Arctic and Subarctic Agriculture

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Cabbages in the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta. Photo courtesy of Modern Farmer

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.

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                                                              Soils in the Far North are largely unsuitable for agriculture. Photo courtesy of oikosjournal.com.

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

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Mauna Loa Observatory. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

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.”

Greenland

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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.

Alaska

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

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Alaskan barley field, Mt. Hayes looming. Photo courtesy laurieconstantino.com

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.

Canada

In Canada, in areas where it is feasible, outdoor, community gardens have sprung up so

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Yellowknife Community Garden. Photo courtesy foodgirl.squarespace.com

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

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Young Nunavut protesters. Photo courtesy of nunatsiaqonline.ca

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

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                                                     Naujaat greenhouse. Photo courtesy of theeyeopener.com

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 greenhousesThis 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.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Arctic and Subarctic Agriculture

  1. amyquandt

    Interesting blog! Did you read anything about how these greenhouses and gardens are impacting the health of people who previously had little access to fruits and vegetables?

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    • There definitely is a cultural barrier regarding the introduction of fresh veggies into the diets of indigenous people in high latitudes. Historically, indigenous people of the far north did eat lichen and those living near the sea consumed kelp and other sea plants. The material I read implied that fruits and vegetables have been available to people living in the far north, with government subsidies (Canada) but even subsidized, they have been incredibly expensive. As well as providing nutrition, these greenhouses are a source of civic pride, a way of building community and fostering a sense of “food sovereignty” for very isolated communities.

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  2. kaylawoods1

    Do you believe Alaska could be the new California, since it is currently suffering from drought? Are crops grown in Alaska and arctic areas more expensive to keep up with because of the different climate or do you think transportation/shipping costs to maybe somewhere on the East Coast would be more expensive? I really enjoyed your article, I had no idea that Alaska even grew crops like this.

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    • Even factoring in climate change, I don’t think any other US state will ever come close to matching California in terms of agricultural productivity. Until you actually go out there and drive through the dozen or so areas of high intensity agriculture, it is hard to imagine just how much is produced there. The Central Valley alone produces 50% of the country’s fruit, vegetables and nuts.

      For the most part, what is grown in Alaska stays in Alaska, except for fish of course. As for the cost of growing in high latitudes, the wild card is always the weather. A frost can happen just about anytime, so what’s grown there is limited to cold hardy plants. “Alaska tomatoes” will never be a thing.

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  3. adampeterman

    This blog was very interesting. I have heard that if the trends in global warming continue, the eastern plains of Alberta will become far more agriculturally productive, even comparable to the Midwest in the US. I have never even considered what farming is like in these norther communities until reading this blog. Do you know how these far north communities ate vegetables in the winter prior to these greenhouses? I would imagine the food was shipped in, but that seems very difficult and expensive, especially for the more isolated communities in Nunavut.
    I have a friend who lived in Alaska when he was younger, and he has told me before how expensive food was from the Supermarket there. This was because most of the food had to be brought in from far away. I’m sure that these communities are interesting in decreasing the cost of produce with these gardens and greenhouses.

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    • Exactly Adam, fruits and vegetables in places like Nunavut, the remote Yukon and NWT are flown in and are very, very expensive, even when subsidized by the government. I think these greenhouse operations as the currently stand are works in progress, that is, they are just proving that it can be done. They still have to deal with the fact that for long periods of the year, there is virtually no sun, so it is extremely unlikely that they would ever become completely self-sufficient.

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