SEATOR: Southeast’s Shellfish Safety Squad Takes on Climate Change

Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly

Katlian Street in Sitka is a bustling cultural and fishing hub. Along this winding harbor-side road, tightly squeezed between fishing gear shops, processing plants, and docks crowded with scavenging gulls, is the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s (STA) Resource Protection Department building.

While the building’s salt-worn front doors look unassuming, behind its modest exterior is a state of the art laboratory dedicated to harmful algae bloom monitoring and shellfish research. This year, the lab will add ocean acidification monitoring to its impressive coastal monitoring toolkit.

 

Happy harvesting

The Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research partnership (SEATOR) was formed by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska in 2013 as a network of tribal governments, universities, and nonprofits to monitor harmful algae blooms in the state.

“Alaska is the only state where people still die of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning,” explained Chris Whitehead who is the Environmental Program Manager at STA. “Alaska was the only state that didn’t have a monitoring program in place and we have such huge levels of toxins so it was very disconcerting.”

Before heading to Sitka to work with STA, Whitehead spent years working in Washington with tribes and researchers monitoring shellfish populations for toxins. So, when a group of community members and local elders inquired about setting up harmful algae testing in Sitka, Whitehead stepped in.

“It was just good timing. There was a need, and I was able to bring up experts I had met in Washington to help set something up locally. Then we went to work writing grants and securing funding,” Whitehead said.

Today, the lab monitors plankton samples under the microscope, tests for harmful toxins and sends out warnings when toxin levels are too high for safe foraging.

“We want to be as proactive as possible to catch a toxic event before anyone gets sick. That means every week, we collect plankton and water samples to make sure there are no active harmful blooms. In addition, we collect blue mussel samples every one to two weeks since they are the first species to pick up toxins and are not widely consumed. If we see any indication that toxins or harmful plankton are rising, we preemptively issue a community advisory, increase our sampling frequency, and start testing all shellfish species,” said Esther Kennedy.

Kennedy was born and bred in Alaska. She returned after receiving a BA in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Harvard University to work with Sitka Tribe and can often be found pulling plankton nets through Sitka’s shoreline.

Of course, Sitka is not the only community where avid shellfish harvesters punch rusty shovels into sand and grit in pursuit of delicious bivalves. Fifteen other tribes in Southeast Alaska also employ specialists who peer through microscopes for dangerous plankton and send water samples to STA for toxin tests every week.

Carrie Davis fills this role for the Organized Village of Kake. She shares updated information about shellfish safety for this community of 600.

That information has given Kake resident John Williams Sr. greater confidence when harvesting this important cultural resource. Williams, 65, has been setting out by boat or by foot to dig for clams and picnic with loved ones for as long as he can remember.

“I’m always talking to Carrie and she posts it on the community board there, to show us where it’s safe and it’s useful because we know where to go and where to stay away from,” said Williams who can now share his chowder and cockles with less worry.

 

Climate change’s under-recognized twin: ocean acidification

Since the lab began monitoring efforts in 2013, nobody has become ill or died from Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning on any of the studied beaches. Success, one might say, has spread like a sunlit plankton bloom.

“When it first started, it was just six to eight tribes and now it’s 15 tribes in Southeast, four sites in Kachemak Bay and a handful of tribes in Kodiak that are starting up,” Whitehead said.

And the network isn’t just growing geographically.

“When this all started, the tribes hadn’t worked together in this capacity regionally before. Once this began, it really opened the door for the tribes to ask, ‘What else do we have common concerns about, what else can we work together on?’ and climate change was at the very very top,” Whitehead said.

That comes as no surprise. Alaska is warming faster than any other state.

“Ocean acidification, global warming’s under-recognized twin, is also affecting Alaskan waters faster than any other state,” said Kennedy.

