This story is dedicated to the memory of Rhonda Costen, who joined us on this journey. She was a respected leader in her community who passionately advocated for local foods, a clean environment, and prosperity for the future of Yakutat. One person can and does make a difference. Thank you, Rhonda. You are dearly missed. 

In June, a group of community members in Yakutat met with Mike Maki, a fish composting/local food system consultant from Washington and Jennifer Nu, the Local Food Systems catalyst with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership for a fact-finding tour of the community. The learning exchange was funded by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Emerald Edge program and the Communities, Economies, and Place Initiative (CEPI).  The group consisted of representatives from the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, the City and Borough of Yakutat, and local residents who are passionate about sustainable local food systems and composting. They visited various locations around the community to learn about potential opportunities for composting food scraps and fish waste from sports fishing lodges and the local fish processor.

Currently fish waste from the processor is ground up and released into the bay. Fish waste from local lodges are dumped either off the dock by the lodges or at a designated spot called the log dump. The goal of the group was to determine whether there could be a potential economic opportunity to transform this underutilized resource into a much needed soil amendment that could support local efforts to grow produce in the community (gardening, greenhouse, etc) as well as produce a nutrient-rich Alaska product to support local food production in Southeast Alaska and economic development in Yakutat.

The group visited key locations such as the landfill, log dump, harbor, various agencies, major fishing lodges, the processing plant, and the community garden. “The theme here is food resilience,” explained Mike Maki. “How can we make the food system stronger?” Various potential projects were discussed, such a fish waste composting, food scrap composting, biomass heated greenhouse, and biochar. The ideal situation would combine systems for biochar production, energy production, and compost production using both fish waste and wood waste.

In August, the group met in Seattle for an exciting road trip through Washington down to Portland, Oregon to visit the Pacific Gro liquid fish fertilizer plant in Raymond, Washington, and to also visit various local food system initiatives along the way. The itinerary was organized by Mike Maki and Jennifer Nu, with support from Garret Dalan at The Nature Conservancy in Washington.

Symbiotic Cycles

The first stop on the road trip was Symbiotic Cycles in Olympia Washington. Founders Dan Cherniske and Nick Naselli hosted a tour of their classroom demonstration site, which is a small aquaponics system built on an old lumberyard on compacted fill and crushed rock. Their system used koi, a freshwater fish, to grow leafy greens and other edible plants along with restorative wetland plants, such as bull rush. While the koi and plants are charismatic characters in the aquaponics set up, the secret superheroes are the bacteria. According to Cherniske, “The heart and soul of what aquaponics relies on is bacteria.” Any food growing system, whether soil or water, requires healthy bacterial colonies to sustain plant life. They designed a biofiltration system that uses pumice rock to create an ideal habitat for bacteria. “The bacteria are constantly having this epic party, living and breaking down and performing these essential functions any healthy soil needs through beneficial bacteria,” explained Cherniske. In addition to growing vegetables, Symbiotic Cycles grows restorative native plants for wetland restoration to reduce erosion and agricultural run offs. “Wetlands involve tons of aquatic species and terrestrial species wedded by bacteria…everything is in symbiosis together,” explained Naselli. Previously, the pair helped design a large scale system at the Aberdeen prison in partnership with Evergreen College to grow restorative wetland plants using koi in long shallow troughs. The plants grow into a mat which tribal groups and Department of Transportation groups use to re-vegetate places that have been impacted by invasive species. These “emergent vegetative mats” of native plants are used to smother the invasive plants and restore the wetland. It’s unique program for growing food, training inmates, horticultural, and environmental curriculum, and there’s a backlog of demand for these plants.

Squaxin Island Tribal Community Gardens

The group continued onward to Shelton, Washington where they were welcomed by Aleta Poste, Elizabeth Campbell, and their crew at Squaxin Island Tribal Community Gardens who guided them on a tour of their community garden, orchard, ethnobotanical trail and gathering space. They shared the evolution of the garden from an idea to a community-driven effort. “We kept asking for a community space for traditional and non-traditional foods- impact diet-related illness, and really get back to ancestral ways of eating,” said Poste. “We’ve been slowly nursing this old orchard back to health and increasing our food supply,” said Aleta Poste. They explained that 34 trees had been uncovered after laboriously clearing away a dense bramble of invasive blackberry bushes. Since then, a combination of cardboard, kelp, fertilizer, water, and alder shavings transformed the site into a welcoming and fruitful place.

