Farming in the Arctic: It Can Be Done

Bryce Wrigley

A field of barley grows in the shadows of an Alaskan mountain range.

On a misty fjord in Greenland, just miles from the planet’s second largest body of ice, Sten Pedersen is growing strawberries. Yellowknife, a Canadian city 320 miles below the Arctic Circle, hosted a farmers market this summer. And a greenhouse in Iqaluit, the capital of the vast Canadian Inuit territory of Nunavut, is producing spinach, kale, peppers and tomatoes. The frozen tundra of the Arctic is experiencing something of an agriculture boom.

The reasons are many. For one, the climate is changing: Arctic temperatures over the past 100 years have increased at almost twice the global average.

The diet of many indigenous Arctic peoples is also changing: Traditionally meat-eaters, groups like the Inuit are now consuming more grains and vegetables. And as is happening further south in the United States and Canada, there’s budding demand for locally grown foods.

Non-local-vegetables and other foods are shipped long distances and cost a fortune, $28 for a head of cabbage in some instances.

But perhaps most significant is the fact that Arctic and sub-Arctic communities are isolated: Vegetables and other foods are shipped long distances and cost a fortune, $28 for a head of cabbage in some instances. Not to mention, these supply chains are vulnerable to the region’s litany of both natural and human-made disasters, including blizzards, earthquakes, volcanoes and shipping strikes.

“People here in the circumpolar north are aware that we could very easily be cut off,” says Dr. Milan Shipka, Associate Director of the Agricultural & Forestry Experiment Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and co-coordinator of a recent conference on Circumpolar Agriculture.

“Currently there’s only one road that comes to Alaska,” says Shipka. “A few years ago that road was wiped out in a storm, within a couple days our grocery store shelves were going empty.”

Greenhouses in Nunavut

The only way to get vegetables to Nunavut’s 29,000 people, 85 percent of whom are Inuit, is by ship or plane. But ships come only a few times a year and summer fog and winter storms can ground planes for weeks at a time, leaving stores barren of staples like milk and bread. Groceries are also shockingly expensive.

This summer activists rallied outside grocery stores in several Nunavut communities, including Iqaluit, the territory’s capital, demanding cheaper food. The food security advocacy group Feeding My Family has photos on their Facebook page of $14 orange juice cartons and $55 frozen steaks. A report recently presented to the Nunavut legislature stated that nearly three-quarters of Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure homes.

“I do not want any kids going to bed hungry,” Leesee Papatsie, head of the Feeding My Family group recently posted on Facebook. “We cannot rely on the government,” she added. “We have to make the changes ourselves.”

Some projects are in the works. Entrepreneur Nathan Lawlor has plans to build a series of geodesic domes in the Nunavut community of Pangnirtung, which, he says, will produce more than 3,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables a year. Although Lawlor has miles to go before his project becomes a reality, his idea shifts the dialogue around food security. And there are precedents.

In Inuvik, a community in Canada’s Northwest Territories, an old hockey arena was transformed into a multi-level greenhouse that has been successfully growing veggies for more than a decade. And in Iqaluit, a much smaller community greenhouse boasts tomatoes, peppers, spinach, kale, radishes and carrots.

“In issues of food security, every little bit counts,” says Suzanne Etheridge, treasurer of the Iqaluit Community Greenhouse Society. Although Iqaluit’s average January temperature is -16° Fahrenheit, come June and July the snow is gone and the sun is up for 18 to 20 hours a day. Summer temperatures occasionally drop below zero, but barrels of water keep greenhouse air warmer and plastic coverings protect vulnerable crops like peppers. On summer Fridays, members hold crop-picking parties, and on weekends they deliver vegetables to a local soup kitchen, as well as a women’s shelter.

But soil for the greenhouse must be shipped from southern Canada, and maintenance is costly, which means greenhouse fees are high too – as much as $90 a year. Another issue is tradition. Other than seaweed, berries and certain herbs, greens have never been part of the Inuit diet. “Even if that cabbage cost $2,” Nunavut’s territorial nutritionist, Jennifer Wakegijig recently reported to the Canadian Press, “there’s no guarantee the Inuit mother would buy it.”

But Etheridge pointed out those cultural norms are changing. Iqaluit’s Greenhouse Society now has Inuit members. “It’s not that the Inuit are against growing food,” says Etheridge. “It’s just they need to learn more about how to do it. The Inuit are trying to adapt, and that is something they are very good at.”

Locals at work in Iqaluit's community greenhouse, where summer temps can still drop below zero.
An outside view of the Iqaluit community greenhouse.

    Community Gardens in Yellowknife

    In Yellowknife, capitol of Canada’s Northwest Territories, Lone Sorensen has been growing vegetables for more than 20 years. In the mid-1990s Sorensen, originally from Denmark, founded a local food advocacy group called Northern Roots.

    “Part of the belief system in place is that people think we can’t grow things up here,” said Sorensen. Not only is that untrue — Sorensen is presently growing cauliflower, broccoli, kale, potatoes, zucchini and peas outside, and tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers and mint in a greenhouse — residents of Yellowknife once grew their own food. In the 1930s, gold mines opened and home gardens provided workers with greens and potatoes. But cheap fuel after World War II led to a reliance on shipped goods and local farming dwindled. Sorensen is not starting an Arctic green revolution, she is merely resuscitating one.

