Reflections from Ian Johnson, Community Catalyst in Hoonah
The community of Hoonah is currently working to determine if a district biomass heat-loop and biomass-linked greenhouse are right for our community. We are hoping to save energy and cultivate more local produce here in rural Alaska.
Lucky for Hoonah, schools on Prince of Wales Island are already pioneering biomass-heated greenhouses. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is great because it helps connect ideas and successes from one community, and share them with change-makers across our region. The Biomass Greenhouse Tour arranged by Shaina Kilcoyne and Lia Heifetz of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, brought 5 community members from Hoonah and 21 other participants from Alaska and Canada to Prince of Wales to examine their biomass linked greenhouses. The experience was powerful.
We started in Coffman Cove with the gardeners of the future – the kindergarten class is tasked with feeding the chickens each morning and collecting eggs. It was delightful, heart-warming, and inspiring to see their bond with the chickens and the enjoyment of their work. From there we learned from the high schoolers and Principal, Colter Barnes how the local biomass sourcing provides money to the local economy ($175/ cord) while warming the greenhouse at a cost savings compared to diesel – a $175 cord of wood is equivalent to about $500 in diesel.
We then moved to the large greenhouse in Coffman cove and were given a tour by the middle-schoolers who run it’s aquaponics operation and harvesting. The excitement was truly electric as it became evident that the Coffman Cove model creates student involvement, provides to the local economy during the lean winter months, generates food security, and provides money to the school through produce sales. These were just SOME of the benefits of their incredible operation. We continued our learning by visiting the greenhouses at Thorne Bay and Kasaan to learn about how we can scale our greenhouses and about slightly different boiler systems. Ending the day at the the Whale House in Kasaan was just icing on the cake!
I can’t thank enough Shaina and Lia for putting together this incredible event. I know it will cause quite a stir in Hoonah and we begin to look at our greenhouse options here.
Written by Quinn Aboudara, Supporting Photographs by Kendall Rock, Lee House and Quinn Aboudara
The water laps against the side of the boat gently, the sound rhythmic and steady, like a heartbeat. The engine thrums softly in anticipation then roars to life as I twist the throttle to push the 16 foot aluminum skiff away from the dock and onto Klawock Lake.
My name is Quinn Aboudara, and I’m a lifelong resident of Prince of Wales Island. The Klawock Lake is part of my identity and life. Adopted and raised by the Taakwaneidi Raven/Sculpin Clan, Klawock Lake is more than just a simple body of water for me. Like many residents of Klawock and the surrounding communities, I harvest food from these waters like salmon, trout and beaver. Its tree lined shores provide me with berries and edible roots, bark and grasses for weaving.
Working for the Klawock Cooperative Association I was presented the opportunity to work with the local tribe and with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership as a community catalyst. Klawock Lake and the watershed that feeds it are a fragile system. Over the last 30 years, this life-giving watershed has seen substantial change which have raised continued concern for the residents of Klawock. Some of those environmental changes include: declining fish runs, decreased snow caps on the surrounding mountains, and development along valuable spawning habitat. In 2016, The Klawock Cooperative Association (a federally recognized tribal government), in partnership with Klawock Heenya Corporation, Kia Environmental, and The Nature Conservancy, with funding provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs began a four month study in regards to one of these concerns: the declining returns of the wild run of sockeye salmon to Klawock Lake.
We began going to Klawock Lake with a single question: Is there anything feeding upon the sockeye fry? What we returned with was more questions. The data gathered from the first season of the Klawock Lake predation study showed that sockeye fry predation was minimal. A second predation study is in the works for 2017 to support and provide stronger data to inform decision making. Simultaneously, we will explore other potential factors in the declining salmon run.
