Feeding the Community: A New Greenhouse Project is Building Regional Resilience
A new greenhouse project is planting the seed for regional food security, sustainable economic development and community resilience amid a devastating blow to a way of life in Alaska’s Lower Yukon River region.
During the height of summer salmon fishing season at Kwik’Pak Fisheries, the only fish processor on the Yukon River, you won’t find locals working to clean, debone, freeze, pack and ship chum salmon all over the world. Instead, for the past couple of summers, area high school students have been building greenhouses and raised beds, monitoring moisture gauges, planting shoots, digging potatoes and washing freshly laid eggs.
Established by the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association (YDFDA) as a driver for economic development in Alaska’s Lower Yukon River region, Kwik’Pak set up shop 20 years ago in the Yup’ik village of Emmonak, which sits at the mouth of the Yukon River, near the Bering Sea. Since 2020, dismally low salmon returns have shuttered fish processing at Kwik’Pak. But in partnership with YDFDA, Kwik’Pak’s plant manager, Jack Schultheis, has helped shift operations to a locally-developed solution addressing pressing food insecurity. The greenhouses are an example of community resilience, ingenuity and adaptation to a rapidly changing world.
The greenhouses were an idea that Schultheis and the team at YDFDA had been thinking about for several years. In early 2020, Schultheis and Courtney Weiss, the grants manager for YDFDA who now leads the initiative, applied for and received a Rasmuson Foundation grant. The $350,000 grant was the seed money to get the project up and running. The project – which includes the Youth Agriculture and Youth Employment Projects – has set up eight greenhouses in Emmonak and two in Nunam Iqua. The effort is designed to be scalable and can expand to all six villages under the association’s purview.
“I always thought it would be a good project for us to do, mainly due to the high cost of food, especially fresh food in the region,” Schultheis said. “We are introducing agriculture to the people in the region by doing this – which is taking root in my opinion,” he said.
In 2020, during the same summer Schultheis was prepping the first four greenhouses, the chum and chinook salmon runs – historically prolific in the Yukon River – suddenly seemed to disappear. The fishery crashed that summer and for the last two years fishing for those salmon has been prohibited for the thousands of people who live along the nearly 2,000 mile river.
The crash of the fishery has been devastating for the region, as most residents here rely on subsistence fishing for salmon as a way to connect with family and culture at summer fish camps, to fill their freezers and sustain themselves through the year and to provide employment in commercial fishing and processing at Kwik’Pak Fisheries (previously one of the largest employers in one of the nation’s poorest regions). Without the fish, families have been forced to travel farther for food, fish for other species or to shop at the expensive, limited grocery stores in their villages.
Alaska is a land of abundance with a bounty of wild foods, including more than half of the nation’s seafood production. But, as climate change warms the land and waters, many of the wild foods that thousands of people and animals across the state depend on for sustenance are struggling to adapt to a hotter world. The largest state in the union also holds opportunities for agricultural development, and that same warming has the potential to make farming in the 49th state easier and more fruitful.
Being able to grow and buy fresh, affordable food within Alaska is an important key to addressing the state’s high rate of food insecurity (22% of adults and 26% of rural Alaskans are food insecure). But Alaska’s agriculture industry has a troubled history. The state’s Indigenous people have been stewarding the land through sustainable subsistence for thousands of years. A few hundred years ago, Russian, and then American colonization, brought the first farming and ranching endeavors to Alaska. Since then, the state and federal government have sought to, but have largely failed to, grow an industry. With some of the biggest challenges to farming in Alaska being the high cost of shipping equipment and supplies, a short 90-day growing season, extreme environment and lack of infrastructure.
There are also significant human, economic and community development challenges within Alaska’s food system, according to the Alaska Food Policy Council. The state has only a three-to-five day supply of most foods at grocery stores, and even less time in rural areas. Most Alaskans have experienced the precarity of this system – with food shortages caused by COVID-19 supply chain snafus, a wildfire closing the only road and stalling delivery trucks, or perhaps something as common as fog hindering a supply plane from landing. Most Alaskans are almost completely reliant on food from out-of-state. Roughly 95% of food purchased in Alaska is imported, leading to nearly $2 billion leaving the state. After paying a premium to ship produce to Alaska, grocers are left with expensive, often spoiled fruits and vegetables.
