Across Alaska, many of us dread trips to the grocery store. Sometimes it feels like we need to refinance our homes in order to afford the luxury of fresh bell peppers or homemade guacamole. Food is expensive and the inflated prices that leave us shaking our heads are partly to do with the high cost of shipping food into our remote state.
A 2014 report commissioned by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services estimates that a startling 95% of our food is shipped in from out-of-state. While cultivating Alaskan avocados may remain a pipe-dream, farmers are revealing ample untapped opportunities for growing vegetables and raising livestock locally. The benefits are big. Replacing imported food improves access to a more reliable supply of affordable, fresher, healthier product. It also boosts local economies by keeping more cash circulating across the pockets of Alaskans. In fact, if Southeast Alaska alone could replace a mere 1% of imported foods with food cultivated in-state, we could keep a whopping twenty million dollars circulating regionally.
Of course, there are challenges to raising crops and livestock in Alaska. Between bears and ravens, expensive shipping costs, access to land and an unfavorable climate, the obstacles are discouraging. Alaskans however, prove time and time again that no challenge is too great. In the island-clad rainforest of Southeast Alaska, a growing coalition of farmers are beating the odds, innovating and breaking new ground.
The Sawmill Farm: Dumpster Diving with Bobbi Daniels
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that between 30-40% of all food in the United States ends up in landfills. Waste happens at all steps in the process from grower to storage, processor to grocery store, grocery store to consumer, and dinner plate to trash bin. In Alaska, wasting food isn’t just irresponsible, it’s costly.
Sitka is a rural community of nearly ten thousand residents located on Baranof Island. Like the majority of Southeastern communities, Sitka is only accessible by air or by sea. Without an incinerator or local landfill, the community pays a high price to barge its trash to Washington. The City of Sitka estimates that it loads over eight thousand tons onto barges every year. At one hundred and seventy four dollars per ton, that’s nearly one and a half million dollars floating out of town annually. What’s more, the City estimates that almost a quarter of that trash is food waste.
What if we could turn some of that outcast food back into nutrition? Trash into cash? Maybe even, garbage into bacon? Meet Bobbi Daniels.
“All of the produce that can’t be sold, all of the outdated bread, all of the restaurant foods and school food, all of the scraps that are thrown away are barged out of here. It is just that insane. That food that is being thrown away is absolutely perfect food for pigs and poultry,” says Daniels
Bobbi grew up working on farms in Indiana. She has a contagious laugh and a no-nonsense sense of humor to match. She’s persistent, driven and at ease with dirt under her nails and manure underfoot. Every morning, she hops into her truck to make the rounds. Starting at Sea Mart Quality Foods, Bobbi winds through town, stopping at schools and businesses to relieve them of their most nutritious garbage. At Baranof Island Brewing Co. she helps heave 500-pound bins of spent grains on board. Once the truck is brimming with waste Daniels heads south. It’s time to feed the beasts.
Beside Silver Bay, in the company of mountains and off the paved road is Sitka’s furthermost address—the Sawmill Farm. Here on 1.3 acres of land, Daniels rears ducks, geese, quail, broiler chickens, turkeys, meat rabbits, egg-laying chickens, goats, and pigs. After pulling in, she sorts through the truck bed, parsing out troughs of food while being careful to balance the animals’ diets. Heaps of cottage cheese and yogurt are plopped onto piles of spent brewery grains and lowered into an eager riot of chickens. She dishes out collard greens, apples, spinach and cilantro to the rabbits.
Occasionally, the Sawmill Farm supplements with traditional feed, but the great majority of these animals’ diets is taken directly out of Sitka’s waste stream. Given the extremely high cost of barging heavy hay and grain into rural Alaska, identifying this local food source was a watershed moment. “If that food goes away, we go away. The only thing that makes this feasible is that outcast food stream,” says Daniels. With the addition of a pasteurization system to treat plated food, Daniels will soon be able to incorporate restaurant and school waste into the rotation. Also, she has summer plans to ramp up the amount of town landscape waste she dishes out to her goats and rabbits.
“Boy, when I open up a dumpster in this town and there is a bunch of grass clippings in there, it just hurts my heart because that’s being barged out of here as expensive garbage and we can be raising our own food on it,” says Daniels.
