BETHEL -- At his farm carved out of the tundra near the heart of Western Alaska's biggest town, Tim Meyers thinks about feeding the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and looks underground. There he has built a massive storage cellar to preserve potatoes, turnips, beets and more through the winter. Underground is where he starts seeds each spring in a heated space under his house.
Meyers has transformed four acres of permafrost into a vegetable-producing phenomenon.
He is changing the way people eat in an isolated region where living off the land traditionally meant catching fish, hunting animals and picking berries, not planting cauliflower and plucking chickweed.
"I think I grew about 45,000 pounds last year, hope to do better than 100 this year," Meyers said.
Loyal year-round clientele in Bethel starts lining up even before his twice-a-week store opens, anticipating fresh eggs, his first radishes of the season, and, during the winter, organic fruits and vegetables he orders from a Portland supplier. He ships produce to village residents and a few faraway schools, including in Cordova, where his potatoes are a hit. Just this spring, he started selling to Bethel's main grocery store for the first time.
Ask how this can be possible in the near-Arctic and he has at the ready a dog-eared September 2008 National Geographic story on the scarcity of good farmland with a map distinguishing the Yukon and Kuskokwim river drainages as having excellent potential.
"This is the last spot on our planet with really good, fertile soil that has never had agriculture," he said.
At age 60, Meyers is growing surer in his methods even though he still changes things up. He's hoping to expand to empty land across from his fields near the Bethel airport. He's planning to add two new high tunnels, the unheated hoop houses that give him an early start. He already has two and wants to grow more food, more efficiently.
Big questions gnaw at him. Could Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta produce be exported on planes that now fly mainly empty to Anchorage? Could his approach work across the Delta?
"In my mind, any village out there could look over and go, 'Well shoot, we could do that.' And they could," said Steve Seefeldt, a Cooperative Extension Service horticulture and agriculture agent in Fairbanks. "He's done an amazing thing."
Bush pilot turned farmer
Meyers grew up in Wisconsin, where he visited the dairy farm homesteaded by his grandparents.
"Obviously that time really sunk into who I was," said Meyers, a tall man with an easy manner and a fondness for baseball caps.
Dyslexia makes it hard for him to read. But what might seem like a disability forces him to figure things out for himself, he says.
"I'm doing things here they don't do anywhere else," he said one cold day in mid-April, weeks after spinach and radishes sprouted under plastic in his high tunnels. Some nights, the temperature outside dipped into single digits.
Meyers came to Bethel in 1976 as a 21-year-old bush pilot working for Samuelson Flying Service. He fell in love with the state -- and with a Wien Air ticket agent then named Lisa Carpenter. They married and had four daughters, now all grown. Meyers spent years as a home builder.
When the children were young, the couple worked what Meyers calls a hobby farm in Bethel with hogs, chickens and vegetables, mainly as a way to have quality food for their family.
Then in 2004, he took the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service master gardener's course.
"The next year we had two gardens and three gardens, and all of a sudden we had a couple of acres," Meyers said. "It just happened."
They now have eight acres not far from center of the hub community, home to about 6,300 people in a region of more than 25,000 people. They lease another 10 acres near the Bethel airport from the state Department of Transportation. Only about four acres in all are cultivated, Meyers said.
Experts had warned of what sounded like impossible challenges with the region's soils and permafrost. The couple peeled off the tundra, composted it, and let the land underneath thaw.
"I just tilled up the ground, and everything grew," Meyers said.
Soon people were asking how they did it.
With a tractor, tillers and special machinery that he often designs himself, small farming is easier than gardening, Meyers said.
A vacuum system sucks seeds through tiny holes he drilled in baking sheets to land in their assigned cell in planting trays. A potato-planting contraption that he made features a spot for Lisa to sit as she drops starts into holes being punched at the same time an irrigation drip line is laid down. Then everything is buried, all in one pass. An Amish-built machine lets them plant 1,000 vegetable starts in an hour.
By February, when the outside ground is covered in snow and the days are just beginning to lighten up, they are planting in high tunnels; by March they are starting seeds indoors; by May they are planting in outside fields.
Meyers is always pushing it. Two years ago he planted high tunnels in the fall and was delighted when spinach and carrots came up in April.