“As carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, it becomes more acidic. It’s a global problem, but colder Arctic waters absorb more CO2 so it’s hitting us especially hard. Acidification makes it difficult or impossible for creatures like shellfish, crustaceans, and pteropods to make shells. This is bad news because it decimates the foundation of the marine food web,” Kennedy said. “We depend on the sea for everything in Southeast Alaska. It’s hard to imagine that we will be unaffected by ocean acidification.”

So the SEATOR team went to work figuring out how to tackle a challenge as far-reaching and daunting as ocean acidification. That’s where the “Burke-o-Lator,” a scientific instrument which Chris Whitehead called the global standard for measuring ocean acidification, comes in. Burke Hills, the scientist who created it, will be headed to the Sitka lab in mid-May to help install this new addition. He’s excited for what this data set and network will mean for ocean acidification research globally. With more than fifteen tribal governments across the region contributing to the monitoring efforts, SEATOR will paint a representative image of how ocean acidification is impacting a large geographic area.

Chris Whitehead and the entire SEATOR network are excited for what the data set will also mean locally.

“There is not a lot of ocean acidification work being done in the Southeast,” Whitehead said.

“We will have a good data set in Sitka and these other communities across the Southeast will submit their samples and it will all contribute to a robust local picture. And here, we have 15 tribes working together to provide this big data set and not a lot of people are doing that nationally.”

Geoducks and upcoming scientists

Climate Change monitoring is not the only new addition to SEATOR. The lab is working on getting FDA approval to administer PSP testing to Southeast Alaska’s commercial dive fisheries. For geoduck fishermen, this will mean more streamlined and local testing opportunities and a longer harvesting window.

The lab is also dedicated to building capacity among Southeast Alaska’s upcoming scientific leaders. On Thursdays this spring, several Mount Edgecumbe High School students filed into the lab, donned authoritative white lab coats, pulled mussel cages, homogenized tissue, ran genetic testing, peered through microscopes, and analyzed results. They were part of an internship program aimed at preparing the next generation of scientists for meaningful careers in applied research. Sienna Reid, who is both one of those students as well as a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, is heading to Western Washington University this fall to pursue a degree in science.

Energy is building for these programs, and not just among the tribal governments who are actively participating.

“Senator Lisa Murkowski, Sullivan and Don Young too have all been very supportive of ocean acidification work. It’s a bipartisan issue, regardless of your views on climate change, it is clear that the oceans are acidifying and that is going to affect Alaska’s fisheries, so when we have spoken to those offices they have been really excited about doing this work,” said Whitehead.

Of course, like all grant-funded efforts, there is uncertainty.

‘“We are in the same boat as everyone else, waiting to see what happens for Fiscal Year 2018. EPA dollars are the backbone for this. We have other funding in Sitka but the tribes across the region who are doing the consistent weekly work are almost 100 percent funded by EPA dollars,” said Whitehead. “So we are hoping that these programs don’t get targeted.”

SEATOR started as an idea four years ago. Today, it’s helping to not only provide safe access to an important subsistence resource, but is also leading the way in ocean acidification research. All the while, this humble beach-side laboratory is providing opportunities and building capacity for the future stewards of Alaska’s coastal health. In a state that depends on coastal resources for everything, that is certainly something to celebrate with a community clam-dig.

 

Visit http://www.seator.org/ for more

The Backdoor Café Installs Red Alder Benches: A Local Young Growth Success Story

Written by Chandler O’Connell

In Sitka, Alaska a favorite coffee shop among locals called the Backdoor Café did a little renovating this season. Alana Peterson, who is both the owner of the Backdoor Cafe and the program director of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership installed brand new benches using locally sourced red alder wood. By sourcing local, Peterson supported local businesses, kept more money in the region, and showcased environmentally sustainable timber. The Backdoor Cafe is also modeling what a market for young-growth products looks like in Southeast Alaska, as the Forest Service moves to shift focus from old growth to young growth timber harvests.

