anaktuvuk -- is also an obstacle for Arctic gardeners, Hopson added.

Her ultimate goal is to get to the point where she doesn't have to buy or import anything for her garden. To help with manure costs, Hopson is raising 14 chickens, which, besides fertilizer, also provide meat and eggs.

She also wants to get the whole village involved in the next five or so years by buying a lot in town and erecting a community high tunnel to grow crops that everyone can benefit from. Earlier this year, Hopson raised $4,000 through an online fundraising campaign to help start gardens in yards around the community, with money donated from eager locals and a hefty chunk given from the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.

"There were a lot of people in the village that noticed what I was doing, growing vegetables, so I told them it's an easy step to go from living off the land to using the land," Hopson said. "But that means that now I have to get people used to eating kale. Or knowing what kale is."

Her Gardens in the Arctic project now includes five families who have raised gardens and greenhouses in Anaktuvuk Pass.

"It can be hard to eat healthy in a tiny village, but now people have options," she said.

Up on the Arctic coast, in Barrow, the community test garden is also thriving.

Laura Thomas works for the Ilisagvik College's cooperative extension and a diabetes prevention program in town and started the project for several different reasons.

"When you say 'Arctic' and 'gardens' there is a real disconnect," Thomas said.

"We want people to eat plants not because we necessarily want to force plants down people's throats, but because they were a part of traditional Inupiaq diets and we need plants to give us nutrients and, honestly, fiber. Ideally, we would have everyone eating plants, but where do they get them?"

Various plants can be gathered from tundra, but there are challenges -- like time and money -- when it comes to making treks out onto to the land for food. If locals can learn easy methods for growing their own, they would be more likely to eat them. Thomas also offers cooking classes on how to prepare homegrown or tundra-collected plants.

The Barrow Test Garden started last summer when Thomas wanted to see if she could grow various greens and vegetables outdoors with little technology or outside help.

"Sure, if you build a greenhouse, then it will grow, but what can we do with free things that we find here in Barrow?" she said, adding that the project was all about mitigating the barriers for people.

All the plants and vegetables in the test garden have been started outside from seeds and planted in coolers and even an old Subaru. Thomas did transplant indoor-grown starts last season, but "they all had a heart attack and died" when they made the transition, she said.

Thomas has also collected salvaged windows to make cold frames that act as insulated boxes for plants, as well as used recycled plastic to cover plants housed in coolers. On the menu in the test garden are microgreens and various vegetables including carrots, beets and radishes. But she is also experimenting with domestic relatives of traditional tundra plants, and weeds like chickweed and dandelions.

"We thought, 'What could people plant literally in a cooler on their back porch that would have the same flavor profile as plants they grew up with?'" she said.

The growing season on the Arctic coast is a little shorter than the interior Arctic communities, and with coastal winds and storms always looming, the conditions are that much more challenging for outdoor growing. In the future, with the help of cold frames and those recycled windows, Thomas hopes to start planting in May rather than mid- to late June as she has done for the past two seasons.

"The larger questions of 'Can we actually convince broccoli to become broccoli? Can we grow them and get them to grow larger?' We don't know the answer to that yet," she said, adding that trying to extend the growing season is the first step.

The community is invited to the Barrow Test Garden harvest festival at the end of August this year to witness the progress for themselves.

To the west, in Kotzebue, Arctic gardening is not a new concept. Gardeners have been seeing bumper crops in and around town for a long time.

But when Mayor Maija Lukin got the itch to grow her own food, it was all or nothing. In the spring, she planted hundreds of seeds in recycled yogurt cups and egg cartons that she collected around town. With the help of local kids and others eager to learn, Lukin planted greens and zucchini, peas and tomatoes and much more. She put up a greenhouse outside her home with beds made of salvaged material, and ordered manure and various other soil components online from Amazon.

"My grandmother in Anchorage always had a greenhouse and she had cherry tomatoes," Lukin said. "I know she had way more things planted than that, but the thing that I remember was, as a child, eating all the cherry tomatoes."

Lukin sought advice from Seth Kantner, a local resident who has had a garden and greenhouse for years. Now, weeks after transplanting her starts, many have thrived and some haven't fared so well, but overall, Lukin said, she's thrilled to be able to walk outside and harvest her own food.

"Everything in the greenhouse is growing really, really well, except the cucumber," she said. "I think this is a really good year for gardening. This year, there are a lot more people that I've heard talking about gardening or seen posts on Facebook. I don't know if people are just getting more interested in growing their own food or if it's just been a really good year."

Along with her greenhouse goodies, Lukin has potatoes and rhubarb growing outside in boxes, both of which are doing well, considering the consistent wind in Kotzebue.

To learn more about her new hobby, Lukin enrolled in the master gardener class online through the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Studying the ins and outs of plant lifecycles, soil composition and climate has improved her results already.

"A head of lettuce is expensive here, and now that I know how much work goes into it, it's probably more expensive, once it's all said and done, than just going to the AC," she said. "But, the other side of that is that I know exactly what's in my soil, and I've never used plant food or pesticides, so I know exactly what I'm eating."

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