HOMER, Alaska – In June 2012, mudslides and washouts from heavy rains shut down multiple stretches of the Alaska highway, the main thoroughfare for the refrigerated trucks that haul food north from the lower 48 states to Alaska’s interior.
As drivers awaited road repairs, nearly 30 trucks lined the road. In Fairbanks, apples and other produce dwindled during the week the road was closed. Most Alaska residents don’t realize that less than 5 percent of their food is produced locally.
Today, Alaska’s farmers are growing more and more of their own produce in a type of greenhouse called a “high tunnel,” with the help of a federal program that offsets its cost.
At Oceanside Farm in Homer, Alaska, Donna Rae Faulkner and her husband Don McNamara spend their summer days trying to keep their roadside farm stand stocked with heirloom tomatoes, torpedo-sized zucchini and piles of tomatillos.
They grow their vegetables in a long line of 4m (13ft) high tunnels that run more than 18m (60ft) long. In the winter, Faulkner sets up smaller tunnels inside the larger ones. On a sunny day in January, the sun can heat the nested tunnels enough to grow produce such as Asian greens and kale.
How Far Have We Come?
Over the past two years, Faulkner and her husband have invested their life savings in their high-tunnel farm. The former high-school biology teacher said she was always interested in gardening, but the couple didn’t turn to full-time farming until after they heard about a federal program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “We caught the bug,” said Faulkner.
In 2010, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) introduced a cost-share program that helps farmers and hobby gardeners erect high tunnels. One tunnel costs $11,000, which is reimbursed over four years.
They don’t require electricity because they’re heated by the sun. Inside the tunnel, the hardiness zone – a standard the USDA uses to describe regions where certain plants thrive best – changes from zone 4 to 5, raising temperatures during the main growing season and extending the shoulder seasons on either side as well. It’s enough to allow Alaska’s high-tunnel farmers to grow everything from corn to melons, fruits and vegetables that would otherwise struggle in the cold nighttime temperatures.
The program began as a trial, but “the sheer popularity and the number of new people was part of the reason [the tunnels] were deemed successful,” said NRCS spokesperson Molly Voeller, by email. The agency’s goals are conservation-based, she said: High tunnels produce more vigorous plants that require less water as well as soils that tend to be healthier.
The High-Tunnel Capital of America
In the past six years, 679 high tunnels have popped up in Alaska. More than half of them are on the Kenai Peninsula, which NRCS employees have nicknamed the “high-tunnel capital.”
Shoppers, stores and restaurants can now choose locally grown food over produce that has been shipped hundreds of miles, said Pam Voeller, a soil conservationist with the NRCS.
Many farmers who participate in the program never thought of growing food commercially. “We sell out of everything just about every day,” said McNamara, who runs their little farm stand on the honor system, asking customers to leave their cash in a small box.
The NRCS doesn’t track statewide food production because while some is grown for commercial sale, it’s likely more is grown for personal use. Furthermore, said Molly Voeller, the U.S. Congress assigned the NRCS to help improve conservation practices – efforts the USDA has only recently started tracking; food production doesn’t fall under its responsibilities. Any food produced in the high tunnels is seen as an added benefit to soil, land and water conservation.
Safety in Numbers
The high tunnels are boosting food security in some communities, including Tyonek, a village of 200 people, roughly 80km (50 miles) by air from Anchorage. “Sometimes [daily] flights can’t come in due to weather,” said Christy Cincotta, executive director of the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District.
“Our top goal was to make sure elders had fresh vegetables and youth had education opportunities,” said Cincotta. Tyonek’s inhabitants also eat moose and berries, but the food from the high tunnels – tomatoes, corn and carrots – adds to food security, she said. “The most exciting thing we’ve been able to grow is watermelons,” said Cincotta.
Tyonek has grown food in three high tunnels for the past five seasons. In 2012, it grew 180kg (400lb) of food. In 2016, Cincotta said it will grow more than 900kg (2,000lb) of fresh produce – enough to sell to another nearby village and at a market, as well as to offices in Anchorage.
Bethel, located on Alaska’s west coast, also uses the tunnels to provide food for its residents. High tunnels have even popped up north of the Arctic Circle, in Kotzebue and in Barrow (Utqiagvik), Alaska’s northernmost town.
The Administration for Native Americans recently granted nearly $400,000 to train two farm technicians in each of the four small tribal communities on Kodiak Island through to 2018. The effort will help communities produce eggs and organic vegetables.
For Faulkner, growing food and feeding the community brings her real pride. She said, “I don’t know where we would compare with Beyoncé or something like that, but we’re sort of rock stars in our own way.”