The Tongass Transition, announced by the Department of Agriculture in 2011, is meant to bring an end to unsustainable old-growth logging and implement a more holistic management plan that focuses on young-growth trees that grow after clear-cuts, as well as integrating and valuing non-timber forest outputs. The Tongass Transition will ensure that the remaining old growth forests on the Tongass stay standing to provide wildlife habitat, sequester carbon, support subsistence lifestyles and recreation, and produce prodigious quantities of salmon. The transition also provides opportunities to develop new timber products.

Click through the posters that the Sitka Conservation Society created to hang in the Backdoor Cafe along with a local youth wood arts project to inform customers about the significance of these new benches. 

“Mills and entrepreneurs have successfully experimented with young growth forest products over the last few years since the transition was announced,” said Beth Pendleton, Regional Forester, Alaska Region-Forest Service. “They have found that there are applications for young growth wood products from the Tongass and that local utilization and manufacturing can be part of our regional economy. Red Alder is one of the Tongass Young Growth products that has a lot of potential for value-added applications,” she added.

The Backdoor Café worked with Icy Straits Lumber & Milling out of Hoonah, Alaska to source their red alder. Icy Straits is part of a cohort of local mills, including Tenakee Logging Company, TM Construction and Good Faith Lumber that offer a diverse range of second growth products. Local businesses and individuals planning their next construction project should check out these sourcing options – they may be surprised by the high quality and competitive pricing that is available right here at home. And they’ll enjoy the added benefit of knowing that by buying local they’ve kept more money circulating in the Southeast economy.

From Forest to Café: Art Display Inspired by Second Growth Benches

The red alder benches served as inspiration for a storytelling and art display currently showing at the Backdoor Café. The display, a project of the Sitka Conservation Society and the Alaskan Way of Life 4H Club, highlights the benefits of choosing local young growth products, and tracks the benches from forest to café, sharing stakeholder reflections at each step: management, harvest, construction and purchase. The 4H students contributed relief prints made from “cookie” cross sections of fallen trees and short stories on life as a tree on the Tongass.

A Time for Healing: Sitkans Stand with Standing Rock

Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly

Over the last few months, people and organizations across the state hosted community events in support of the Standing Rock Reservation. In Sitka, locals in November hosted the ‘Sitka Stands with Standing Rock’ solidarity event, welcoming more than one hundred and fifty people to Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi community house. Indigenous leaders spoke in support of those at Standing Rock; local artists offered art and gifts for a fundraising auction, and the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers moved participants with songs and dances set to the pulse of a powerful box drum. Organizers collected more than two hundred letters that asked state and federal politicians to oppose the militarized efforts of North Dakota police. They also gathered more than 30 jars of wild foods to feed the water protectors in Standing Rock. Donors also wrote cards explaining the origins, process and significance of their locally harvested foods.

These donations reflect a unique bond between Southeast Alaskans and the Standing Rock Reservation — a deeply personal and powerful relationship to the land. In total, the event raised more than $5,000 for Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council and Water Protector Legal Collective.

In North Dakota the first week of December, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it will not support the existing building plans for the final leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline. While water protectors in Standing Rock celebrate this initial victory, the conversation erupting across the nation may change, but is not over. In Alaska, the discussion of human rights, environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty is particularly close to home. As such, the story unfolding in the Great Plains moved many Alaskans to either travel to North Dakota or to take local action.

Lakota Harden helped organize the event and additional gatherings of prayer and solidarity held during the past several months for the Standing Rock Reservation. She grew up between her homeland of South Dakota and the island community of Sitka. Her family has been in Oceti Sakowin Camp since its beginning, and she traveled to join them in September and October.

“People won’t acknowledge or accept the ongoing injustice and it’s a genocidal form of racism. It’s difficult to face the atrocities of how this country was stolen here, to look at our own dirt, our own laundry, our own backyard and say, ‘How is it here?’ That was one of the first things we decided with this event, was that we need to acknowledge these difficult topics,” says Harden.

