Not So Frost! Are We Underestimating Alaska’s Farming Potential?
04 May, 2014
By Radha Marcum
It sounds daunting, risky, and downright difficult—preparing soil, seeding, and nurturing plants over 400-foot-deep permafrost—but Tim Meyers has proven that it is far more possible than anyone previously thought. “We were always told it couldn’t happen here,” he tells Organic Connections. Meyers took a master gardener course in 2007 and was informed that “the soils are inadequate.” But he knew that every other delta region of the world was fertile. “Why not ours?”
Meyers Farm is located in Bethel, Alaska, on a bend in the Kuskokwim River that flows southwest from Bethel out to the Bering Sea. About 400 miles west of Anchorage, Bethel is only accessible by plane or boat. It’s an unlikely place to start a farm, but Meyers was encouraged when he began planting and growing vegetables with some success in 2002.
Since then, Meyers and his wife, Lisa, have slowly expanded their cropland to about two acres. The farm provides organic vegetables, eggs and chickens to approximately a hundred locals as well as to a few community agencies and businesses. The farm produces a great variety of cool-loving plants, such as kale, lettuce and cabbage, plus summer favorites like zucchini and hot peppers.
All this has been made possible by Meyers’ inventive mindset. “The university system teaches people how to farm outside,” he says. But without adequate growing temperatures that last long enough to produce foods, Meyers has had to invent his own methods that take advantage of Alaska’s long summer days and the region’s natural fertility.
Quite a bit of Meyers Farm’s produce is grown inside energy-efficient structures. Starter plants begin in large underground rooms below the Meyerses’ house and chicken coop. The underground rooms are more easily warmed than above-ground buildings, he explains. At $6.50 per gallon, fuel for heating would make the venture unprofitable; so Meyers built heating units that burn stacks of cardboard from grocery stores in Bethel, cardboard that would otherwise be headed to the dump.
With the aid of LED lights and some sunlight hours outside, plants germinate and grow in these underground chambers until they’re ready to plant in the ground. Some move to the greenhouse or a “high tunnel,” a passive-solar structure consisting of a bowed frame with two layers of plastic designed to capture the sun’s warmth. Tunnels can reach 70 or 80 degrees by midday. “Our typical growing season is June 1 to mid-September,” says Meyers. “Growing in the high tunnels, I can grow from the middle of April through the middle of October.”
Meyers also takes a novel approach to generating fertile ground. “In the past, everyone would put sand and dirt on top of the tundra mat with the intent of keeping the ground frozen. Every garden was done that way. To my mind that isn’t good logic, so I’ve stripped off the tundra and thawed out the ground.” To that, Meyers adds molasses to boost microbe activity, plus the only cheap, available fertilizers: manure from the farm’s chickens, along with ground-up, liquefied fish. “Up here, I’ve got more sources [of fish scraps] than I know what to do with,” he says. And with very few natural pests to fend off, Meyers Farm may have an advantage over farms in lower latitudes.
“Right now, in mid-April, nearly all of the snow is melted,” Meyers continues. “I started planting carrots and beets in the high tunnels early and they’re already up. Kale and lettuce will be going in next.” Meyers has also discovered that his plants generally “don’t mind freezing” in the early season as much as in later months. “I’ve really dropped all limits on how early to start. I start thousands of plants, and I’ve never really lost many of them from spring frost.”
Meyers Farm produces thousands of pounds of affordable produce every week during the high season. So, why haven’t more Alaskan farmers caught on? “There is zero ag infrastructure here,” Meyers responds. “Everyone lives on a lot that’s too small to farm. And we’re spending too much money teaching methods that aren’t helpful. If we want to have food security, let’s create five-acre farms. Come farm with me for a year! Let’s do things the easy way, not the hard way.”
Tim and Lisa Meyers have proven that farming in this harsh landscape is not only possible, it is practical as well. “It’s expensive to get going,” admits Meyers, “but this region has the potential to grow for the state of Alaska and beyond.”
To learn more about Meyers Farm, visit www.meyersfarm.net.