This work, a community priority of both traditional and cultural concern, is a key component of my position within the Klawock Cooperative Association. And as a community catalyst I am given the opportunity to approach this challenge, and many of the other challenges within my community with a holistic approach. There are many challenges of living in a rural Alaskan island community, the high cost of food, a lack of employment opportunities and stable jobs, limited economic development, and through the partnership between the Klawock Cooperative Association and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership I am allowed to address these challenges and pursue solutions. Solutions such as working with local stakeholders to develop a trained local workforce, designing and building greenhouses, providing small business development workshops, and many other opportunities.
It is through this multi-faceted approach toward creating a resilient community that I have dedicated my time and energy to protect the way of life in Klawock. I do this work for myself, my family, and my community, so we may continue to prosper and enjoy our way of life along the bank of the Klawock River indefinitely.
Share lessons learned and techniques for overcoming challenges of commercially growing food in Southeast Alaska; learn specific skills, technology, and research that contribute to commercial farming success and efficiency; connect with new and experienced farmers to build an inspiring network.
Early bird registration is now open for the Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit 2017, the 2nd biennial summit designed to bring together experienced and aspiring commercial growers and support agencies. The Summit will be held February 24 through 26, 2017, at the Chilkat Center in Haines, Alaska. A discounted registration rate is available to attendees who register on or before January 21st, 2017. Travel and registration scholarships are available.
The conference will feature presentations from experienced commercial growers and support agencies, and topical discussions and panels to share resources and lessons learned. Speakers include Doug Collins, Extension Faculty and Soil Scientist with Washington State University’s Small Farms Program; Megan Talley, Farm Manager and Educator at Alaska Pacific University; and experienced Farmers from Southeast Alaska; among others.
“This will be an opportunity for commercial growers of Southeast Alaska to learn from each other, find opportunities to collaborate, and build a network that can leverage everyone’s efforts,” said Lia Heifetz, Local Food Director for Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition. “Many resources will be shared over the course of the weekend – from financial planning for small farms to innovative solutions for soil building, policy implications for agriculture, and much more.”
Other topics to be addressed at the Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit include:
- On Farm Food Safety
- Building your Farm Community
- Planning for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
- The Future of Seed Saving in Alaska
- High Tunnel Applications and Innovations
- Electric and Walk-in Cold Storage for your Farm
- Biomass Heated Greenhouses and Aquaponics
- Per Foot Crop Values for Market Sales
- Using Local Amendments to Improve Soil Quality
- Fruit Trees and Grafting Techniques
- Policy and Initiatives
- Building a Future of Farming with Internships and Education
- Business Planning and Farm Finances
For more information and to register for the conference please visit: http://www.alaskawatershedcoalition.org/safs2017/
Living in rural Alaska can be difficult. Energy costs are among the highest in the nation and quality, locally grown produce is scarce. Pairing a greenhouse with a wood heating system can benefit communities by improving nutrition, lowering energy costs, and providing local employment opportunities. That is why the U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Energy Authority have partnered to fund Alaska Biomass Heated Greenhouse Handbook. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership and the Southeast Island School District have been selected as sub-contractors to help write this handbook, which will be unveiled at the Wood Energy Conference April 11-12 in Ketchikan.
The overarching goal of this project is to create a guiding document that will help cultivate sustainable, self-sufficient, and resilient communities throughout Alaska. The online “e-handbook” will be a practical handbook to help interested communities plan, build, and manage a school biomass-heated greenhouse. It will inform readers on how to best select greenhouse technology, develop business and operations plans, and integrate biomass and greenhouse-related Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum into schools.
What’s so special about biomass heated greenhouses?
Schools are the epicenter of most rural Alaska communities. The Southeast Island School District on Prince of Wales Island has illustrated its commitment to local communities by exploring wood boiler and greenhouse options. What started with a few raised garden beds and a heat recovery system in one school has since grown into an island-wide phenomena. Kasaan, Naukati Bay, Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove have all replaced costly diesel generators with wood boiler systems and are using local wood to heat schools, greenhouses, and businesses. The students are served fresh salad at lunch, and the Thorne Bay School is now running managing and operating a local restaurant, the Thorne Bay Café. Read more about the Southeast Island School Districts biomass and greenhouse projects here: “Back to School: Swapping Eggrolls for Rainbow Chard.”
