Wherever gardeners are, there is good food. This morning at the Vegetable and Fruit Growers Conference in Palmer, the snacks on the coffee table include homemade rutabaga cake. Again, another moist, delicious and not too sweet morning snack. Who could resist? But enough of the distractions.
The first talk today by Heidi Rader, the CES district agriculture/horticulture agent for the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks, was about the challenges faced by rural communities in growing fresh produce.
Rader covers a huge region in central Alaska, an area roughly the size of Texas, traveling to 37 villages, with only 10 of them on the road system. When fresh foods show up in the village, it is usually old. There is little to no food storage, little to no food preservation like canning.
A survey of residents found that most consume processed foods, with No. 1 on the list being high-C Tang and No. 2 being soft drinks. Traditional subsistence foods like moose and king salmon showed up lower down on the list, nearer to No. 10 and 16.
The challenges to producing locally grown food are many. A lack of good soil, with tundra and permafrost being prevalent, is one. It’s cold. It’s hard to get supplies like soil, fertilizer and greenhouses, with high shipping costs of about $2/lb. Growing produce is not traditional, and traditional subsistence activities like hunting and fishing take up most of village residents’ time during the growing season.
Rader sends seeds, seed potatoes, fertilizer and small equipment out to the villages if there is interest. Rader also travels to the villages when invited, offering workshops in food preservation, composting, seed starting, plant propagation, vegetable and flower gardening, and edible landscaping, among other programs. She is encouraging building of root cellars. Did you know that if you live in rural areas, it’s possible to take the Master Gardener course online?
Rader asked if there were any farmers at today’s conference who might be willing to ship directly to rural communities. She emphasized that it’s not easy to ship fresh produce to the Bush as you have to take the boxes directly to the airport, not just pop them in the mail. You can contact her at 800-478-6822 or locally at 907-452-8251 ext. 3477 or email email@example.com.
Rader offered a few models such as a community garden in Nenana, a school garden in Eagle and a school greenhouse in Nome. Chickaloon has a tribally sponsored, four-season sustainable greenhouse, run with solar and wind power.
She emphasized that setting reasonable goals and starting small is essential to success. That’s good advice for anyone.