Can greenhouse initiative spur food security in Alaska?

When Eva Dawn Burk first saw Calypso Farm and Ecology Center in 2019, she felt enchanted. Calypso is an educational farm tucked away in a boreal forest in Ester, Alaska, near Fairbanks. To Burk, it looked like a subarctic Eden, encompassing vegetable and flower gardens, greenhouses, goats, sheep, honeybees, a nature trail, and more. In non-pandemic summers, the property is teeming with local kids and aspiring farmers who converge on the terraced hillside for hands-on education.

Now, Burk is partnering with Calypso to promote local food production and combat food insecurity in Alaska Native communities. The initiative involves building partnerships with tribes to teach local tribal members, particularly youth, about agriculture and traditional knowledge. The project is still in its infancy, but Burk hopes to help spur an agricultural revolution in rural Native villages, where food costs are exorbitant and fresh produce is hard to come by.

Alaska Native communities face numerous challenges to food security. Many communities are accessible only by boat or plane, and some lack grocery stores altogether. 

The project was inspired by a wood-fueled energy system and heated greenhouse built almost a decade ago in Tok, about a four-hour drive southeast of Nenana. Many Alaskan towns have productive gardens. The growing season lasts barely 100 days, however, and only a handful have year-round growing capacity. The Tok School came up with a clever solution: The facility is powered by a massive wood boiler and steam engine, and the excess heat is piped into the greenhouse. The school has a wide array of hydroponics.

Inside the greenhouse, you could easily forget you’re in Alaska. On a brisk day in late April, when the ground outside was brown and barren, dense green rows of tomato plants, lettuce, zucchini and other salad crops reached towards the 30-foot ceiling. During one week in April, when outside temperatures dropped below minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit, greenhouse manager Michele Flagen said she harvested 75 pounds of cucumbers that the students had helped plant. Altogether, the greenhouse provides fresh produce for the district’s more than 400 students.

Nenana is at least a year away from installing its biomass system, but Burk plans to begin planting a garden next spring if the greenhouse is not yet ready. In August 2021, the group will host its first training program for Alaska Native gardeners at Calypso. With so many greenhouses and gardens yet to be built, Burk’s latest dream has only just begun to grow.  

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