Agriculture in High Latitudes
Growing food in high latitudes has been problematic for, well, all of recorded history. In 2012, the market value of all agricultural activity in Alaska was less than $60 million, more than half of which was aquaculture. That’s about the same as the value of vegetables, melons and sweet potatoes grown in Delaware the same year. By contrast, the value of agricultural activity in California was $42.6 billion in 2012. That being said, growth in Alaskan agriculture is outpacing the rest of the country.
Likewise, around the world, producing food in far northern climes is limited by many factors including cold temperatures, a short growing season, short days (endless ones too!) and the unsuitability of soils, some of which is underlain by permafrost. Rugged and adaptable grazing animals have long been a feature of Far North agriculture, but growing food has been the toughest row to hoe. Still, humans persist at this endeavor and are having some success.
Climate Change at High Latitude Agriculture
Atmospheric CO2 levels measured at the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano have a seasonal variation. Every spring, as photosynthesis bursts forth in a carbon-gobbling orgy of newly-emergent vegetation in the northern hemisphere, CO2 levels drop slightly and bottom out near the end of September before beginning to climb again as plants die and rot. This September, the seasonal low did not fall below 400 parts per million. It is likely that no person alive today will ever take another breath containing fewer than 400 ppm of CO2. The global warming ship has sailed and while we still need to reduce emissions heroically, it’s time to plan for adaptation, including what some may see as “gains.”
Even though Greenland is more than 80% covered by ice, summers bring the warm Gulf Stream, temperatures in the 60s and constant daylight to its southwest. The NOAA figure to the right shows changes in sea surface temperatures. Sure to get “worse,” these conditions are allowing for the establishment of a few small stands of trees and local vegetables available in one Greenland grocery store. Eight of the island’s sheep farmers are experimenting with growing potatoes. Sten Pedersen, who started growing potatoes forty years ago, plants vegetables two weeks earlier and harvest three weeks later than he did in 2003. He owns an organic farm along a fjord near Nuuk (64° N) where he grows 23 vegetables, up from 15 in 2003, including peas, beans and strawberries.
Though tricky, farming is nothing new in Alaska. Moderated slightly by the ocean and low elevation, the Matanuska Valley (61.5° N) has been Alaska’s long-time center of
agricultural production but the outlook on farming in the state and its future has certainly changed. In the 1970s, oil came and soon after it came money and the confidence that anything was possible. The state spent tens of millions of dollars on a program to bring farms to Alaska, and within 15 years it had fallen flat on its optimistic face. More than two decades later, things have changed a bit. Barley was one of the crops that failed miserably the first time around, but now show some promise. The Central Valley of California, it isn’t, but with a warmer climate, crop viability increases substantially and farmers are looking to grow a greater variety of crops over a longer season, reducing the amount of food having to be shipped in.
In Canada, in areas where it is feasible, outdoor, community gardens have sprung up so
residents can grow vegetables and build community while also addressing food security and the lack of fresh produce. In the Northwest Territory community of Hay River (60.8° N), food cultivation is also used as an educational opportunity. In the territorial capital of Yellowknife (62.5° N), the Yellowknife Community Gardening Collective started in the mid-1990s and has built six plots in the city for over 200 gardeners. In 2015, they donated more than 1500 pounds of produce to be distributed residents in need. A community garden in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory (60.7° N), like gardens at lower latitudes, has been experiencing a problem of its success.
Climate change is clearly and steadily moving the northern most limit of where food can be grown outdoors.
Greenhouses and Food Security in the Far North
Canada’s northern areas in particular face the problem of food security like few other
places do. Largely inaccessible and populated by First Peoples, food is expensive despite government subsidies. In 2012, six Nunavut communities facing unspeakably high grocery bills and frustrated, protested, drawing attention from Ottawa to their plight. An Iqaluit woman started a Facebook group that has grew to over 18,000 members. In these communities, where summer temperatures often commonly fall below 0° C, greenhouses are the only solution. Backed by locals and a government initiative that was a response to protests, greenhouses have been built in a handful of northern communities. These facilities are small, but so are the communities they serve.
In Nunavut, Canada’s only geopolitical region not connected to the rest of North America
by a highway, a greenhouse in the community of Naujaat (66.5 N), uses a reflector and the prodigious heat capacity of a tub of water to provide food seven months of the year, for a community of less than 1000 people a hair’s breadth above the Arctic Circle. Also in Nunavut’s capital of Iqaluit (63.7° N), a large, 90 square meter, greenhouse was built in 2001 to serve its nearly 7000 residents. Though, it was fallow this year to allow for renovation work that can only be done in the summer, it has been very successful and the model from which other projects of this sort are designed.
Greenhouses in arctic Alaska have been around for at least a century, though only recently have these projects emerged out of the realm of crazy-Unabomber-guy-with-a-greenhouse-the-edge-of-town and into the mainstream as techniques and knowledge have made them viable. Oceanside Farms, on the Kenai Peninsula town of Homer (59.6° N), is an organic farm earnestly churning out rugged fruits and vegetables in several large, high-tunnel greenhouses. This article summarizes the challenges and potential of small-scale agriculture in rural Alaska.
Many of the reasons for growing food in the North are the same as elsewhere. To an extent, the locavore trend has affected high latitudes, people enjoy having fresh foods. However, high costs and food security are necessitating the local production of food even in places where the cultivation and consumption of vegetables are not longstanding cultural features.