Arc­tic farm­ing: Town de­fies icy con­di­tions with hy­dro­pon­ics

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By RACHEL D’ORO in An­chor­age, Alaska As­so­ci­ated Press

The land­scape is vir­tu­ally tree­less around a coastal hub town above Alaska’s Arc­tic Cir­cle, where even sum­mer tem­per­a­tures are too cold for bo­real roots to take hold.

Amid these un­for­giv­ing con­di­tions, a cre­ative kind of farm­ing is sprout­ing up in the largely Inu­piat com­mu­nity of Kotze­bue.

A sub­sidiary of a lo­cal Na­tive cor­po­ra­tion is us­ing hy­dro­pon­ics tech­nol­ogy to grow pro­duce in­side an in­su­lated, 40-foot ship­ping con­tainer equipped with glow­ing ma­genta LED lights. Arc­tic Greens is har­vest­ing kale, var­i­ous let­tuces, basil and other greens weekly from the soil­free sys­tem and sell­ing them at the su­per­mar­ket in the com­mu­nity of nearly 3,300.

“We’re learn­ing,” Will An­der­son, pres­i­dent of the Na­tive Kikik­ta­gruk Inu­piat Corp., said of the busi­ness launched last spring. “We’re not a farm­ing cul­ture.”

The ven­ture is the first of its kind north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, ac­cord­ing to the man­u­fac­turer of Kotze­bue’s pes­ti­cide-free sys­tem. The goal is to set up sim­i­lar sys­tems in part­ner­ships with other ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties far from Alaska’s min­i­mal road sys­tem — where steeply priced veg­eta­bles can be more than a week in tran­sit and past their prime by the time they ar­rive at lo­cal stores.

There are other tools for ex­tend­ing the short grow­ing sea­son in a state with cold soil. One in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar method in­volves high tun­nels, tall hoop-shaped struc­tures that cover crops.

But the sea­son can last year­round with in­door hy­dro­pon­ics, which uses wa­ter and nu­tri­ents to grow ver­ti­cally stacked plants rooted in a bind­ing ma­te­rial such as rock wool.

An­chor­age-based Ver­ti­cal Har­vest Hy­dro­pon­ics, which builds en­closed sys­tems out of trans­formed ship­ping con­tain­ers, part­nered with Kikik­ta­gruk. The 2-year-old com­pany also sold the sys­tem to a farmer in the ru­ral town of Dilling­ham.

“Our vi­sion is that this can be a long-term so­lu­tion to the food short­age prob­lems in the north,” said Dan Per­pich, founder of Ver­ti­cal Har­vest Hy­dro­pon­ics. “We’re hop­ing that we can put sys­tems any­where that there’s peo­ple.”

But the op­er­a­tions have chal­lenges, in­clud­ing steep price tags. Startup costs in Kotze­bue were around $200,000, in­clud­ing the cus­tom­ized freight con­tainer and the price to fly it in a C-130 trans­port plane from An­chor­age, 550 miles to the south­east.

The town also re­lies heav­ily on ex­pen­sive diesel power, so op­er­a­tions could eat into prof­its.

In ad­di­tion, mov­ing ten­der pro­duce from its moist, warm grow­ing en­clo­sure to a frigid en­vi­ron­ment can be chal­leng­ing. And farm­ing can be a largely for­eign con­cept to Na­tive com­mu­ni­ties with deeply em­bed­ded tra­di­tions of hunt­ing and gath­er­ing.

Still, the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits out­weigh the down­sides, ac­cord­ing to Jo­hanna Her­ron, state mar­ket ac­cess and food safety man­ager.

Grown with the cor­rect nu­tri­ent bal­ance, hy­dro­pon­ics pro­duce is con­sid­ered just as safe as crops grown us­ing other meth­ods.

“It’s not the only so­lu­tion,” Her­ron said. “Hy­dro­pon­ics is just a piece of it, but cer­tainly an ex­cel­lent thing for com­mu­ni­ties to look into.”

Alaska Com­mer­cial Co., which has stores in nearly three dozen re­mote com­mu­ni­ties, is car­ry­ing Arc­tic Greens in the Kotze­bue store. This week, the Dilling­ham AC store is be­gin­ning to sell pro­duce grown in the lo­cal farm’s hy­dro­pon­ics sys­tem. The chain will bring the Arc­tic Greens brand to more lo­ca­tions if ex­pan­sion plans prove cost-ef­fec­tive, AC gen­eral man­ager Wal­ter Pick­ett told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

“The pro­duce is fan­tas­tic, at least what we’ve been see­ing out of Kotze­bue,” he said. “The cus­tomers love it.”

Lisa Adan is among the Kotze­bue res­i­dents who reg­u­larly buy the pro­duce. She said there are plans to start pro­vid­ing it at the lo­cal hos­pi­tal’s cafe­te­ria, where she is an as­sis­tant man­ager.

Adan said the lo­cally grown greens are su­pe­rior to the pro­duce that’s trans­ported north.

“It’s so much bet­ter,” she said. “It tastes like it just came out of your gar­den.”

For now, the new­busi­ness is op­er­at­ing as a pro­to­type, es­pe­cially as it en­ters the long, harsh win­ter sea­son in Kotze­bue, 26 miles north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle.

The town, the re­gional hub for north­west Alaska vil­lages, is built on a 3-mile-long spit, and many there live a sub­sis­tence life­style. The com­mu­nity has a chron­i­cally high un­em­ploy­ment rate, with the school dis­trict, state and lo­cal hos­pi­tal among its ma­jor em­ploy­ers.

For now, the big­gest sell­ing point of the hy­dro­pon­ics pro­duce is fresh­ness. Prices are par­al­lel with greens brought up from the Lower 48.

But op­er­a­tors are try­ing to work out kinks and find ways to lower en­ergy costs, pos­si­bly through such al­ter­na­tives as wind power, ac­cord­ing to An­der­son.

“We want to be a ben­e­fit to the com­mu­nity,” he said. “Not only do we­want fresher pro­duce, but af­ford­able pro­duce.”

Our vi­sion is that this can be a long-term so­lu­tion to the food short­age prob­lems in the north. We’re hop­ing that we can put sys­tems any­where that there’s peo­ple.” Dan Per­pich, Ver­ti­cal Har­vest Hy­dro­pon­ics founder

Nearly 400 miles to the north­east, the vil­lage cor­po­ra­tion in the Inu­piat com­mu­nity of Nuiq­sut is con­sid­er­ing ac­quir­ing one of the sys­tems. Joe Nukapi­gak, pres­i­dent of the Kuukpik Corp., said he plans to travel to Kotze­bue after Thanks­giv­ing to see hy­dro­pon­ics in ac­tion.

Un­like diesel-pow­ered Kotze­bue, Nuiq­sut is just miles from the Prud­hoe Bay oil­field and taps into far less costly nat­u­ral gas.

Nukapi­gak en­vi­sions the oil in­dus­try as a pos­si­ble cus­tomer if hy­dro­pon­ics takes hold in his vil­lage. He also likes the thought of same-day fresh­ness as op­posed to pro­duce that’s some­times ru­ined by the time it ar­rives.

“If we have a lo­cal op­er­a­tion like that, it would not get spoiled as much,” he said. “It would be made lo­cally, and that would help.”

RACHEL D’ORO / AP

Dan Per­pich talks about his com­pany, Ver­ti­cal Har­vest Hy­dro­pon­ics, which part­nered with an Alaska Na­tive cor­po­ra­tion to grow pro­duce in­side an in­su­lated ship­ping con­tainer in the north­west Alaska town of Kotze­bue.

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