Climate Change Is Fueling a Farming Boom in Alaska

It’s becoming easier for the northern state to grow its own food—and more necessary.

Yereth Rosen December 9, 2019

Snowy mountains tower over Pyrah’s Pioneer Peak Farm in Palmer, Alaska, September 27. (Yereth Rosen)

ANCHOR­AGE, ALAS­KA — Snow is on the moun­tains. There’s a nip in the Octo­ber air. Patch­es of dirt are freez­ing. But reminders of the past summer’s heat are pok­ing out of the ground at the tiny Grow North Farm.

The farming trend extends to rural Alaska, where traditional wild foods are becoming more difficult to obtain.

The dried stalks are left­overs of what might seem an unlike­ly Alas­ka crop: dodo plants, a mem­ber of the ama­ranth fam­i­ly, which pro­duces leafy, col­lard-like greens and grains in sub-Saha­ran Africa and South America.

These plants were cul­ti­vat­ed by a Con­golese fam­i­ly that, after three years in Anchor­age, want­ed to bring a taste of home. The crop was wild­ly suc­cess­ful dur­ing Anchorage’s swel­ter­ing sum­mer, dur­ing which tem­per­a­tures hit 90 degrees for the first time on record, says Nick Bach­man of Anchor­age Com­mu­ni­ty Land Trust, the non­prof­it that oper­ates Grow North Farm.

What we found with the dodo was: Just add water,” Bach­man says.

This 28,000-square-foot urban farm is sur­round­ed by a gas sta­tion, a strip mall, a mid­dle school and rows of apart­ments. It was carved from a lot that once held an RV park, a reme­di­a­tion and con­struc­tion project that took years. The farm, with more than 20 inde­pen­dent grow­ers oper­at­ing plots, opened this spring.

It is not the only new farm in Alaska.

From 2012 to 2017, the num­ber of farms increased by 30% while total U.S. farms dropped by more than 3%, accord­ing to data from the U.S. Depart­ment of Agriculture’s 2017 Cen­sus of Agri­cul­ture. Alaska’s growth is large­ly in small farms of 1 to 9 acres — up 73% those same years. The val­ue of farm goods sold direct­ly to con­sumers dou­bled from $2.2 mil­lion to $4.4 mil­lion in that time — still less than almost any oth­er state, but grow­ing fast.

Like much of the coun­try, Alas­ka is gripped by a local-food move­ment with a range of ben­e­fits, includ­ing eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties for immi­grants and new­ly set­tled refugees. Many of the new arrivals were smallscale farm­ers in their home coun­tries, Bach­man says.

But there is a spe­cial force behind Alaska’s farm­ing boom­let: cli­mate change.

Alas­ka is warm­ing twice as fast as the glob­al rate, and changes in the state are accel­er­at­ing. Of Alaska’s 10 warmest years since the late 1800s, eight have occurred since 2000, accord­ing to the Inter­na­tion­al Arc­tic Research Cen­ter (IARC) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alas­ka Fair­banks. That doesn’t include 2019, which has smashed heat records.

As Alas­ka warms, its grow­ing sea­son has length­ened — in Fair­banks, for exam­ple, by 45% since 1900, accord­ing to a 2009 study — enabling the cul­ti­va­tion of new crops such as corn, cher­ries and dodo.

Cli­mate change also makes Alaskan farm­ing more urgent.

In May, the Anchor­age city gov­ern­ment adopt­ed a cli­mate action plan warn­ing that extreme weath­er events will delay food imports, on which Alaskans have near-total reliance. The plan encour­ages urban farm­ing and gardening.

Local farm­ing also reduces car­bon foot­prints. Almost all of the small-scale farm­ers who use the Grow North site, Bach­man says, walk there or use pub­lic tran­sit. After har­vest, farm­ers sell from the open-air sales stand at the entrance — no fos­sil-fuel vehi­cles required.

The farm­ing trend extends to rur­al Alas­ka, where there is a high­er Native Alaskan pop­u­la­tion and tra­di­tion­al wild foods are becom­ing more dif­fi­cult to obtain. The over­heat­ed waters of west­ern Alas­ka caused mass die-offs of salmon this year, for exam­ple, and thin­ning ice on the rivers and seas makes hunt­ing far more treach­er­ous. Though agri­cul­ture is not gen­er­al­ly part of indige­nous tra­di­tion, farms and gar­dens are now help­ing fill the gaps.

Farm­ing does have some Alas­ka-spe­cif­ic chal­lenges. Ash­ley Taborsky, of the blog Alas­ka Urban Hip­pie, has con­vert­ed her south Anchor­age yard to a minia­ture farm with fenc­ing to moose-proof her young apple and cher­ry trees. So far, unlike some Alaskan farm­ers, she has not had bears suc­cess­ful­ly raid her chick­en coop.

There are also advantages.

Alas­ka, for now, lacks many of the pests that plague south­ern farms. Rel­a­tive­ly cool tem­per­a­tures and extend­ed sum­mer day­light stim­u­late sug­ar pro­duc­tion in root veg­eta­bles (Alas­ka car­rots are famous for their sweet­ness) and, some­times, immense pro­por­tions: a giant cab­bage weigh — off is a revered rit­u­al at the Alas­ka State Fair in the Matanus­ka Val­ley town of Palmer, with a world-record 138.25-pound spec­i­men win­ning in 2012.

Matanus­ka became Alaska’s farm­ing heart­land in the 1930s, thanks to a New Deal pro­gram that lured Mid­west­ern farm­ers north. But the 1970s oil boom, com­bined with the rise of agribusi­ness in the low­er 48, put the farm­ing sec­tor in a slump. Alaskan farm­ers strug­gled to com­pete with import­ed, masspro­duced foods and strug­gled to resist the temp­ta­tion to cash in, sell­ing off farm­land to accom­mo­date the oil-fueled pop­u­la­tion influx.

Today, Alaska’s oil pro­duc­tion is about a quar­ter of its 1980s peak.

If oil is declin­ing, then what’s next?” Bach­man says. I think there is a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to allow local foods … to become a larg­er wedge of the economy.”

Bob Shu­mak­er, own­er of Black Bear Farms in Palmer and a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Alas­ka Farm­ers Union, hopes agri­cul­ture expands with a revived north­ward migra­tion of farmers.

Every­body down south who’s too hot — move to Alas­ka,” he says. It’s great.” 

Yereth Rosen is a long­time reporter based in Alaska.
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