Locally sourced biomass fuels can provide sustainable forest management along with a renewable, reliable energy source. This reduces transportation costs for energy, fossil fuel use and woody biomass waste. Biomass heated greenhouses provide local jobs, keeping food and energy dollars inside a community. Finally, growing food provides security for communities in a state where vast distances and our cold climate can affect quality and dependability of shipments of outside goods.
According to the Alaska Energy Authority, ten Alaska schools out of 507 are heated with biomass systems, five of which have operational greenhouse projects. There is ample opportunity for growth; over the last decade, the Alaska Wood Energy Development Task Group with Renewable Energy Fund grants has worked to encourage the conversion to high efficiency biomass boilers. This guide will build from the existing momentum and recent successes of biomass greenhouses in Alaska Schools.
Written by Bethany Sonsini Goodrich for Edible Alaska Magazine
Across the country cafeteria trays aren’t often admired for their nutrition, freshness, or taste. In rural southeast Alaska, however, a dedicated school district and its greenhouse program are challenging that notion, while invigorating local economies, growing entrepreneurs, and gratifying taste buds.
Prince of Wales Island rests at the southernmost end of Alaska’s panhandle. The communities that make up this island are isolated, connected by seemingly endless miles of winding roads. The Southeast Island School District (SISD) is the major school district on Prince of Wales. It includes nine schools in unique communities from the small Haida village of Kasaan to old logging camps like Coffman Cove. All of these communities share some key challenges. Only one of them has a grocery store of considerable size, and the majority of the food is barged in. By the time these costly imported vegetables hit family plates, they are often wilted and unappetizing. Residents are in search of long-term economic solutions.
As in many small schools across the state, cafeteria lunches also lack crunch. “Small schools don’t have full time cooks and use mostly warming ovens to make eggrolls and burritos,” says Lauren Burch, the superintendent for Southeast Island School District on Prince of Wales Island. “That’s not what we should be feeding our kids.”
Those heat-and-serve lunches are not only uninspiring, they are costly too. “In my school district I lose roughly $100,000 a year even having a food program at all, and that’s gotta come from somewhere,” Burch says. The state’s purse strings aren’t loosening any time soon. Alaskans are witnessing the slicing and dicing of many key programs, including the whittling away of school funding. “State funding right now is traumatizing,” he admits.
But Burch—along with teachers, students, administrators, and community members of Southeast Island School District—is stepping up to face these challenges with gusto. What started with a few raised garden beds and a heat recovery system in one school has since grown into an island-wide phenomena. Kasaan, Naukati Bay, Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove have all replaced costly diesel generators with wood boiler systems and are using local wood to heat schools, greenhouses, and businesses. They are growing their own food, freshening up those lunch trays, and supporting the local economy as they revolutionize district thinking. This inspiring cohort is accomplishing all of this while giving the next generation of Alaska’s leaders a mouth-watering hands-on education.
So, how does it work? Let’s take a tour.
AQUAPONICS: FROM FISH TO FRESH VEGGIES
“Everything we do starts with those fish. All we have to do is feed them. We use their feces throughout the system as nutrients. We use the poop to grow the plants, in short speak,” explains Ieshia Searle. Ieshia is a senior at Thorne Bay High School and has been involved in the greenhouse since its’ inception.
Eager goldfish crowd the window of a big central tank as Ieshia sprinkles a bit of fish food from above. A pump moves nutrient rich water from this tank through colonies of bacteria that filter the solid waste and convert fish feces into a form of nitrogen the plants can use. The water is then funneled into a series of pools where rafts of lettuce float beneath energy efficient LED lights. Different varieties of lettuce reach down into the water, absorbing nutrients while filtering and cleaning the pool. Ieshia pulls up a raft of butter lettuce, carefully inspecting the long spindly roots. “These are beautiful roots!” she declares. “Normally we harvest once a week, if not more, depending how our crops turn out. We actually stay pretty busy at the Thorne Bay greenhouse.”