"It's actually very meditative to come out here and weed. Your stresses fall away," Lisa Meyers said earlier this month as she pulled grass, chickweed and horsetail from inside one of the tunnels. It wasn't yet 8:30 a.m. and the temperature was approaching 80. Outside, a chilly wind was whipping. On a hot day, they roll up the plastic sides or it will reach 120 degrees.
"These green onions are almost ready," said Tim Meyers, weeding alongside her.
The 30-by-100-foot-high tunnels extend the growing season and if low tunnels are used inside them, it's as if Bethel were 1,000 miles to the south, he said he was once told.
"Really, we're in Seattle," he said. The federal Farm Bill provides partial reimbursement. The tunnels are considered a conservation measure.
In the fall, farm produce fills a cavernous underground storage room, which stays at 31 degrees in the winter, a bit warmer in the summer.
"What if every village had a room like this, that didn't freeze?" Meyers said.
Last year they stored 18,000 pounds of potatoes, 3,000 pounds of carrots and just as many turnips. There were beets, daikon radishes, rutabagas and a rack full of sturdy cabbages so generic they are simply called Storage Cabbage No. 4. They are still selling some.
Meyers has ideas to make it ever easier. Sorting machines. Faster planting machines. Rolling racks for moving plant starts inside and out more quickly.
Eventually, they'd like to create a side business where others would stay at the farm, learn and help. A Norwegian man may come this summer.
On to something
There's no evidence of farming among ancient Yup'ik people, who subsisted off everything around them, said anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan, who has studied the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region for 40 years.
Missionaries introduced gardening as they settled in such villages as Holy Cross, St. Mary's and Kwethluk.
"Today's elders do have a memory, a history of gardening. Of potato patches, of turnips, of root vegetables that were grown," said Daniel Consenstein, head of the Alaska branch of the Farm Service Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Even now "you'll see that in fish camps up and down the river."
In Dillingham, a couple who have farmed there for years fly their produce to villages, adding a roving market dimension, he said. A man in Kotzebue is looking into growing hydroponic lettuce. Bering Straits Native Corp. may build greenhouses heated by Pilgrim Hot Springs near Nome.
Meyers isn't the only commercial farmer in rural Western Alaska, but he's by far the biggest, Consenstein said.
"The guy is on to something," he said. "He's got a classic Alaskan innovative way of thinking about solving problems."
Middle of nowhere
When Tim and Lisa Meyers first started selling, they escorted customers around the small farm and custom-harvested for each one. They tried community-supported agriculture, packing boxes with produce delivered to offices around Bethel for $35 each. They sold from a table at Bethel's Saturday market but found it hard to attract many buyers over long winters with only potatoes, carrots and cabbages.
Then about three years ago, the couple opened the Bethel Farmers Market, a tiny store on the tundra that now is open a few hours on Saturdays and Wednesdays. On dark winter days, the cheery market beckons to cars approaching from town.
Inside, it's not just produce. They sell Vermont maple syrup and Newman's Own salad dressing, San Francisco chocolate and chia seeds, raw honey and organic coconut milk. Prices are on handwritten signs: $18.99 for a small watermelon, $3.99 a pound for candy-like Japanese sweet potatoes, Meyers' own fresh spinach at two big bunches for $10, the farm's Yukon Gold potatoes, $1.49 a pound.
"This is pretty great. To have all that here, in the middle of nowhere," said Peter Abraham, a resident physician brand-new to Bethel who shopped there his first Saturday in town and then began volunteering on the farm. "I'm essentially vegan, so I was worried about what I would eat."
The produce looks as good as he would find in the Lower 48, he said.
"Even higher quality," said another resident physician, Lilian Ho, who had been eating it a month already. Without the farm, "I would be living on Costco food," she said.
In summers, Meyers mainly sells his own fruits and vegetables, harvesting spinach and radishes in mid-May, then kale, beets and carrots. He adds to the lineup through the season: arugula, mustard greens, rhubarb, daikon, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, turnips, zucchini, rutabagas, strawberries, onions and various kinds of potatoes, lettuce and cabbage. They sell 25 to 35 dozen fresh eggs a week from their laying flock.
Going to Meyers Farm is a thing. Meyers said he gets about 100 customers on most Saturdays, maybe 40 on Wednesdays. The head of Bethel's tribe shops there. A lawyer in town came twice one Saturday morning to make sure she didn't miss the kale. As Meyers rings them up, he asks about kids, work and vacations, but mainly people want to talk about vegetables.
