Atop Permafrost, Remote Alaska Farm Sustainably Produces Pristine Food
February 27, 2012 | Oliver Lazenby
Tim and Lisa Meyers, owners of Meyers Farm, a sustainable farming operation in Bethel, Alaska, are in the process of opening up a new field to plant. In Bethel, 100 miles from the Bering Sea, that means scraping away topsoil and waiting a year or two for the permafrost to thaw.
Meyers farm is the region’s first and only farm. It started in 2003 as a small garden meant to feed the Meyers family and has since grown to 17 acres that feed the community. They grow a wide range of vegetables with an emphasis on cold weather crops that store well.
Bethel is an isolated town of about 5,000 people. Most residents live a subsistence lifestyle with a diet high in moose and salmon. Before Meyers Farm, fresh produce didn’t exist in Bethel. When residents wanted vegetables, they typically got expensive produce shipped up from the lower 48. The Meyers’ used to buy non-organic vegetables at the store for almost twice the price they now charge at their farm stand.
For Tim, starting a farm in an isolated community in the tundra meant figuring everything out on his own. Since no one had ever farmed out there, he didn’t have a model to copy. Most farms are part of a community where farmers lend each other tools, advice and assistance. In the frozen Alaskan tundra, the Meyers are on their own.
Tim started with little knowledge of agriculture and a lot of creativity. Before farming, he worked in construction, which gave him the mechanical skills to design and build his own greenhouses, barn, root cellar and tractor implements. In 2005, he took a Master Gardeners class and got to work.
“Tim figured out how to farm out there because he wasn’t biased towards a certain method,” said Stephen Brown, District Agriculture Agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “He’s got the most sustainable operation I’ve ever seen.”
At Meyers Farm a plethora of vegetables grow on raised beds tucked underneath plastic row covers, which provide extra warmth. The daily average temperature in July is 56 degrees Fahrenheit. Gardening books say you can’t grow anything in Bethel, Tim jokes. Tim builds soil by applying ground up fish heads and guts, which he picks from local processors.
Meyers Farm also raises meat-chickens and laying hens, which produce all year. They sell mostly at their farm stand where Bethel residents can buy fresh food for half of what it costs at the store.
Squeezing the most out of a short season
The growing season is short and intense in Alaska. It doesn’t start until the ground thaws out in May, and by mid-June the days are 22 hours long. Instead of growing and selling all his produce during the ten-week season, Tim built an underground root cellar to store and sells root crops year round. The 40-square-foot cellar is entirely underground. It’s 12-foot ceiling is tall enough to drive a forklift into and Tim suspects it’s the only unheated place in Alaska that hasn’t yet frozen this Winter.
“I cleaned up with leafy greens, tomatoes, strawberries, and cucumbers last summer, but it’s a little bit harder for people to get into these root crops,” Tim said. “My concept is to get 100,000 pounds of crops in the root cellar and sell them for a dollar a pound.”
That price is cheap even in the lower 48. After last year’s harvest, Tim packed his cellar with 22,000 pounds of potatoes, beats rutabagas, carrots, turnip and cabbage.
“That’s the thing that’s really going to get agriculture going in Alaska: this building technique,” Meyer said. “I’ve found alternative energy that no one is looking at and it’s called the heat in the ground.”
Tim has also come up with some clever solutions to sell his produce. As Bethel is a shipping hub, five or six jets fly in from Anchorage every day with food and other supplies. They all fly back empty, so Tim worked out a deal to ship his produce to Anchorage for cheap. Currently, though, he’s not shipping food to Anchorage because there is so much demand for his produce in Bethel.
World’s Most Pristine Food?
The organic produce from Meyers Farm could be some of the world’s most pristine produce, Tim said.
“On an organic farm in the rest of the states you’re neighbors may be spraying chemicals and the wind blows them onto your land,” Meyers said. “Here, there’s no pesticide in the environment at all.”
Tim and Lisa said the their vegetables taste sweeter because of the cold temperatures. Low temperatures increase sugar storage in plants. Nighttime lows in the summer are typically around 40 degrees.
“People will tell us they hate rutabagas, then try ours and go, ‘wow they are delicious,’” Lisa said. “Customers will come back for vegetables they used to hate.”
Bethel is a shipping hub for 56 native villages in the surrounding area. In the last few years, demand for fresh food in the villages has grown faster than Meyers Farm can keep up with. Tim hopes to eventually be able to feed the villages. The villages, which are only accessible by boat, plane or snowmobile, are typically home to 100 – 1,000 native people. Grocery stores are limited and are often just a room in someone’s house, Tim said.
Tim notes that Bethel, with its fertile peat soils, has plenty of potential for agriculture. Tim trains interns at his farm and he’d like to see more farms in the region.
“Alaska talks so much about food security, I think we have a better chance of doing it out here than anywhere else in the state,” Tim said. “I just see tremendous potential here.”