Terramar Hydrofarm is fully housed within a shipping container. Inside the same type of structure that is used to move bananas thousands of miles, Allen Butner grows leafy green vegetables in Juneau Alaska. Down a narrow side street in Mendenhall Valley, Butner’s farm produces everything from butter lettuce and light romaine to spicy arugula and sharp cilantro. Local producers like Butner are growing more than vegetables, they are supporting the local economy, improving local food security, and decreasing Southeast Alaska’s dependence on food imports.
Today the majority of the food that many southeast Alaskans eat is shipped in by barges from down south, driven hundreds of miles in by semi trucks, or flown in by propeller plane. According to a 2017 study from the McDowell research group, Southeast Alaskans eat an estimated 12.6 million pounds of fresh vegetables every year, but almost 96% of that
produce is imported. This dependence on imports brings with it exorbitant costs in shipping and fossil fuels. Not only does the consumption of fossil fuels harm the environment, but it also increases prices for consumers.
Nearly all of the money spent on food imports subsequently leaves the region rather than benefiting local businesses. Alaskans spend $2 billion dollars on food each year, and if Southeast Alaska were able to replace just 3% of food imports with local food sources, we could keep $60 million circulating in the region.
Enter innovative entrepreneurs like Butner. He is a tall man with short cropped hair and glasses. He can easily lift the 50 lb plastic panels used for growing, and watching him sidle between narrow floating aisles of lettuce emphasizes simultaneously the smallness of the space and the sheer volume of food being produced. Up to 1,200 plants per week. This backyard farm proves that with tenacity and the right techniques, it is possible to grow food almost anywhere.
The geographically isolated communities of Southeast Alaska are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in shipping and this makes local food production an important component of food security. But growing produce is only part of the puzzle. “Food security means different things to different people,” explains Lia Heifetz , co-owner of Barnacle Foods and former food security catalyst for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP).
“You can ask different people even in the same community what food security means to them and they will tell you different things. One person might point to building a community greenhouse, and someone else might talk about the importance of protecting the local stream to keep the salmon run healthy,” she says.
The United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security, defines food security as the condition in which everyone always has physical, social, and economic access to enough safe and nutritious food to support an active and healthy life. Living in rural and isolated communities in Southeast Alaska means that achieving food security takes a little extra resourcefulness.
“On the one hand, food security can mean just having enough to eat,” says Jennifer Nu, the current Food Security Catalyst for the SSP. “It can also mean having food that is healthy, culturally appropriate, and produced in a way that acknowledges the value of the people who produce the food and honors place from which it is produced and harvested.”
For example, Nu recalled being in the village of Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island talking to community members. When asked about food security, one man responded by opening his freezer full of salmon and shrimp. Another man showed her the garden, greenhouse, and fruit trees he and his late wife maintained for over four decades in addition to the fish and game they caught themselves . For his part, when asked what inspired him to start Terramar Hydro Farm, Bunter doesn’t mention food security explicitly. He simply says, “Well I saw it [hydroponics farming] on Facebook, and I said someone has got to do this in Juneau, and well you know, be the change you wish to see.”
At Terramar, the seeds that will one day become salad start out in narrow rows of trays that resemble black ice cube trays lined up under the germination table. In most commercial farms, each pocket in the tray would contain a pellet made from spun fiberglass, but these fiberglass pellets are non-compostable and have to be thrown away after each use. That means that for every head of lettuce a piece of fiberglass approximately the size of a shot glass is headed to the landfill. Instead, Allen uses organic compostable pellets made of coconut husk, worm droppings, and organic polymers inoculated with beneficial bacteria and fungi: a perfect nursery for baby greens. It is seemingly small sustainability conscious decisions like this that when multiplied across the region, can transform an industry.
