The Surreal Abundance of The Arctic’s Permafrost Farms

Courtesy of the New Yorker, an interesting look at the growing number of Alaskan farms, where climate change is helping turn frozen ground into farmland.  If this trend continues, there will be even more competition in the Arctic than at present:

In 2010, Brad St. Pierre and his wife, Christine, moved from California to Fairbanks, Alaska, to work as farmers. “People thought we were crazy,” Brad said. “They were, like, ‘You can grow things in Alaska?’ ” Their new home, not far from where Christine grew up, was as far north as Reykjavík, Iceland, and receives about sixty inches of snow each year. It routinely experiences winter temperatures below minus ten degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer, however, the sun shines for twenty-one hours a day and the weather resembles San Francisco’s. Sturdy cabbages and carrots thrive in the ground, while fussier tomatoes and cucumbers flourish in greenhouses.

The main challenge with farming in this part of Alaska, Brad told me recently, is that craters often open up in fields, and some are the size of Volkswagen Beetles. The holes form when patches of frozen water, known as ice lenses, melt and gulp down the surrounding earth in a process known as subsidence. They tend to expand each year and sometimes fuse with other nearby pits; they can be filled, but farmers often run out of soil, so the pits become ponds. Sometimes holes hide under ruffles of kale or the shade of tart-cherry trees, or threaten to swallow Brad’s tractor. “All of a sudden, you have to stop,” he said. “There’s no grass. There’s just a hole.”

The St. Pierres ultimately leased seventy-five acres and named them Goosefoot Farm. It now grows everything “from arugula to zucchini,” Brad told me, which keeps the farm nimble in hard times and replenishes nutrients in the soil. He also manages the twice-weekly Tanana Valley Farmers’ Market, which runs from May to September and teems with produce, flowers, and honey from a region of Alaska that is as large as Indiana. The farm is thriving, though the holes have started to form more frequently and three acres are now a “minefield” too pockmarked to plant. “At that point, you just write it off,” he said.

Alaska’s interior, a mountain-ringed expanse of forests and wetlands that includes the Tanana Valley and is larger than the state of Montana, is part of the “climate-driven agricultural frontier,” a term coined by scientists, in 2020, to describe places that will become suitable for commodity crops in the next forty to sixty years. Fifty to ninety per cent of Alaska’s interior contains permafrost underneath, meaning that the soil has been frozen for at least two consecutive years. But the permafrost is patchy enough that the region is called a “discontinuous” zone, and it is in flux: the polar regions are warming faster than the rest of the planet, and Alaskan land contains many microclimates. North-facing slopes are colder, for example, while hollows retain more heat. When farmers and developers clear-cut vegetation on the surface, permafrost thaws even faster. Some farms are encircled with “drunken forests,” or trees that slouch as the ground gives way.

In much of Alaska, and also in parts of Russia and Canada, where ice-rich permafrost is abundant, subsidence is the “No. 1 issue related to farming that we know of,” Melissa Ward Jones, a geomorphologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, or U.A.F., told me. It has a long history in Alaska: a black-and-white aerial photograph of an abandoned field in Fairbanks, taken in 1938, shows a lumpy surface with the texture of cottage cheese. In a 1939 image, a deforested field that was flat seven years before looks as hilly as the Shire. The ice in the permafrost beneath these farms, Ward Jones said, was probably a vast underground network, or a “spiderweb,” of polygonal formations known as wedges. When they melt, they can leave behind a pitted landscape called thermokarst.

 In February, Ward Jones began a five-year effort to understand how farming and permafrost interact, and to establish best practices for farmers with permafrost under their fields. Called Permafrost Grown, it is funded by three million dollars from a young initiative of the National Science Foundation called Navigating the New Arctic. Northern farmers will need to know how to grow well on the land, instead of simply winging it, Ward Jones and her colleagues argued in a recent commentary. “We have this history of farming on permafrost, but a lot of people are just doing things experimentally,” she told me. “There hasn’t been dedicated research that’s actively tried to understand this system.”

With its cheap land, fertile soil, few pests other than hungry moose, and a growing season that is being drawn out by global warming, Alaska is becoming increasingly attractive to a younger generation of growers who want to start small farms. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of farms smaller than nine acres jumped seventy-three per cent across the state. (In contrast, the average American farm is now four hundred and forty-five acres, and the total number of farms in the U.S. is declining.) Most Alaskans agree that the state, which imports almost all of its goods and often experiences shortages, should expand local agriculture to improve food security. For this reason, even local environmental activists are not outright opposed to new farms, despite their potential harm to the environment. Some Native Alaskans are wary of further encroachment into their traditional hunting and fishing grounds, but the decline of wild plants and animals has made agriculture a necessary supplement to subsistence diets.

Farms are likely to overtake more of the world’s polar regions in the years to come. On June 1st, the state’s Department of Natural Resources began the first phase of the Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project by opening bidding on twenty-seven parcels of land that are situated in a boreal forest about sixty miles southwest of Fairbanks, and that range from about twenty acres to three hundred. (Bidding ends on October 4th.) Throughout the next thirty years, state officials plan to gradually open more than a hundred thousand acres between the Nenana River and the zigzagging Kantishna for agriculture. Bidders are warned that the parcels come with no guarantees: “It is your responsibility to inspect the land and to be thoroughly acquainted with its condition.”

Despite its reputation for ice and snow, Alaska has been farmed for hundreds of years. Nenana Native Village members traditionally used controlled burns to boost new growth of wild plants, which in turn attracted moose and beavers. Along the coast, Tlingit and Haida people grew potatoes. Russians who settled in Sitka in the early nineteenth century tended gardens of cabbage, turnips, and more potatoes. Then came Americans dreaming of “the last frontier”—a maxim now stamped on Alaskan license plates—who colonized the territory at the expense of local Indigenous communities.

