Will a native-led initiative spark an agricultural revolution in rural Alaska?


This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on May 28, 2021, and is reposted here with permission.

When Eva Dawn Burk first saw Calypso Farm and Ecological Center in 2019, she felt enchanted. Calypso is an educational farm nestled 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, bees, a nature trail, and more. During non-pandemic summers, the property is full of local children and budding farmers who converge on the terraced hill for hands-on education.

Calypso reminded Burk, 38, of Denaakk’e and Lower Tanana Athabascan of the villages of Nenana and Manley Hot Springs, of her family’s traditional fishing camp in the interior of Alaska, where she spent the summers. of his childhood. “I just felt at home,” Burk said. “(Calypso) really spoke to my heart.

When Burk was still young, however, his family strayed from their traditions. As the fish stocks dwindled and the cost of living increased, they stopped going to the fishing camp. Burk studied engineering at university and in 2007 found steady employment in the oil and gas industry at Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. But after having a series of telling dreams – first of an oil spill, then of a visit from his deceased grandmothers – and overhearing elders discussing threats to traditional food sources, Burk turned around. committed to advocating for tribal food sovereignty.

A few months after her first visit to Calypso, Burk became a graduate student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, where she is currently studying the link between health and traditional eating practices. In 2020, Burk received the Native Communities Fellowship from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a business model for implementing biomass (or wood) heated greenhouses in rural Native villages. The greenhouses will produce fresh produce year round while creating local jobs and mitigating the risk of forest fires.

Today, Burk partners with Calypso to promote local food production and address food insecurity in Native Alaskan communities. The initiative involves partnering with tribes to teach local tribal members, especially youth, about agriculture and traditional knowledge. The project is still in its early stages, but Burk hopes to help spur an agricultural revolution in rural indigenous villages, where food costs are sky-high and fresh produce is hard to come by.

Alaska’s native communities face many food security challenges. Many communities are only accessible by boat or plane, and some do not have grocery stores. Residents of Rampart, a small Athabascan village on the Yukon River, must order groceries from Fairbanks, delivered by air at 49 cents a pound plus tax, or travel there to do their shopping – a $ 202 round trip flight, five hour boat and truck trip, or four and a half hour overland drive. Sometimes orders are delayed due to weather conditions or because the delivery plane is full, said Brooke Woods, chair of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fishery Commission, who is from Rampart. “You get strawberries that are molded,” Woods said. “And you throw them right in front of an elder.

Indigenous families who depend on country foods, like salmon and moose, face rapidly changing ecosystems and dwindling sources of wild food, in large part, according to Indigenous leaders as well as several studies, to climate change. Perhaps the biggest dietary challenge is the dizzying system of joint wildlife management between the tribes of Alaska and the state and federal governments. In 2020, the Inuit Circumpolar Council reported that the Inuit of Alaska “recognized that the lack of decision-making power and management authority was the greatest threat to Inuit food security.” Last summer, during a pandemic-linked food crisis, the Tlingit village of Kake had to get federal approval before tribe members could hunt on the land around their community, as reported. High Country News.

Despite the clear and unique barriers to food security for many families, a 2018 review in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health found that “studies that estimate the prevalence of food insecurity in remote indigenous communities in the Alaska … are practically absent from the literature ”. The limited and outdated data available indicates that about 19% of Alaska’s indigenous population – 25% in rural areas – are food insecure, compared to 10.5% of the country’s total population, according to the USDA. .

Burk isn’t the first to consider growing food locally as a solution. Over the past two decades, several Indigenous-led agricultural projects have sprung up in Alaska. Burk’s vision, however, is particularly ambitious: in addition to building community gardens and greenhouses year round, she wants to form a statewide network of indigenous farmers.

At the end of April, Burk met the staff of Deenaalee Hodgdon and Calypso Farm on a sunny terrace of the farm, a few feet from the swarms of bees delivering pollen to their hungry hive. Hodgdon, 25, founder of On the Land Media, a podcast that centers Indigenous relations with the land, collaborates with Burk and Calypso on the Farmer Education Initiative.

Hodgdon, who is Deg Xit’an, Sugpiaq, and Yupik, worked in Calypso as a farm laborer for a summer after sixth grade. Calypso provided them with a new language to work with the land. At one point during the meeting, Hodgdon walked over to farmland and said, “It could literally feed a lot of our villages in Alaska.

Burk’s first target is Nenana, her hometown, where she works with the tribal office, indigenous society and municipal government to set up a community-managed biomass-heated greenhouse.

The project was inspired by a wood-fired energy system and heated greenhouse built almost ten years ago in Tok, about a four-hour drive southeast of Nenana. Many towns in Alaska have productive gardens. The growing season lasts barely 100 days, however, and only a handful have year-round growth capacity. The Tok school came up with a smart solution: the installation is powered by a huge wood-fired boiler and a steam engine, and the excess heat is channeled into the greenhouse. The school has a wide range of hydroponics.

Inside the greenhouse, you could easily forget that you are in Alaska. On a brisk day in late April, when the outside soil was brown and barren, dense green rows of tomato, lettuce, zucchini, and other salad crops reached the 30-foot ceiling. For a week in April, when outside temperatures fell below minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, greenhouse manager Michele Flagen said she harvested 75 pounds of cucumbers that the students helped plant. In total, the greenhouse provides fresh produce to more than 400 students in the neighborhood.

Nenana is at least a year before installing her biomass system, but Burk plans to start planting a garden next spring if the greenhouse is not yet ready.

Jeri Knabe, administrative assistant at the Nenana Tribal Office, loves Burk’s plan. “I look forward. I am very excited, ”she said. High food costs have long been a challenge for the people of Nenana, she explained: “When I was growing up we were lucky enough to get an orange.”

Burk and Hodgdon hope to address the issue of indigenous food security statewide, and local community members like Knabe are at the heart of their initiative. At their meeting in Calypso, Burk and Hodgdon stressed that basic farming is more than a way to feed people; it is also another step towards tribal sovereignty and self-management. “It’s a job that needs to be done by us, by people in the community, not outside,” Hodgdon said.

In August 2021, the group will host their first training program for Alaskan native gardeners in Calypso. With so many greenhouses and gardens to build, Burk’s last dream is only just beginning to unfold.

Max Graham is a reporter based in Homer, Alaska. As a Yale Parker Huang Fellow, he researches environmental initiatives on both sides of the Bering Strait.

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