Louise Brady and Dionne Brady-Howard of the Kiks.adi Clan of the Tlingit nation pointed the conversation locally. They opened with a familiar string of words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Brady-Howard said, quoting the Declaration of Independence before pausing. “Those are great words but, that is just what they are. They are only words on paper. It has taken an awful lot of work to make those words a little more of a reality for more than just the white landholding man that they originally applied to in our nation’s founding. It took constitutional amendments, it took marches, sit-ins and Supreme Court decisions. It required people’s hard work, and that is what democracy is. It is hard work.”

That hard work is not over. Louise Brady pointed to the harbor-front property on which participants stood, reminding the audience that Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi rests on land taken from the Kiks.adi people. As recently as the 1970s the Kiks.adi Tlingit had to fight hard legal battles for the tiny parcel of land where the community house was erected to be returned to Sitka Tribe, rather than allowing a shift in land ownership from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the City of Sitka. During the Alaska Day parade in Sitka this year [http://www.kcaw.org/2016/10/26/alaska-day-dilemma-celebrating-history-without-colonialism/ ], local discussions of the repercussions of colonialism resurfaced when a sign held by Paulette Moreno thanking Sheet’la Kwaan for their care of Tlingit land was received by an organizer as a threat. At the Standing Rock event, participants acknowledged and supported those working in sub-zero temperatures to protect sacred spaces in North Dakota, while reminding us we must also make changes and look locally.

So what’s next? While those in Standing Rock celebrate the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision with concern for what the incoming Trump administration may mean for their efforts, what can people do locally?

According to Harden, the first step is having a conversation. “There’s people all over the country now who are thinking about this and we need to talk about it. It’s time. And, things are never going to go right if you don’t acknowledge what you’ve done wrong, you are never going to be in balance.”

Organizers stressed that having difficult conversations about land sovereignty, racism, environmental justice and a long history of local colonialism must not lead to division.

“This is a time to come together. This is a time for open dialogue. This is a time for healing,” said Louise Brady.

Foreheads Together, Breathe in, Move Forward: Reflections from a Global Gathering

Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich

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Indigenous leaders from across our planet united in O’ahu this September. Foreheads together, they shared a breath during an opening ceremony for the E Alu Pu Gathering. E Alu Pu translates in Hawaiian to Move Forward together and this gathering was hosted by Kua Hawaii  prior to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress to do just that. This intimate traditional Hawaiian greeting called ‘Honi’, helped introduce over 150 people from around the world together at this pre-gathering.

The delegation from British Columbia, Southeast Alaska and Washington state attended this global gathering together.


I traveled south to participate in both the E Alu Pu Gathering and IUCN World Conservation Congress as a representative of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and Sitka Conservation Society. The World Conservation Congress is an IUCN event held every four years to bring together leaders from around the globe to map a course forward for our peoples and planet. I joined a delegation of indigenous leaders and environmental advocates from Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. This cross-boundary collaboration was funded by the Nature Conservancy’s Emerald Edge program.

The north shore of O’ahu shares many similarities with the rural island communities where we work across Southeast Alaska. The cultures, the languages, the faces and customs differ of course, but the thick ties to land and ocean are common. We fill our bellies with food pulled from the sea and gather nutrition from the forest. We live vibrant lives connected to the health of our coastline in everyday ways. Sadly, this lifestyle and way of being in intimate balance with the seasons of a local landscape is disappearing across the globe. It has not been completely eradicated though and this gathering brought together people from Papua New Guinea and Malawi to Alaska and Molokai, who share environmentally grounded lifestyles and rich cultural histories.

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For days, the group talked climate and how changing seasons are shaking century-old traditions off kilter. We shared fears. The first US school to be swallowed by the impacts of climate change happened last month in Northern Alaska. Uncle Leimana from Molokai expressed his concerns for poached mollusks on his coastline. Deli from Vanuatu explained the exhaustion of her work and the apathy of her country’s youth. We share successes. A woman from Rappeneau (Easter Island) announced that soon, her people will have full management of their traditional lands returned to them. Obama designated the largest marine protected area on earth during the week leading up to the conference: the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Many participants share chants and songs passed on from ancestors, parents, and tribes. We learn the process of traditional Hawaiian home building using knots, rope and branches and are taught about local resource management. We help in the restoration of fish ponds, a customary Hawaiian fishing practice, by heaving stones and building fish rearing structures.

