Sun, Nov 06, 2016 - Page 15 News List

Arctic farming: Town defies icy conditions with hydroponics

By Rachel D’oro  /  AP, ANCHORAGE, Alaska

Native Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corp president Will Anderson poses for a photograph inside his corporation’s indoor hydroponics farm in Kotzebue, Alaska, on Oct. 19.

Photo: AP

The landscape is virtually treeless around a coastal hub town above Alaska’s Arctic Circle, where even summer temperatures are too cold for boreal roots to take hold.

Amid these unforgiving conditions, a creative kind of farming is sprouting up in the largely Inupiat community of Kotzebue, Alaska.

A subsidiary of a local Native corporation is using hydroponics technology to grow produce inside an insulated, 12m shipping container equipped with glowing magenta LED lights. Arctic Greens is harvesting kale, various lettuces, basil and other greens weekly from the soil-free system and selling them at the supermarket in the community of about 3,300.

“We’re learning,” Native Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corp president Will Anderson said of the business launched in spring last year. “We’re not a farming culture.”

The venture is the first of its kind north of the Arctic Circle, according to the manufacturer of Kotzebue’s pesticide-free system.

The goal is to set up similar systems in partnerships with other rural communities far from Alaska’s minimal road system — where steeply priced vegetables can be more than a week in transit and past their prime by the time they arrive at local stores.

There are other tools for extending the short growing season in a state with cold soil. One increasingly popular method involves high tunnels, tall hoop-shaped structures that cover crops.

However, the season can last year-round with indoor hydroponics, which uses water and nutrients to grow vertically stacked plants rooted in a binding material such as rock wool.

Anchorage-based Vertical Harvest Hydroponics, which builds enclosed systems out of transformed shipping containers, partnered with Kikiktagruk.

“Our vision is that this can be a long-term solution to the food shortage problems in the north,” cofounder Ron Perpich said. “We’re hoping that we can put systems anywhere that there’s people.”

However, the operations have challenges, including steep price tags. Start-up costs in Kotzebue were about US$200,000, including the customized freight container and the price to fly it in a C-130 transport plane from Anchorage, 885km to the southeast.

The town also relies heavily on expensive diesel power, so operations could eat into profits. In addition, moving tender produce from its moist, warm growing enclosure to a frigid environment can be challenging. And farming can be a largely foreign concept to Native communities with deeply imbedded traditions of hunting and gathering.

Still, the potential benefits outweigh the downsides, state market access and food safety manager Johanna Herron says.

Grown with the correct nutrient balance, hydroponics produce is considered just as safe as crops grown using other methods.

“It’s not the only solution,” Herron says. “Hydroponics is just a piece of it, but certainly an excellent thing for communities to look into.”

Alaska Commercial Co, which has stores in about three dozen remote communities, is carrying Arctic Greens in the Kotzebue store. This week, the Alaska Commercial store in Dillingham, Alaska, is to start selling produce grown in the local farm’s hydroponics system.

The chain is to bring the Arctic Greens brand to more locations if expansion plans prove cost-effective, Alaska Commerical general manager Walter Pickett said.

“The produce is fantastic, at least what we’ve been seeing out of Kotzebue,” he said. “The customers love it.”

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