The germinating plants spend a few weeks in their ice cube trays growing under red, white, and blue LED lights before they outgrow the nursery and are transferred over to the growing panels. The panels, six by eight-foot rectangles of tan colored plastic, hang from the ceiling on tracks creating adjustable aisles. Each growing panel is like a book with greenery sprouting from the front and back cover, and it can be opened with a latch to reveal the roots and watering mechanism on the inside. An elaborate pump and filtration system circulates the water from the holding tank, through twisting PVC pipes and 50-micron filters, to the roots, and then back to the tank. The system is self-contained and each month Butner uses only 60 gallons of water, considerably less than the thousands of gallons pumped onto traditional commercial fields.
It took eight years for Butner to get to this point where his dream of growing has materialized in his backyard. Early on he faced hurdles trying to procure a loan. Hydroponics, the basic idea of growing plants on a vertical surface fed by water rather than in the dirt, has been around for hundreds of years since the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, although admittedly without the computerized pumps and automatic pressure gauges that Butner uses now. Even so, it took some work for Butner to convince people that growing lettuce from nutrient water and coconut husks was possible, let alone profitable.
Once his operation was up and running, there was no guidebook for producing salad in Southeast Alaska. Instead, Butner learned important things through trial and error: always use one-piece brass fittings on your pipes (the vibration of the pump will cause the two-piece fittings to break); lettuce grows fast so it only needs one week in the germination trays while kale is slower and needs three; fresh herbs are more potent so don’t pop a full leaf of fresh sage into your mouth; and don’t leave your laptop computer on the germination table.
Most of the food production happening around the region today, even those who sell at local markets like Butner, are still relatively small scale, but every little garden is a step in the right direction. Heifetz points out that even at small scales, income from food production can significantly benefit families by improving food security, nutrition, and quality of life. Many of these small farms are able to produce enough for themselves and their families and are then able to give or sell the excess in their communities. In fact, based on a 2017 study by the McDowell Group, roughly 15 percent of the food grown by households is shared with other community members, which builds social connections and spreads these benefits more widely.
There are even some producers who are able to be hyper-local, procuring all of their inputs within the region. For example, a farm in Haines produces and sells local seeds, and another farm is concocting their own soil out of locally gathered clay, sand, peat, and seaweed. Additionally, there are a growing number of businesses profiting by adding value to raw ingredients. Beyond producing food, they are processing and selling it. For example, Lia Heifetz and Matt Kern at Barnacle foods gather kelp and turn it into delicious salsa, and
Mathew Scaletta at Wildfish Cannery smokes and cans locally caught\ salmon, geoduck, and octopus. Eatable natural resources potentially have a high monetary value, and processing them locally keeps those benefits in local communities rather than shipping that benefit out of the region. As Nu puts it, “If I am going to spend money on food, I would rather give that money to someone I know. Our food choices have impacts all along the supply chain, so I want to know where that food comes from and how it was produced in order to make a decision. In the cash economy, we vote with our food dollars.”
Those food dollars can dramatically benefit families and communities, and by working together they can create region-wide positive change. Projects like the annual Farmer’s Summit and the Mobile Greenhouse Project, supported by the SSP, are furthering food security by connecting local food producers across the region and teaching kids how to grow their own vegetables. Connecting farmers and growers from across the region allows them to learn from each other, share experience, and build capacity. The community of producers works as a sort of collective guidebook, a support system for farming in Southeast Alaska. The hope is that new growers can learn things like the potency of fresh herbs and where to leave their computer, from a supportive community of producers rather than being left to figure it out on their own.
“Local food production, in general, requires hard work, and farming in Southeast Alaska is especially challenging,” admits Nu. “Yet people are really passionate about growing food because it’s important to them and it’s also important for the community.” Indeed, there is a growing network of food producers and people who are invested in localized food security.
Butner is no exception. Today, with a full-time day job, all of the manual labor required to manage production, and all of the paperwork involved in running a small business, Bunter is a busy man. He says there have been nights where if something went wrong at the farm he was up until 2 am fixing things and then up again at 5 am to go to work. Even so, Butner hopes to expand, and eventually, he plans to have six hydroponics farms. That’ six shipping containers lined up in a row in a backyard near the Junea Airport quietly producing fresh vegetables for Southeast Alaska all year round.