The farm has a Facebook page. Meyers doesn't have a cellphone, smart or otherwise.
'Bottom of the barrel'
Bethel used to have a reputation, deserved or not, for limp lettuce and generally poor produce.
"We hardly had anything," said Kathy Hanson, a Bethel resident for 37 years. "The bare necessities and the produce was at the bottom of the barrel."
The farm's reach stretches to the Lower Yukon and to coastal villages including Chevak, where sisters Jessica and Flora Ayuluk both order from the farm.
"They have stuff the stores here don't have, like beets, kale and ginger," Jessica said.
Not certified organic
Meyers' methods are morphing. Initial high productivity of new farmland tends to fade after a few years as the nutrients are pulled out.
Meyers uses no pesticides, no herbicides, no fungicides. He's tried organic methods and his imported produce is almost all certified organic, but he's not certified himself.
For a long while, Meyers doused his fields with a liquefied fish potion he made from ground-up carcasses and chum salmon composted in water. That ended after crashing king runs on the Kuskokwim River bordering Bethel.
He used composted manure from his laying hens until he figured out that it was spreading weed seeds in his fields. Now he is composting only winter manure, when the chickens aren't pecking outside.
Three years ago, Meyers turned to a soil consultant at International Ag Labs in Minnesota, which runs tests on his fields and sends him mixes of minerals and elements in flat rate postal boxes, each crammed with 37 pounds customized for different crops. The fertilizers include organics such as soft rock phosphate but also calcium nitrate, a double-salt chemical fertilizer.
Ag Labs co-owner and soil consultant Jon Frank says it's a biological approach that enables plants to draw maximum nutrients and that builds up the soil over time.
This year for the first time, Meyers Farm is selling to Alaska Commercial Co., which now runs the sole big grocery in Bethel.
The hyperlocal supply is "changing expectations of what fresh is," said Walt Pickett, Alaska Commercial Co. general manager and vice president for operations. "I've heard that people are saying it tastes like real produce."
Much of the chain's produce is grown in the Lower 48, Mexico or South America, he said. It travels on container ships from Tacoma to Anchorage, then is flown to Bethel and villages. It's often a week or more from field to store.
Farm to school
In 2011, Meyers made headlines for exporting cabbages to Natural Pantry in Anchorage. But the promise fizzled. A big store needs a big steady supply that he couldn't guarantee. He has donated produce to small village stores in hopes of a deal, but nothing came of it. This winter he shipped potatoes, cabbage, beets and rutabagas to schools in King Cove, Sand Point, Naknek and Cordova through a state-subsidized farm-to-school program that may be doomed by the state budget crisis.
Now the farm couple is seizing this new chance.
Lisa Meyers just retired from her job overseeing the kitchen at the Bethel prison, and she's coming around to her husband's vision.
"I always wanted to garden, but I wanted to garden for the family. I didn't want to take on this massive project of farming for the community," Lisa said. Now she has the time to enjoy the farm. "It's working out."
This summer, she will run the farm while Meyers builds the couple a new house.
Earlier this month, Meyers planted 85,000 carrot seeds. They are putting in 22,000 potato starts that, if all goes well, will produce 60,000 pounds. He gets excited thinking about how much broccoli and zucchini the AC store might be able to sell.
"We can make a living on what we are doing now. If we can double what we are doing, it will be a really good living," Meyers said.
It's always a gamble. One year carrot seeds didn't sprout. They lost a season, really a year. Raspberries haven't yet taken off. Hardy strawberries were smothered by weeds. Never mind that. It's the best life Meyers can imagine.
Contact Lisa Demer at ldemer(at)alaskadispatch.com.
2 bunches kale (about 12 to 14 ounces) washed and dried
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons orange juice
6-7 tablespoons cold-pressed olive oil
2 teaspoons pure maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons minced green onions
1. Strip stems from the leaves and stack a bunch of leaves on a cutting board. Thinly slice kale with a sharp knife and transfer to a serving bowl. Chop all the kale this way.
2. Whisk remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Lightly massage leaves with some of the dressing. Add remaining dressing.
3. Add your favorite salad fixings. Lisa Meyers suggests dried cranberries, slivered almonds, toasted pumpkin seeds or sunflowers seeds.