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During the E Alu Pu gathering and over the course of four days, the group built a multinational community founded on living in balance with island earth. We left feeling humbled, motivated, and inspired by our international neighbors and were prepared to attend the IUCN World Conservation Congress with restored strength and momentum.

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The IUCN World Conservation Congress

The Conservation Congress in Honolulu brought together more than 9,000 people from 190 different nations. Politicians, entrepreneurs, environmental advocates, scientists, and indigenous leaders shared inspiration and grounded examples of success and challenges alongside E.O. Wilson, Sylvia Earle, Jane Goodall. The 2 week event culminated in the ‘Hawaiian Commitments’, a series of international agreements that help guide the way we as individuals, communities, private institutions, public institutions and nations prioritize sustainability efforts moving forward.  

The Congress’s theme this year was ‘Planet at the Crossroads’ in recognition of the harsh decisions that need to be made if we hope to prosper as a civilization on a finite planet in the long term. The commitments stressed seven key areas. Many of which have direct relevancy to our work in Southeast Alaska. To read the commitments please check out the link here.

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Key Take Homes for the Southeast

Overall, a key take-home from the conference and gathering was the power of local grassroots community organizations and indigenous leadership in charting a sustainable path forward for our planet. Rooted to local rural communities, our SSP partners are on the frontline of environmental challenges and can therefore adapt and respond in ways that national and international institutions cannot. Localized resource management, community visioning, land-use planning, energy efficiency measures and sustainable subsistence practices are all examples of community actions that can positively impact our world and climate.

Thanks to the work of so many dedicated partners, there are plenty of success stories to call upon in these areas. Southeast Alaska is a region rich with opportunity in ways not present in many other places across the globe. We boast large expanses of intact ecosystems, natural resources, renewable energy options, a vibrant and hardy culture and resourceful residents. In Hoonah, the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership is integrating traditional knowledge and employing a local work crew to study, monitor and direct the management of the local landscape. Hydaburg Cooperative Association, the tribe in the largest Haida community in Alaska, monitors and records important anadromous stream habitat to direct local development in a way that protects and prioritizes salmon. The Sitka Tribe is integrating subsistence practices and western science to manage shellfish harvesting, understand PSP and encourage healthy safe gathering. The Sitka Conservation Society and Nature Conservancy are working to help transition regional timber management to a sustainable industry that maximizes benefits to our communities and ecosystems in the long-term.

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Of course, there is plenty of untapped opportunity too. In our neighbor across the border, British Columbia, all First Nation communities boast Marine Plans that outline local resource management activities. The Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards Program (SEAS) in British Columbia, exposes youth to traditional resource stewardship at an early age by integrating stewardship activities directly into classroom curricula. The IUCN Congress also examined looming threats to natural resources. The United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work group expressed concerns about mineral mines in Canada threatening Southeast Alaska’s salmon stocks. To be sustainable in the long-term, our communities need to become more self-sufficient. We need to localize our energy and food systems and support diverse and robust economies. There is still work to be done.

The IUCN World Conservation Congress and the E Alu Pu Gathering helped chart a path forward for our planet. Of course, there are many uncertainties with that path but it’s a solid start. When thinking about that path I keep thinking back to the Hawaiian greeting that began my trip. Foreheads together, we must approach one another as partners with eyes open, acknowledging the work to be done. We must face our challenges together, step outside our comfort zone and acknowledge the work head-on. We share this planet, and by building lasting relationships and by pausing to take a breath together, we can move forward in solidarity toward a more prosperous and sustainable way of life.

