Why does Alaska grow only four percent of its food?

One theory suggests that instead of food, the main focus became oil, since it is the biggest nonrenewable commodity. Another theory points to permafrost.

By Clarissa Zeller, Student, AG230, Sustainable Agriculture, Fall 2017.

Map of permafrost.
Map of permafrost in Alaska. Source: NSIDC.

Growing up in Alaska I knew that most food (not including subsistence) I ate was not Alaskan grown, but imported goods. The figures are about 96 percent imported and three to five percent locally grown, showing a great imbalance and reliance of foreign goods. It’s know by the government that Alaska only has three to five days of food supply in times of state of emergency. Also, to note that the cost of food varies greatly the farther away from major cities due to transportation fees and difficulties. In the community of Sand Point a pound of grapes costs $6.49, where the average in the U.S. is $2.88—this is just one example of a village/small town in Alaska.

The big question is: Why don’t Alaskans grow more of their food?

One theory suggests that instead of food, the main focus became oil, since it is the biggest nonrenewable commodity. Another thing to think about is permafrost in Alaska’s soil. Permafrost is soil, rock or sediment that is frozen for more than two consecutive years. However, a farmer in Bethel Alaska has been making strides in growing crops in permafrost soil.

One big factor in why many locals don’t farm is lack of knowledge, because the local lifestyle consists of hunting and gathering. In Tim Meyers region, there is only one farmer and that is him. Majority of the soil in Alaska is untouched and remains rich, mainly due to you guessed it, permafrost. For the past six years, Meyers and his wife have been dedicated to growing organic food on 17 acres of permafrost in Bethel, Alaska.

To get to the soil it is a two-year process of clearing and amending each field with manure, composted tundra, “slurry” of salmon, lake water, and a small amount of dry molasses to increase biological life. Raising beds and high tunnels help mitigate cold temperatures and short growing seasons. To extend the lifespan of harvests an underground root cellar store is used to naturally keep the product cool with the surrounds permafrost. The crops have been successful and the farm has a twice weekly market where locals come to buy local greens.

His next ambition would be to create a farm school to share what he has learned. This is a good example on what steps Alaska can take to start growing locally sustainably and less on foreign goods. This would not only benefit locals with cost of food, but also saving the local government millions. All that is needed is dedicated students.

This article was originally published in the CAFNRM/Agriculture Club Newsletter, Nov-Dec 2017 Issue 1.