Aleta and Elizabeth guided the group down their First Foods Trail, an ethnobotanical trail that took us through the forest down to the river. “We call it our First Foods Trail teaches about the First foods of our people, and first foods for our children, including natural sugars and natural bitters that we don’t necessarily have on our palate anymore,” said Aleta Poste. They generously shared stories about the healing and giving properties of various native species of plants that were planted along the trail. While some plants did not grow as far north as Yakutat, others were familiar and reminded us of how fortunate we are in Alaska for the abundance and vitality of our Alaska Native edible and medicinal plants.

Another wonderful feature of the Squaxin Island Tribal Gardens included an elder garden built by the youth that had wide pathways to accommodate elders in wheelchairs. High raised beds make it easier for people to access the plants without bending over.

Part of the garden’s sustainable creation story is that the garden was built largely from materials acquired through donations or through recycling and repurposing materials. A nursery that was shutting down donated plants. Repurposed smelt netting from their natural resources program protected young trees from deer. The local cedar mill donated woodchips for pathways.  Volunteer arborists and master gardeners from Shelton and other communities donated their time to lead gardening workshops and classes.

In addition to a greenhouse and vegetable fields, the medicinal wheel garden is a beautiful  healing and protective space. There are seven rings that stand for the seven bands of people. Oyster shells are in the pathway because the people are people of the water. The garden is a place for sharing teachings of the ancestors, a place that marks seasons of change, stages of life.

Our group was thankful for a visit from Charlene Kriess, an elder leader, Aleta’s mother and vice president of the tribe who shared stories with us about her people. She reminded us about the importance of food as medicine, food as memory keeper for the elders, and the deep wisdom of Native scientists and the original biologists who walked this earth since time immemorial.

Pacific Gro

Jim Brackins, the founder of Pacific Gro, welcomed the group to the plant in Raymond Washington. The company produces a certified organic cold-processed hydrosate made by finely grinding fish waste from salmon along with crab and shrimp shells. The ground up fish is screened through a fine screen and sold as a liquid fish fertilizer to customers in the US and abroad. The plant handles an impressive amount of fish waste and transforms this resource that would otherwise be wasted into a valuable product for agriculture. The group had a chance to walk through the odoriferous plant, past the giant 'fish smoothie' machines, the large tanks of finished, stabilized product, and they had a chance to check out a new tanker processor out back.  

Shoalwater Tribal Enterprises

The group met with leaders from Shoalwater Bay Tribal Enterprises at the Tokeland Hotel, who shared their experiences with innovative investment and economic development. We had a chance to visit a community garden nearby and the Willapa Bay Oyster Farm, which is an oyster seed farm built from shipping containers next to the beautiful Willapa Bay.

Biocharm Farms

The group continued on to visit Jim Karnofski of Biocharm Farms in Ilwaco, Washington, learning about the benefits and wonders of biochar. Biochar is any cellulosic material (wood, grass) brought up to kindling temp in the absence of oxygen, a process called pyrolosis. Although the process is similar to making charcoal, the resulting material is biochar, which is 50-80% pure carbon. Biochar is stable so is not broken down as easily as other forms of carbon. Biochar’s unique chemical properties allow it to retain nutrients through weak chemical bonds, and it also provides surface area for bacteria and microorganisms. Making local biochar from wood waste in Yakutat is of interest as a sustainable way to build up local soil for community food growing projects.

Portland Metro and Recology in North Plains, Oregon

On the last day, some of the group had a chance to meet with Pam Peck and Jennifer Erickson of Portland’s Metro Regional Center to learn more about the municipal composting program. Metro is a regional government agency that works with the cities and counties in the Portland metropolitan region. The two long-time city and community planners provided an overview of how they work at the local and regional level to establish composting programs for businesses and residents. They provide funding for staff at local governments who then provide technical assistance to businesses with waste reduction strategies, employee training, waste separation design, and troubleshooting.

The group journeyed an hour outside of Portland to visit the Recology facility in North Plains where they donned bright yellow safety vests and followed Nick Olheiser out among hills of compost. Trucks rumbled around them as they walked around hills of compost, tubes of air blowers and filters, and the leachate lagoon. It was an incredible experience to witness the transformation of food and yard waste into usable soil products. It was a sure sign of sustainability in practice, linking food consumption and food production with the important stage of waste and recovery.

After a full three days, the group is looking forward to identifying priorities and next steps for local food system and composting initiatives in Yakutat. Many thanks to all of the wonderful people and organizations who shared their knowledge, experience, insights, and time with us in Yakutat, Washington, and Oregon! Special thanks to Crystal Nelson and Christine Woll at The Nature Conservancy in Juneau for sponsoring this exchange.