Over in Coffman Cove, the largest and most impressive of the school greenhouses is over 6,000 square feet. At full capacity Coffman Cove will be churning out 800 heads of lettuce a week. That’s a lot of greens.
But, greens aren’t all that these greenhouses produce. Water continues to move through the aquaponics system into a series of beds containing a very fine matrix material made of coconut husks, which fully filters the water. It then returns to the fish and the loop continues, nourishing everything from turnips and tomatoes to green onions and basil. The vegetables are packaged by students, served in school lunches, and delivered and sold to shops where they reach families throughout Prince of Wales.
INTEGRATED LEARNING: GROUNDING THE ‘COMMON CORE’
All four greenhouses are using adaptations of an aquaponics system. Originally, Thorne Bay tested hydroponics, but made the switch to aquaponics in order to diversify their crops and offer students more integrated learning opportunities. “We wanted to dive more into the process. Hydroponics felt like a mystery machine where you pumped chemicals in and lettuce came out,” says Megan Fitzpatrick, the SISD science teacher. “Aquaponics is more of a natural ecosystem approach to growing.” She is able to teach the nitrogen cycle, soil chemistry, plant biology and more. Students are also able to craft experiments. “It’s more engaging. There is a lot of flexibility,” Fitzpatrick explains.
The greenhouse does not replace the curriculum, it brings it to life. Students spend one hour of class time each day working with the program and experiential learning opportunities abound—for more than just chemistry and the life sciences. Students across the island are investigating ways to make their greenhouse programs as self-sustaining as possible, while learning how to conduct feasibility studies, identify niche markets, gauge supply and demand, and brand their products. They are also looking at ways to improve the system, exploring opportunities for saving energy while increasing food production.
“Working at this greenhouse, I’ve been able to learn how to grow food while also being able to learn how to manage a business and keep it running without having to depend on the school district. At the start, we had the school district buying the seeds and the supplies that we needed, but now we are able to pay them back and make a profit,” Ieshia asserts with pride.
The four greenhouses are part of a larger program that also includes raising poultry, growing apples, making and selling tortillas and pizza dough, and a student-run restaurant and storefront. This engaging combination of projects creates opportunities for teaching business skills, life skills, employment skills and responsibility in a meaningful and hands-on way. “When kids first started here they were so shy and didn’t want to talk about the greenhouse,” says Fitzpatrick. “Now, so many people come by and visit the greenhouse from the community and even the lieutenant governor has stopped by. Kids are learning public speaking skills,” she says. “When students are engaged, they retain and when they retain they are more confident.”
AN IMPACT YOU CAN TASTE
Rural Alaska is hungry for fresh food and innovation. “Our schools absolutely are the heartbeat of the community and play a vital role in the sustainability of these communities,” attests Colter Barnes, the school greenhouse manager on the island. Southeast Island School District is looking at their students as powerful assets for building more resilient communities, supporting the local economy, and addressing food system challenges, while receiving a top-notch education.
“I think the progressive districts are out there saying, how can we do more with less funding, how can we generate revenue? I have a thousand students in my building, how can I give them real learning opportunities that are connected to standards, their diploma, their interests, and strengthens our community, but also generates revenue. There is so much you can do with kids, they want to engage,” Barnes says.
“We need to teach kids healthy eating skills. They need to use knives to cut their food, enough of these heat-and-serve open boxes,” adds Megan Fitzpatrick. “I saw these kids when they first started in the greenhouse. They weren’t eating the stuff and now they’re fighting over it. Seeing kids recognize the healthy benefits of eating fresh vegetables and recognizing that they can do this at home, that is a life skill they can carry on through their adult life. That to me is the most rewarding.”
Back at the school cafeteria, the rewards keep on growing as more and more students swap egg rolls for rainbow chard.