HOMER — Farming in Alaska can be a tricky prospect, with fickle weather and short growing seasons. But farmers across the state are working around that with simple steel frames and yards of Visqueen.
Meet the high tunnel, a 15- to 20-foot-tall structure that's looks like half-Quonset hut, half-greenhouse. Alaska farmers are embracing the high tunnel, sometimes called a "hoop house," not only as a way to extend their growing seasons — and therefore profits — but also to expand the agricultural variety of what they grow.
High tunnels in Alaska are yielding melons and elephant garlic. Peaches and green chilies. Apples double the size of outdoor-grown cousins. Carrots planted in March that are harvested in early June.
The region taking advantage of high tunnels more than any other is the Kenai Peninsula Borough. There are more high tunnels on the Kenai per capita than anywhere in the U.S., according to the National Resource Conservation Service, a soil and water conservation division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
So why are the plastic structures so popular? People have been getting them for almost free.
From 2010 to 2014, 460 high tunnels were built in Alaska under the Conservation Service's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a federally funded nationwide program authorized under the 2008 Farm Bill. Farmers buy the high tunnels out of pocket and then the program reimburses them over a four-year period as long as they can show they're maintaining the structures.
The program has paid out $3.6 million for high tunnels built in Alaska, most of them on the Kenai, where 325 are in use.
The goal of the program is soil conservation, according to Conservation Service Alaska spokesperson Molly Voeller. All of the high-tunnel planting must be done in the ground so the soil can be used for future agricultural efforts, not eroded by the elements.
On Homer's East End Road, Lori Jenkins and her husband, Wayne, run Synergy Gardens, growing dozens of varieties of organic kale, radishes, lettuce and herbs. They're all carefully planted to maximize yield, with some headed to the 12 Homer restaurants she serves and the rest going to the area's weekly farmers market.
The growing environment inside the high tunnel is like a desert, she said during a tour of her farm in July. Because the ground is totally covered by plastic, she has to do all the watering, either with an irrigation system or by hand. While the plastic of the high tunnel keeps out bugs and protects plants from inclement weather, it also keeps out large machinery that could assist in harvesting.
It's labor-intensive work for Jenkins, 58, who often trades produce for massages to keep her going in the garden.
But for Jenkins, who operated an organic farm in Georgia before moving to Alaska in 2012, having high tunnels is worth it.
"Everything grows better in plastic in Alaska," Jenkins said.
The start of the high-tunnel trend on the Kenai Peninsula, according to Kyra Wagner, was a conversation.
Wagner is district manager for Homer Water & Soil Conservation. Starting in 2009, she said, local farmers began talking about the high-tunnel program and encouraging people to take part in it.
It caught on in Homer, population 5,000, on the southern Kenai where the Sterling Highway ends. Wagner said it's a place that's embraced an "end of the road" mentality.
"I think there's always pretty been a strong 'grow your own food,' homesteading kind of backdrop," Wagner said. "Even if people didn't always do it, it's always been an aesthetic aspect of Homer."
With over 200 high tunnels in the area, Homer has more than any other place in the state — about one for every 25 people.
Getting that many tunnels is something the community worked at cultivating, Wagner said. For example, in 2012, after heavy snow crushed several tunnels, meetings were organized for discussion about how to fix them. A Facebook group is active daily, with people asking questions and suggesting fixes for all types problems that come up with the structures.
Efforts to embrace the high tunnel have also taken hold in other parts of the Peninsula. The Kenai and Soldotna areas, about 72 miles north, have about 150 high tunnels serving a population of about 11,000.
Even the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank in Soldotna has one. Built in 2010, that structure was donated by the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation district as a demonstration project. It's hard to miss the 58-by-30-foot shelter just off busy Kalifornsky Beach Road. Produce from the tunnel is served just yards away in the food bank's soup kitchen.
Phil Smith runs the high tunnel and said people often come into the food bank asking about it. Some want a tour, others just want an explanation. Either way, he makes a point to share with people that he's able to harvest food from the high tunnel by May 1 — far earlier than he could without it.
"There are a lot of things that we can grow here that people don't know," he said.
An evolving economy
In general, the Peninsula economy is dominated by fishing, tourism and oil and gas, not agriculture. But in Homer, the marketplace is adapting to take advantage of what the high-tunnel farmers are producing.
Wagner said Homer growers can step up commercial sales gradually, first by selling at the farmers market, then moving up to community-supported agriculture boxes and then on to supplying restaurants.
Bob DeCino, 56, was one of the first in Homer to take advantage of the high-tunnel program, purchasing his 30-by-72-foot structure in 2010 to grow food for him and his partner, Karyn Noyes.
He gives away most of what he grows to friends and family, with anything left over sold to Two Sisters Bakery. It's a symbiotic relationship DeCino and many others in Homer have with small restaurants in the area.
But while the high tunnels in Homer have helped local growers market their fruits and vegetables to consumers and restaurants, the marketplace for local produce elsewhere is moving more slowly, according to farmers north of Homer.
Jeff Babitt, owner of Alaskan Homegrown, has 16 high and low tunnels on his 30 acres in Kasilof, six of them purchased through the Conservation Service program.
His focus in the tunnels is greens, selling a mix of mesclun, lacinato kale, red cabbage and carrots exclusively to Louie's Restaurant in Kenai.
But finding places nearby to sell his salad mix has been a challenge. Babitt has tried farmers markets but it's difficult to gauge demand, and getting into local restaurants can be tough.
He thinks success will rely on educating consumers and restaurant owners about the quality of locally grown produce. His mix is slightly more expensive, but it's much fresher, lasts longer and, he emphasized, supports other local businesses.
"People are so used to doing something a certain way they can't see the big picture," he said.
Farmer Velma Bittick understands. She's lived in the area since 1983, and she and her husband, Tom Gotcher, own Arena Valley Acres in Soldotna. They have two high tunnels built in 2012 and 2013, one of which was purchased through the NRCS program.
The couple sells weekly at farmers markets in the Central Peninsula. Last week they stayed busy in the parking lot of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, selling bunches of kale, beets and other vegetables. Bittick, 69, is retired and said selling vegetables is more of a passion project than career. But after decades of farming in the area, she believes things are changing.
She thinks interest in local food is growing in the Soldotna area. Each week there are four farmers markets in the Central Peninsula, making it easier for people to access local food. A food hub, where people can buy produce online and pick it up later in the week, just launched in the area in early July.
So while the growth of an agriculture industry in the area might be slow now, she doesn't think it will be like that forever.
"Homer gave us a blueprint," she said. "But it's going to have to evolve here separately."