Eight boxes of living basil made it to a handful of Anchorage grocery stores last week, marking the first deliveries of the first large-scale, commercial hydroponic grow operation in Alaska.
Alaska Natural Organics founder and majority owner Jason Smith said eight boxes of basil -- accounting for just under 100 plants -- were delivered to some Anchorage-area grocery stores including Carrs/Safeway and New Sagaya. Smith would have it everywhere if he could, but noted it's just the beginning of what will he hopes is fresher, year-round greens across Anchorage and the rest of Alaska.
Smith set up in the old Matanuska Maid building in midtown Anchorage earlier this year and originally hoped to begin selling his greens in May. However, production delays kept them from meeting that target.
Smith said much of that stems from the operation being certified organic. He said organic hydroponic gardens are tricky in trying to perfect the microbial production that provides nutrients to the plants. Doing that without introducing chemicals has been difficult, he said.
"There were a lot of surprises thrown at us each day," he said.
But in the warehouse Friday, Smith and his four employees were moving ahead with the full operation. Some workers planted seedlings in plastic trays, while others checked the piping system that delivers the water and nutrient mixtures to the 6,000 heads of lettuce growing in tall, vertical stacks.
That number of plants is far from the 20,000 Smith hopes produce monthly when the facility is running at full capacity.
But things are looking good in the interim. On Friday, Smith picked up a tray of red oak-leaf lettuce growing under red and blue lights and inspected the roots peeking out from the tray. Despite being only seedlings, a mass of white root tendrils poked out the bottom. With no soil, a robust root system means healthier plants that can better absorb the liquid nutrients that Smith provides.
"Wow, look at those guys," Smith said. "That's really good."
There are still production issues Smith is figuring out, like trying to secure permits to operate carbon dioxide generators for the 2,300-foot warehouse that will speed up plant growth.
When the generators are in place, he said, plants should be mature in about four weeks. He said it takes longer now, but declined to say how long exactly.
"It's a point of stress," he said.
That's because steady production is key to getting the greens into grocery stores and restaurants. Smith said some restaurants have already approached him with excitement about getting the greens on the menu, but can't commit until supply is steady.
Oliver Evans, general manager for Charlie's Produce, a wholesaler in Anchorage, said that while they've only had one delivery of basil, they're excited about the prospects. Evans hopes one day to have hundreds of deliveries both in Anchorage and in other parts of the state.
"It's going to be fresher because it will be harvested and potentially on someone's table in two days," Evans said. "That's pretty much impossible with anything from the Lower 48."
Susie Linford has already been using the produce at her catering company, Alaska Coastal Catering. She catered two events in November using small heads of lettuce from Smith. She was inspired to create her version of wedge salad that included a minihead of butter lettuce served with raspberry vinaigrette, sliced red peppers and pomegranate fronds. She said the lettuce was great in a lot of ways: harvested an hour before it was delivered, organic, and since it was hydroponically grown, had no dirt to clean off.
"(The) only complaint we had from a client was that it was too pretty to eat," she said.
Smith said a head of live basil sells for about $5 each. He admitted that it can probably be purchased at a lower cost, but that's not the point.
"We're not trying to be cheaper," he said. "We're trying to be better."