Bobbi Daniels is more than Sitka’s favorite dumpster diver. With the support of her community, she is breaking new ground, responding to a broken system and producing top-quality meat, milk and eggs in impressive quantities. “We have six hundred chickens and we should be butchering at least two hundred meat chickens every four weeks for the rest of the year,” says Daniels. “We intend to sell at least eight hundred rabbits by the end of the year, too. We have six goats to milk, two are due to deliver baby goats any moment.”
By summer, eggs can be purchased in local shops, and by autumn people who purchase pig-shares can stock their fridge with locally smoked bacon. Restaurants as far away as Juneau are pre-purchasing meat from Bobbi and even if you never buy a single product from the Sawmill Farm, she’s still helping reduce the waste stream and saving money for the entire community.
Getting to this point hasn’t been a walk in the park. After identifying an affordable food source for her livestock, she spent years hunting for appropriate land. In February of this year, she acquired her current lot on lease from the City and is still in the process of moving her livestock from temporary homes in yards scattered throughout Sitka. She is constantly troubleshooting. Along the way, she’s learned how to navigate complex state and federal regulations, stay ahead of hoof rot, stave off hungry bears, and mitigate against a long list of other Alaskan predators—ravens and politicians being the trickiest.
“In other parts of the country where agriculture is more mainstream, all those challenges you are going to face, somebody else has conquered generations ago. All you have to do is ask somebody. Here, we’ve got nobody to ask. We are breaking new ground and there is a lot of trial and error,” says Daniels. “There’s a reason why we don’t have many farms in Southeast Alaska. You have to want it pretty bad.”
Daniels wants it bad and she’s collaborating with a burgeoning group of farmers across Alaska who want it too. As she grows her local knowledge, Daniels regularly shares best practices with other producers in the region. Advice and encouragement aren’t all the group shares.
“I’m getting ready to ship three rabbits to Petersburg to be bred,” says Daniels. “Just maintaining a deep gene pool with enough diversity is super expensive. The farms in the Southeast, now that there are more of us, are starting to work together. But still, nobody in the lower forty-eight has to deal with shipping rabbits and goats on a float plane,” Daniels laughs.
The local opportunity is huge for Sitka, but the benefits permeate across the state. Animals, resources, and trade secrets are circulating throughout Alaska. Sitka isn’t the only community that pays top-dollar to barge perfectly nutritious food waste to landfills in the lower forty-eight. “Even if every single thing we produce was sold here in Sitka we could never satisfy demand, and just about every place in Southeast Alaska has this same waste issue. Our goal is to support equivalent farms all over Southeast Alaska. Juneau can be raising its own livestock and same with Ketchikan and a bunch of the smaller villages. This plan works pretty much at any volume level,” says Daniels.
Daniels built her farm around trash. Her animals eat cast-off food and she’s been thinking about waste on the other end, too. “We have found a potential market for everything that is going to be a waste product from us except the feathers. That’s the only thing we end up composting. Of course, the compost has a commercial value too.”
She hopes that the Sawmill Farm will catalyze complementary spin-off businesses. Rabbit and chicken innards make good crab bait and she’ll have plenty of chicken feet that can be boiled into stock. Other byproducts would make gourmet pet food and she anticipates producing a hundred rabbit hides each month. “We just don’t have the time, the Sawmill Farm is maxed out. But what we are doing is creating opportunities for other businesses to start up.” While she hates to admit it, Bobbi Daniels is an innovator. She’s turning trash into treasure and she’s urging others across Alaska to do the same.
Off the Grid and on to Plates
Jagged shorelines lined with alders, dense evergreen forests, and muddy tidal flats define the coastline of Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. Tuck into Farragut Bay, and you’ll find something else. About 35 miles by boat north of the town of Petersburg, up a windy slough, is a remote piece of land nurtured and cultivated to grow plants not typically found in the Southeast Alaska rainforest.
Farragut Farm is on an old river delta in the foreland of the expansive Stikine ice field. Here, meadows have risen up from tidal flats yet to be forested. There’s evidence of an old homestead, likely from the 1920s, but until recently there has been little or no agriculture. Over a number of years, Marja Smets and Bo Varsano have transitioned from a large home garden to a small but prolific vegetable farm. “We realized that we enjoyed being in Farragut Bay and growing food and it seemed like a nice challenge to combine that, stay here, and bump up to a farm,” says Marja.