    Sorensen has set up gardening programs in local schools and nearby First Nation communities and teaches gardening workshops for adults. This summer, Yellowknife hosted a weekly farmer’s market and new gardening collectives are springing up across the city. As in Iqaluit, the last Ice Age’s glaciers have scraped the land clear and obtaining good soil is problematic. Soil exists in river deltas but most planters don’t have access to those areas and get their soil from contractors, a system that is not necessarily environmentally sustainable. Still, Sorensen believes Yellowknife can overcome the obstacles and eventually foster enough community gardeners to become food secure.

    “There is something magical that happens inside the brain when people taste local food grown without poisons or pesticides,” says Sorensen. “And there is an entire generation that has never had that experience.”

    Lone Sorensen with Fred Sangris, a former Chief who is learning to grow vegetables for his caribou stew, and David, a student.
    A bunch of River Root carrots.
      Potatoes, Sheep and Strawberries in Greenland

      A thick ice sheet covers 80 percent of Greenland, but on the southwestern coast warm currents bring summer temperatures into the low 60s and daylight lasts for 24 hours. A thousand years ago the Vikings had farms here, and for much of the last century many Greenlanders have had them too, focusing mostly on sheep and potatoes. Still, there are the perennial Arctic agriculture problems: poor soil, unpredictable climate and high supply costs. Recently, Greenland has faced a new problem: water shortages. Although climate change has meant warmer summers, they are also drier.

      Aqqalooraq Frederiksen, head of the Greenlandic Agriculture Advisory Service for Southwestern Greenland, is Greenlandic Inuit and grew up on a sheep farm. Most of the nation’s 20,000 sheep are farmed in fjords, where steep mountains and rugged shores act as natural fences. Still, fields are filled with stones and fodder is imported from Denmark. Frederiksen says more farms are experimenting with lettuce, cabbage and potatoes. “We are trying to develop more agriculture in Southwest Greenland,” says Frederiksen. “But we need more money — it is expensive to start farming.”

      Dr. Peter Stougaard, a University of Copenhagen microbiologist is more optimistic. He discovered that a certain bacterium present in Greenland’s potatoes prevents the pathogenic potato fungi that can wipe out entire crops back in Denmark. Although he worries warming could affect the bacterium and allow Greenland to lose its’ potato edge, Stougaard thinks Greenland could successfully ramp up production of potatoes and other crops. The question is, are the people and government of Greenland up for the task? “There’s a big potential,” said Stougaard, “but at the moment they are not fulfilling this potential.”

      ‘It is a very special land. All the vegetables are sweet, even the radishes and turnips are sweet. You should taste them.’

      There is one man successfully farming nearly two dozen different vegetables in Greenland, a burly Dane named Sten Pedersen. His farm, which he started in 1977, is in an isolated fjord 43 miles to the south of Nuuk, Greenland’s capitol. To account for the recent dry summers Pedersen has built his own water collection and irrigation systems. He uses fish carcasses and seaweed as fertilizer and sleeps in a small structure in the middle of his garden, which contains turnips, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, three kinds of potatoes, three kinds of onions, spinach, parsley, thyme, rhubarb, celery, beets, carrots and yes, even strawberries. Greens are sold to a local restaurant in Nuuk.

      “It is a very special land,” said Pedersen. “All the vegetables are sweet, even the radishes and turnips are sweet. You should taste them.”

      Barley in Alaska

      In 1983, Bryce Wrigley moved from Idaho to Delta Junction, Alaska to grow barley. Immediately, he faced challenges. There was nowhere to store his grain, no one to market it for him and machine parts were near impossible to find. The upside: he doesn’t have to worry about crop pests like weevils.

      Wrigley now farms barley on a 1,700-acre farm under the majestic Alaska Range, but the state’s isolation, and images of people going hungry after Hurricane Katrina, got him thinking about how long it would take Alaska to get food in a natural disaster. After all, New Orleans is in the heart of the United States’ southern farming belt. And there are many ways a disaster could happen in Alaska, from volcanoes, crippling winter storms and earthquakes to events like in 1989, when the port of Anchorage froze up. And what about a disaster that affected the entire nation, like say a disease outbreak?

      “When you are freezing your body restricts blood flow to the extremities to keep the core warm,” explained Wrigley. “Translate that to the nation, and Alaska is an extremity.”

      So Wrigley, who is president of the Alaska Farm Bureau, has pushed the issue of food security. But when he brought his concern to state legislators he learned that their idea of food security was not to ramp up farming, but to warehouse $4 million worth of instant meal kits.

      Wrigley isn’t waiting for legislative action. In the true spirit of Alaska, he has decided to go it alone. In 2011 his farm established a barley mill, and now sells barley flour and cream of barley cereal in about 20 supermarkets around the state under their own brand, the Alaska Flour Company.

      ***

      From Greenland to Alaska, Arctic farmers face a difficult climate, demanding logistics and a history of over-relying on cheap fuel and shipped-in food. But really, there’s only one thing you need to grow food in the north: gumption.

      (Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that due lack like crop pests like weevils in Alaska, Bryce Wrigley was able to produce higher crop yields than growers in the south. This was incorrect. We regret the error.)

      Farming in the Arctic: It Can Be Done