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Sewing (and Sharing) with Salmon

Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for the Salmon Project

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In a large, old, wooden building on the waterfront at Sitka Sound Science Center, a group of women gathers around a central table. A spotlight leans over their shoulders, lending light to a delicate creative process. Dressed in bright pink, Audrey Armstrong strains her eyes and carefully aligns mind, material and dexterity as she pierces a tiny needle through glittering scales.

Audrey, who is Athabaskan, is teaching a new generation of creatives the ancient technique of fish skin sewing. She has been sharing her skills and knowledge for over a decade, and this is her fifth summer teaching this particular course in Sitka— after four at Sheldon Jackson Museum this is her first year at the Sitka Arts & Science Festival.

As Audrey tells it, almost any Alaskan fish skin can be used for this craft, but she favors salmon. Salmon is the fish that sustains her family and culture, and it was a silver salmon that inspired her, 15 years ago, to learn this utilitarian art form.

“It was cloudy on the stream in early September, and I caught my first one for the day. It was all soft and gushy so I let it go. Then I caught my second one and the sun was starting to come out and it just shined on the salmon, and all these gorgeous purples, pinks, and dark colors were revealed and I just fell in love.”

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This late Coho run inspired Audrey’s interest in fish-skin sewing. “I said, ‘Wow, I know my ancestors such a long, long time ago probably used fish skin,’ but there was nothing written on it.”

She got to work and started researching. She went to the Smithsonian in Anchorage with others interested in skin sewing and found that while the Yupik were more prolific in their technique, the Athabaskan also made use of fish skin. “The only Athabaskan things I saw were made in 1849: a pair of gloves and a little purse made out of fish skin from our region.” Audrey expanded her research and studied different techniques. “Then I just started experimenting with it and doing different things and that’s how I started, trial and error.”

In 2009, Audrey took her interest to the next level. In Kasitna Bay, Audrey and a group of 13 attended Fran Reed’s first and only class. Reed was a prolific skin-sewer famous for her revitalization efforts in the field as well as for her baskets that include seal gut, salmon skins, fins, ferns and more.

“She had terminal cancer and she was very adamant that this continued. I took her first class and it was her last class even though she had been studying it for 25 years,” says Armstrong.

“When she was teaching us she was very ill, so we would set up a big chair for her and we called it ‘the queens chair’. She would sit and talk to us and we would bring things up to her and she would tell us what to do next. Kind of like what I’m doing right now in this class,” laughs Armstrong as she turns to offer advice and to tie beads onto one of her student’s pieces.

“In that same year, Fran died and we promised her before she died, that the following year after the class that all 13 of us would have an exhibit in her honor. We would show all different kinds of fish skin works: masks, capes, necklaces. And, we did. I made a big berry bucket,” recalls Audrey.

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The women pause and admire each other’s works, sharing insight and grinning proudly over their pieces. “I’ve been working with it for 14 years now and I’m constantly learning from other people. I’m never going to be the expert on it but I love what I’m doing and I love sharing this with others who are interested.”

The students in this classroom are from all different backgrounds and experiences. One woman is visiting from England, another is taking Audrey’s class for a second year in a row.  Some of Audrey’s students have taken their newfound skills and shared them back home with their Yupik villages. As such, these re-awakened ancient skills have moved from Fran to Audrey to her students to new students. “The reward is just knowing that I am passing on something, and now I have two young ladies who are actually teaching it. So it’s just spreading out there and that’s what it’s about.”

“Let me show you something!” beckons Audrey. She displays a large open basket with a proud smile. “This is my Chief’s basket.” The basket is trimmed with moose skin, shells and small orange beads to symbolize salmon roe.

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“Salmon skin work is a lot of work, just scraping, scraping, scraping; getting the flesh totally clean and preparing it; it is a lot of work. But when you are done with your work and your creation, it’s worth it.” She holds up her Chief’s Basket again. “One night, I dreamt about my Athabaskan chiefs all sitting all around a table making decisions while passing food around in this, my Chief’s basket. So I presented to my board and they were in awe. Afterward, each one came up and thanked me for giving the speech and for what it all meant.” Her dream was realized.