It has taken Marja and Bo time and ingenuity to establish systems that overcome the landscape, remoteness, and weather in Farragut Bay. Today the farm produces over forty varieties of vegetables that are sold primarily in Petersburg. “Alaskans eat a lot of things that are harvested close to home, but for vegetables that is typically not the case. Everyone in Petersburg who goes to the store is eating vegetables that are barged in,” says Varsano.
Farragut Farm is providing an alternative for Petersburg residents: better quality, fresher, locally grown vegetables. “We do try to stick to things that grow well in our climate and don’t need a whole lot of extra coddling. We grow a few things that are given special attention, but they are in such demand that it is commercially viable,” explains Marja.
Producing vegetables commercially in Southeast Alaska is not a straightforward undertaking. “It has been interesting and tricky to figure out different ways of approaching growing vegetables on a commercial scale in this climate,” says Marja. The farm has four unheated greenhouses, one greenhouse that is heated with a woodstove, and numerous raised garden beds. Most of the greenhouses are moveable and slide on tracks to cover different portions of the farm throughout the season. By using moveable greenhouses, they are able to extend their season and increase vegetable production. “Anything that requires heat is going to benefit, and there’s so few naturally warm days in Southeast that it’s important to create a microclimate,” explains Varsano.
The limited arable land, pests, short growing season, and wet summers are among the factors that pose significant hurdles to many farmers. Marja and Bo are faced with yet another: Farragut Farm is completely off the grid. The remoteness of the farm adds some interesting complexity to the mix, and what’s more, they take extra care not to rely on fossil fuel intensive sources of energy. “The electricity, water, roads, an easy way to get from there to here, all the basic necessities of life we take care of for ourselves,” explains Marja.
Farragut Farm creates its own electricity with a small array of solar panels. Most of the farm work is completed by hand. “We are using some plastic and fuel, and a lot of things we can’t produce ourselves, but we are working to get away from that as much as we can, or at least minimize it,” says Bo. They use creative inventions and cleverly modified solar powered tools to maximize the efficiency of growing, harvesting, cleaning, and transporting vegetables.
The farm is continually looking at ways to increase efficiency. “We’re realizing more and more how important planning is for cutting down our labor.” An intricate system of planning multiple years in advance for crop rotation and the appropriate nutrients that specific vegetables will need is an example of the preparation and forethought necessary to keep things moving smoothly and efficiently. As soon as a vegetable is harvested for market another seedling is ready to plant in its spot.
Arguably even more arduous is planning their farm operations around the tides. Rather than a road for transport, Farragut Farm uses a slough that only fills with water on especially high tides to ferry materials and vegetables to and from the farm. “Once a vegetable is harvested, we need to wait until we have a high tide that is at least 15 to 15.5 feet high to have enough water to float the skiff. We then unload all of the vegetables onto the skiff and float them down our slough about half a mile to our sailboat. Then we transfer the coolers of vegetables from the skiff to our sailboat. Sometimes we have to do that in the middle of the night if that’s when there’s a high tide. Then, we sail or motor to town which generally takes four to five hours,” Marja explains.
Rain or shine, in rough seas and stormy Southeast Alaskan weather, Marja and Bo stay close to the elements as they move their produce from farm to market. Once in Petersburg, coolers are unloaded from the boat and onto a truck before being unloaded at the market to an eager crowd of lip-licking customers.
These farmers are constantly learning the best ways to operate in Southeast Alaska’s specific environmental conditions while improving efficiency to not waste time, energy, or space. “Every day we are thinking about how we can do this more effectively and efficiently to make this a more sustainable venture for us,” Marja explains.
In addition to focusing energies on their farm, Marja and Bo are actively working to empower other farmers and future farmers of the region to help them prosper “It has become a goal for us to help promote farming in the region, to do anything we can to move it along a little bit,” Varsano says. Last year Farragut Farm hosted the inaugural Southeast Alaska Commercial Growers Conference, which brought together agricultural producers from all stretches of the region. Marja added, “So many lessons have to be learned on your own terms and in your own time, but there’s a lot to be said for talking to someone who has already done something you are looking to pursue.”
Farragut Farm is working gracefully against the odds and it’s taken some true passion and creativity to sustain and grow this farm. “We feel like we’re contributing to our little corner of the world. Not only being able to grow high quality food that feeds the community, but we are taking care of our piece of land and hopefully making it a good place for lots of critters, plants, and animals into the future,” says Marja.
Ultimately it’s a fairly simple equation: good farming + good food = good for everybody.