For rural residents, gardening more than just small potatoes

By Dustin Solberg
Bethel, Alaska (AP) 10-07

A group of novice but committed gardeners in a Kuskokwim River village is showing how a vegetable patch can help teach while it puts food on the tables of local families.

The garden in Upper Kalskag has shared its harvest with village elders, put local teens to work and invited curious 5-year-olds to help with planting and harvest.

The 3-year-old garden will have a bigger footprint next year, and it could become a model for communities weary of grocery bills costing three times what consumers pay in Portland, Ore

“We’ve been just adding more vegetables, more potatoes, more stuff every year,” gardener Billy Jean Stewart said.

Such is the nature of fresh vegetables grown at home.

“They’re way better than store potatoes or store vegetables. They’re sweet and natural. We don’t use any kind of chemicals or nothing on our gardens,” she said.

Its current size – about 30 feet by 30 feet – allows for the production of an array of Alaska garden staples to offer a small supplement to the mix of store-bought foods and traditional subsistence foods that are part of regular life along the Kuskokwim River.

As in many Alaska gardens, potatoes are especially abundant.

“We use potatoes in all the soups. Fish soup. Moose meat soup,” said Stewart, who works on the garden in her capacity as the environment office of the Upper Kalskag Traditional Council. Fried potatoes are popular. Potato salad, too.

The spuds grow on this plot in the middle of the village, inside the confines of a so-far moose-proof fence of slab lumber donated by the local sawmill. Inside the fence grow the vegetables not always available in rural Alaska. Sugar snap peas. Broccoli. Cabbage. And salads of delicate leaf lettuce unlike any for sale in a village store.

From this central garden, a few smaller vegetable patches have sprung up at the homes of several elders. The local teenagers hired to tend the village garden also tend these smaller plots.

At homes where normal garden plots aren’t practical, local garden organizers plant seed potatoes in plastic 5-gallon buckets - a suggestion from Bob Gorman, a partner with UAF cooperative extension. These bucket potato gardens don’t require moose-proof fencing, either, as leafy potato tops aren’t a favored food.

Gardening is not new in Kuskokwim villages or in Bush Alaska. Non-Native settlers such as fishermen and miners introduced gardening in some communities.

In some Athabascan villages along the Upper Yukon, federal Bureau of Indian Affairs schools had gardens of their own - their yields carefully documented in written records that still exist today in federal archives.

In some cases, religious missionaries relied on their own gardens to stock their larder - as at the Jesuit mission in the lower Yukon village of Holy Cross.

The Kuskokwim Native Association farm at the Kuskokwim River village of Aniak has cultivated several acres of vegetables for about the last 30 years. Village families have customarily tended gardens of their own.

As transportation prices soar and diet-related illness such as diabetes and obesity continue to increase in the population, the demand for locally grown food could increase.

“I think enterprising individuals will find a niche in agricultural production as energy prices increase,” said Bob Gorman of the University of Alaska Fairbanks cooperative extension office.

With help from the cooperative extension office, a community garden is in its first year in Holy Cross. In Galena, a dozen families participate in a tribal-run garden.

A program of the cooperative extension office offers free seeds in the Tanana Valley. In Tanacross, a new community garden brought fresh vegetables that some elders in the community hadn’t seen or tasted in years.

“They were thrilled to have turnip greens again,” said Mara Bacsujlaky of the cooperative extension office in Fairbanks.

GARDENS MAKE SENSE IN ALASKA

Though there have been grand notions of the agricultural landscape that Alaska might become, agriculture in Bush Alaska seems to function best at a small scale.

Long before statehood, a Danish-born horticulturist named Charles Georgeson, who began his 30-year career with the Alaska Agricultural Experiment Stations in 1906, thought the landscape of the territory’s Interior suitable for a homestead culture modeled on the federal mechanism designed to populate the vast regions of the newest American states.

Twenty years into his 30-year career with the agricultural experiment stations, he told a newspaper of his day, “I estimate Alaska has about 100,000 square miles that can be used for agricultural purposes.”

That vision rings true with the colonial notions of an earlier era, of farms and ranches covering two-and-a-half times an area the size of Ohio.

In Alaska, his ideas never took hold, at least on the scale he proposed, given issues including distance to markets.

But it’s not that produce won’t grow, of course. It will, as gardeners and small-scale farms tended on small plots across the state have shown for more than 100 years.

Long summer days and relatively pest-free growing conditions encourage healthy vegetable gardens.

Even an early agricultural field station at Rampart, which conducted field trials of grain crops and vegetables until 1925 at 75 miles south of the Arctic Circle, produced successfully.

HARVEST TRADITION:

For students in Aniak, days at the farm are a regular tradition. Students help work on the farm in the spring and help with fall harvest.

Last year, for instance, student volunteers at the farm made a sizable contribution to the farm’s workload.

“The older kids stayed until it was done, until everything was put away. They would have picked as many potatoes as we had for them to pick. They’re just amazing,” said Diana Lehman, who was until recently served as the farm’s education and training director.

This helps illustrate why schools and community groups are showing more interest in a potential teaching tool that no longer seems so old-fashioned: gardening.

In Aniak, Thomas Brock, who teaches kindergarten and first grade classes, has been leading his young students in gardening projects - while teaching lessons in math and science - for many years. His students have planted more than 50 types of seeds over the years.

“For us the learning is the process. We’re trying to use the garden as an integrated learning tool,” he said. “Everything can be taught around gardening.”

Brock grew up visiting the farms of family members on the Gulf Coast of the American South, where the growing season is nearly yearlong.

The short growing season in the far north, typically from June to August, does limit a garden, but he’s found ways to bring gardening into his classroom year round: The school conducts experiments in hydroponic gardening.

“As a teaching resource, working with younger students, nothing beats it,” he said. “It’s something you can do all year round.” –––

On the Net: www.alaska.edu/uaf/ces/ah/

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