“The vegetables shipped from the Lower 48 in Emmonak are in sad shape,” said Jasmine Afcan, who is the agricultural manager at the greenhouses in Nunam Iqua. “But if we are able to grow them here that would raise the interest in the types of fresh vegetables we can grow. Usually we depend on summer and spring foraging foods.”
Over the first couple of seasons, the youth workers have planted kale, potatoes, turnips, green onions, peas, squash, leeks, tomatoes, lettuce and more. The project’s participants have continued to expand the variety of crops they grow by experimenting with foods that grow well in the climate and to the tastes of those in the community. The project also added a chicken coop housing 35 chickens and providing eggs to the fisherman store, where residents can purchase a dozen for just over $4, a fraction of the cost at a typical rural village store.
“We sell cheaper than Anchorage prices,” Weiss said.
This past summer, the greenhouses held open house weekends where the community could come tour the site, ask questions and get inspired to start gardens of their own. In addition, a market was also held so people could buy food directly from the farm. At the end of last year’s season, the greenhouses in Emmonak grew enough vegetables to fill six commercial fish totes (which have a volume of about 660 liters), one for each village in the area.
“That caused people in the community to start planting a garden or building a little greenhouse,” Schultheis said. “They started growing their own food. Those are the positive things of bringing this project into the region. It’s spreading.”
Educating the youth workers on where food comes from and how they can provide for themselves and the community is one of most important aspects of the project, as the high school students have done 95% of the work, Schultheis said.
“They’ve done everything from actually helping with the construction of the greenhouses, to getting the bed set and planting all the way through,” he said. “They never experienced anything closely resembling this, when it comes to growing something you know. They had no idea how a tomato grows or a carrot or a cabbage. Educating the kids is a big thing to me.”
The youth workforce development program, which is also run by YDFDA, employs 150 teens across six villages, with 65 kids rotating through the week to work on the greenhouse project in Emmonak. The program isn’t enough to fill the economic gap made by the loss of fish processing jobs, which provided $7 to $10 million in wages to locals annually. But, students working on the small farm are helping their families, learning new skills and creating a tangible difference in their communities by making fresh, affordable food more accessible.
“With my money I’m helping with my baby brother by buying him clothes and what not,” said Shatelin Phillip, a 16-year-old Youth Employment Program worker who lives in nearby Alakanuk. “He’s nine months old.”
Marilyn Stanislaus, a supervisor in the Youth Employment Program, is from Alakanuk, and ferries the short boat ride to Emmonak to help mentor the youth workers at the greenhouses during the summer months.
“The greenhouse has been a big learning experience,” Stanislaus said. “We’re immersed in learning every day. It’s been a really good learning experience because these kids know they can plant at home in our village (nearby Alakanuk). This is really good for the kids because they leave for boarding school and college and now they have spending money when they go.”
Arianna Johnson, 14, is a Youth Employment Program worker from Emmonak who is using her wages to save for college. “(The program) is a great way to meet people, learn new things and the money is nice too,” Johnson said. “It teaches me a lot about plants I’ve never heard of before, what’s safe to eat and how to harvest them. And a lot about chickens too. It’s a great way to make money at a young age.”
If communities can overcome initial infrastructure costs of setting up a small-scale farm, villages can provide residents with fresh, affordable produce, eggs, jobs and the opportunity to be more self-sufficient. The project has also been a catalyst for other local economic development by buying seeds from Alaska companies, having local students grow much of the food from seed in the spring, mixing local soil from across the river with commercial soil and building garden beds and sheds using lumber purchased and milled in the nearby village of Grayling.
Beyond building more greenhouses in other villages, Weiss said they are hoping the next big project will set up a powersource that can help the young farmers regulate humidity and temperature inside the greenhouses.
“I mean, the project speaks for itself,” Schultheis said. “I think it’s a very important thing to have in remote Alaska. It demonstrates to the residents that this is possible, you can grow your own food.”