I Am Not Getting Rich, but I Have a Great Life, Growing Under the Midnight Sun
It may seem crazy to some people that I grow vegetables for a living in the Interior of Alaska. It is, for the most part, no more crazy than farming anywhere else.
I have a short season to work with, and no greenhouse or high tunnel at this time to compensate for this. I usually plant pea seeds on May 10, and need to have everything out of the ground and in storage by the last week in September. There is permafrost 6 feet from the crust of the soil. There is very little actual scientific research to look to for growing at a latitude this high.
Sunshine, no humidity, average rainfall of 13 inches per year equals forest fires. Forest fires equal smoke, which can torture to work in, and bad for one's respiratory health. The typical dry weather of this region means we must manage water well. We use drip irrigation and landscape fabric to reduce the watering needs of transplanted crops. It is difficult in this dry environment to get small direct seeded crops like carrots to germinate well. It seems like a miracle that carrot crops grow at all. It is a labor intensive crop, so I guess I am that miracle worker.
The midnight sun does a lot of the work. We have sunshine, lots of sunshine. While the sun technically always sets in the summer because the town of North Pole is below the Arctic Circle, it just dips briefly below the horizon, and it doesn't get very dark from May until August. And it does typically get up to 90 degrees a few times during the Summer. So we've got that going for us.
Another thing we have going for us is that the extreme cold in the Winter and lack of a history of agriculture in this area gives us the gift of not having a lot of pests and disease to contend with. When I speak to other farmers in the Lower 49 states, I can't even believe the amount of foes they are up against. I have no idea how they get anything to grow. It seems like there is definitely a lot of skill and a good measure of luck involved. I assume that the warmer winters that we have seen in the subarctic, and climate change will likely change this relative pest-free utopia.
With a small mixed vegetable farm, I hedge my bets across a diversity of crops. I have no one crop that is my ace in the hole, except maybe potatoes. I try to look at each crop individually every Winter, to see how I can improve conditions for that variety the following year.
The thing that makes vegetable farming the most difficult in Alaska is the cost of shipping what we can't get in state here. I am always lured to catalogs and webpages promising free shipping. Lower 48ers don't know how good they have it, in this aspect. Plus, you can drive somewhere to go price out some used equipment or tractors. Due to the lack of agriculture here historically, that is not an option. Shipping can double or triple the price of anything that is shipped up here. So it is in our best interest to work with what we can get instate, or do without.
There are many obstacles. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by thinking about how even just one thing going wrong could ruin my growing season. It is crazy to have your entire livelihood in such a state of constant jeopardy.
What gets me through are remembering that there will be good times, like what my best friend and I term “Farmer Christmas”. This is the day the greenhouse delivers our plants, and I bring down the plants I started in my cabin in Fairbanks to the farm. We unload the trucks and marvel at the what we will be planting over the next couple of weeks. We've got the field all set up, and it's ready to plant, and time to get to business. A canvas for us to paint our masterpiece. We are happy to get planting and start growing.
Another example of the good times that keep me going is when I wake up early and make some coffee and walk around the fields to see how things are doing. Just leisurely strolling, making a few mental notes of things I need to do, but mainly enjoying the masterpiece that I have worked so hard at. This always makes me smile, even if there is a lot of chores I need to get to. I love seeing the progression of the farm on my morning walks. To me, nothing is more exciting than seeing seeds starting to sprout out of the ground, squash size up, and smelling the herbs all wet with dew as I walk past.
All of us farmers have our obstacles. We all have our reasons to keep at it. For me, nothing beats the feeling that I have followed my dreams. I'm not getting rich, but I have a great life.
Jen Becker is the owner of Pioneer Produce of North Pole, Alaska. She has a CSA farm (community supported agriculture) and uses only organic practices. She raises bees and fence posts that keep out the marauding moose. She is a true female food hero, as she supports her community with fresh food despite the challenges of growing in North Pole, Alaska, USA.