Hydroponics seen as solution to arctic's produce problem

Published: Jun. 10, 2016 at 3:13 PM AKDT
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Farming on the wind-swept tundra of Alaska’s arctic is a near impossible endeavor, but advancements in hydroponic technology are now being utilized as a solution to the produce problems vexing rural villages.

Thirty-three miles north of the arctic circle in Kotzebue, the first sprouts of spinach, kale, and a variety of types of lettuce are maturing inside a shipping container marked “Arctic Greens.” That’s the name of the Alaska Native Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation’s (KIC) latest subsidiary company, hoping to bring year-round farm-to-table produce to Kotzebue for the first time ever.

“A lot of people have their own little gardens to grow things for themselves in the summertime, but in wintertime the cost of produce is high, and not everyone can afford something green from the store,” said president of KIC Will Anderson.

At the village grocery store Alaska Commercial (AC), it can take between four days to two weeks for vegetables to make it into Kotzebue after being picked from the ground. Most all produce originates from the Lower 48 by way of truck, barge and air cargo.

“By the time it gets out to the native stores and the villages, who knows what kind of condition it's going to be in, and the price could be who knows how high,” said Kotzebue resident Annabelle Alvite.

The AC store agreed to be a steady buyer of the fresh produce grown in the hydroponic container. According to a press release, an exclusive provider agreement between KIC and AC “potentially positions Arctic Greens to become the largest rural supplier of produce throughout Alaska and Canada.”

There are currently 28 AC Store locations in bush Alaska who stand ready to purchase hydroponics from Arctic Greens if the business expands out of Kotzebue.

Anchorage-based AC director of sales and operations Jeff Cichosz said he’s excited to see a boost in the quality of produce available in the village, as well as the opportunity to “help change some of the shopping patterns” among rural residents to promote healthier food lifestyles.

“We spoke with Alaska Commercial,” said Anderson. “We asked them, what types of plants would you like to sell in your produce department, so they gave us a list.”

The list has given way to 21 vegetables and herbs taking root inside the 40 foot conex container in Kotzebue, including romaine lettuce, red cabbage, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, basil, cilantro, chives, mint and parsley among others.

The rows of plants grow under the purple glow of red, blue and green lights. They were planted shortly after the container was dropped off by a shipment on a C-140 in May.

There’s no soil, but seeds are rather planted in soft rockwool pods. Water infused with calculated nutrients flows underneath the pods, allowing the roots to grow under perfect conditions.

“We'll be able to keep the temperature in this container within very narrow parameters, even within the coldest part of winter,” said Anderson.

When fully operational, Anderson said he expects the hydroponic farm to deliver up to 550 pieces of produce each week, even when the weather drops to 60 degrees below zero.

If the yield sustains during winter, Anderson said KIC plans to buy more conex hydroponic systems to set up throughout villages across rural Alaska and northern Canada.

“From a business perspective, one unit doesn't create a lot of revenue, but if we had one of these in every borough, village across Alaska, if we had 150 of these, then it's a pretty substantial business,” said Anderson.

The Arctic Greens container was originally purchased from the Anchorage-based startup Vertical Harvest. The company released their “Generation 4” hydroponic conex this year, a self-described solution to farming in the north.

“This started probably six years ago,” said Vertical Harvest co-founder Dan Perpich. “I was serving with the military, and I ended up in a small community in Canada called Resolute, and I found a head of lettuce that cost $18. It was about the size of my fist and dark brown.”

That dark brown lettuce inspired the idea of using portable hydroponic systems to feed remote communities.

"It's 2016, and now we do have the technology. So why don't why take this a step forward," said Perpich.

The business has working models in Anchorage, Dillingham and Kotzebue.