Teaching and skin sewing are undoubtedly passions of Audrey’s, but she’s quick to tell anyone who asks that her first love is for fishing: “I love to fish, I’ll stand in the water for 8-10 hours a day just to get one fish!”

As the morning passes, Audrey begins to get antsy. As soon as her student’s questions start to calm and they seem focused and directed on their sewing, Audrey slips out of the dark woodshed into the bright Sitka day. She rushes down the rock steps beside the Science Center and meets her husband, who is hard at work snagging pink salmon where Indian River meets the sea.

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Her husband has been pulling salmon ashore to eat and so that Audrey can share skins with her students for future projects. “If you ask any Native person for their fish skin, they don’t give it out because they smoke it with the skin on because all of the richness is in the skin. So none of my Native people want to give me skins,” she laughs. “We have to get our own!” She takes over the rod and gets to work. Reeling fast and diligently, she giggles and smiles.

“Salmon gives us everything. I use it all: the only thing I don’t use is the male sperm and the guts!” She smiles as she pulls her third pink onto the beach and points. “This is what binds us and helps us and our families get through the winter. I’ve always considered salmon as my gold. It is my gold, g-o-l-d. It is our gold, all of the people who live off salmon. Money will come and go but salmon..! Your resources are your future.”

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Beating the Odds: Farmers Break New Ground in Southeast Alaska

Written for Edible Alaska Magazine, Authored by Bethany Goodrich and Lia Heifetz, Photos by Bethany Goodrich and Matthew Kern

It has taken Marja and Bo time and ingenuity to establish systems that overcome the landscape, remoteness, and weather in Farragut Bay. Today Farrugut Farm produces over forty varieties of vegetables that are sold primarily in Petersburg.

It has taken Marja and Bo time and ingenuity to establish systems that overcome the landscape, remoteness, and weather in Farragut Bay. Today Farrugut Farm produces over forty varieties of vegetables that are sold primarily in Petersburg. They are also able to sell produce directly to specialty cruise ships that pass through Frederick Sound, like the Catalyst pictured. 

 

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

Bobbi Daneils prepares to feed her pigs and poultry food waste from the local grocery store and spent grains from the local brewery. She is turning trash into treasure: fresh meat for Alaskans.

Bobbi Daniels prepares to feed her pigs and poultry food waste from the local grocery store and spent grains from the local brewery. She is turning trash into treasure: fresh meat for Alaskans.

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

BobbiDaniels_SawmillFarmSoutheastAlaskaChicken-1Bobbi 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.

These bruised tomatoes were slated for the garbage at the local grocery store, Seamart Grocery. Seamart is thrilled to pass outcast and outdated food that can't be sold to humans over to the Sawmill Farm.

These bruised tomatoes were slated for the garbage at the local grocery store, Seamart Grocery. Seamart is thrilled to pass outcast and outdated food that can’t be sold to humans over to the Sawmill Farm.

“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

Marja pushes a cart full of freshly picked cabbages. The cart is made of old mountain bike tires and is good for pushing vegetables and materials around the farm's (sometimes rough) pathways.

Marja pushes a cart full of freshly picked cabbages. The cart is made of old mountain bike tires and is good for pushing vegetables and materials around the farm’s (sometimes rough) pathways.

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.

Greenhouses at Farragut Farm slide along a track to cover three different plots of land. The greenhouse can be moved over different crops throughout the season to maximize the use of a single piece of infrastructure.

Greenhouses at Farragut Farm slide along a track to cover three different plots of land. The greenhouse can be moved over different crops throughout the season to maximize the use of a single piece of infrastructure.

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.

Farragut Farm is providing an alternative for Petersburg residents: better quality, fresher, locally grown vegetables.

Farragut Farm is providing an alternative for Petersburg residents: better quality, fresher, locally grown vegetables.

 

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