In the eighteen-nineties, a Presbyterian missionary turned federal official named Sheldon Jackson became a kind of lobbyist for Alaska’s agricultural potential. Whaling and seal hunting had decimated species that Native Alaskans relied on for food; Jackson promoted reindeer farming to take their place. Forty years later, the New Deal moved two hundred struggling Midwestern families to the Matanuska-Susitna, or Mat-Su, Valley, in south-central Alaska, to start a farming colony. Potatoes and dairy cows did well for a time, but many farms petered out in the face of harsh winters and competition with affordable imports. According to the anthropologists Philip Loring and S. Craig Gerlach, the state’s agrarian dream persisted because agriculture was “generally considered necessary for ‘making Alaska American.’ ”

The state’s subsequent farming projects do not inspire confidence. Flushed with oil money in the late seventies, Alaska tried to kick-start dairy, grain, and red-meat industries with the notorious Delta Barley Project, an attempt to convert sixty thousand acres of forest in Delta Junction, a region southeast of Fairbanks, into huge farms that averaged more than a thousand acres. A public-relations campaign inspired a new migration north. “People basically had to clear these fields and then wait for the permafrost to thaw,” which in some cases led to subsidence, Glenna Gannon, a Permafrost Grown researcher who works as an assistant professor of sustainable food systems at U.A.F., told me. Bison also stomped through and ate into the harvest. Though the barley grew well enough, global prices soon collapsed, and the state never completed the infrastructure that it promised. In total, the project cost the state a hundred and twenty million dollars. Many Alaskans I spoke to referred to it as a “boondoggle.”

There is still Delta barley to be found in the Alaskan interior. On a drizzly day in June, Bryce Wrigley gave me a panoramic tour of his seventeen hundred acres via Zoom. Wide green rows gave way to tall forests, the imposing summits of the Alaska Range, and a marble-colored sky. White stakes showed where Wrigley was experimenting with cover crops: peas, turnips, oats. The rest was soft green Sunshine Hulless barley, an easy-to-hull variety developed for northern climates. Wrigley has been lucky: below his farm, there was no permafrost to turn his land into cottage cheese. “Those things are happening farther north,” he said.

Around these parts, Wrigley’s story is well known: in 1983, intrigued by an article in Successful Farming magazine, he drove to Delta Junction with his wife from his family’s farm in Idaho. He cut and sold firewood until he qualified for state loans and then moved on to raising hogs. All around him, barley farmers were struggling, but he began growing the crop anyway. Seeing the food shortages caused by Hurricane Katrina gave him anxiety about Alaskan food security, so, in 2011, he built the only commercial flour mill in the state. Now called the Alaska Flour Company, it offers a line of barley-based products, including couscous and brownie mix. Wrigley’s large farm, with its in-house processing, packaging, and distribution, is the exception to the norm, Gannon told me: “This was never the intended future for Alaska.”

Around the time that Wrigley was setting up shop in Delta Junction, the Alaska Agricultural Action Council predicted that the nearby Nenana-Totchaket area would have a “particularly important role in the future of Alaskan agriculture.” A U.S.D.A. soil survey showed that it had fertile land, and its growing season was longer than Delta Junction’s. The problem, at the time, was access: getting there meant crossing the wide Nenana River by boat. In 2020, a bridge was finally completed, and Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities plans to extend an old road that was built for oil and gas exploration. Some locals are concerned about venturing too quickly into under-researched territory, but Erik Johnson, a natural-resource specialist with the Division of Agriculture, told me, “We’ve collected a lot of data, and the signs are pointing toward, Yes, this is going to be good.”

Unlike Alaska’s past agricultural projects, Nenana-Totchaket has been marketed as a solution to food insecurity. Most of the state’s food is imported on cargo ships that sail from U.S. West Coast ports like Seattle to Anchorage. To reach rural Alaskans, shipments must be flown hundreds of miles to hub cities and then loaded onto boats or eight-seater airplanes bound for remote airstrips. Many Indigenous Alaskans are not reachable by road, and grocery stores often feature tinned food, candy, and goods past their expiration date.

Governor Mike Dunleavy hopes that fields of raspberries, canola, and barley will one day blanket the Nenana-Totchaket area. The crops will be tilled by Alaskan farmers and sold in Alaskan grocery stores. “We want to take advantage of the resources that we have, to feed our own people,” the Governor told me. “This has been decades and decades and decades in the making.” Once internal demand is met, excess produce could be exported to Korea and Japan through the state’s ports. When I asked him how the project will avoid the pitfalls, literal and metaphorical, of Alaska’s bygone agricultural efforts, he said that, this time, the state will build lasting infrastructure that farmers need. “We’re going slow with the Nenana project,” he said.

On a buggy morning in June, a coalition of state agencies hosted an Agricultural Education Day on a gravel parking lot by the new Nenana River Bridge. Onlookers in jeans and flannel shirts milled about while Dunleavy gave a speech from an outdoor podium. Behind him, images of grain and tractors were printed on a banner with the words “PROMOTE,” “DEVELOP,” and “SUPPORT.”

Someone had brought a small pig. Eva Dawn Burk, who boycotted the event because she opposes the land sale, saw pictures of it later. “I was, like, ‘Whose pig is this?’ ” Burk, who is Dene Athabascan and a tribal member of the Nenana Native Village, told me. She was troubled by the idea of pork production, with its feeder crops, slaughterhouses, and pools of waste, in the place she calls home. “This sounds like the problem they’re having in the lower forty-eight,” she said.

As a child, Burk spent her summers ninety miles from the nearest village, at a fish camp on the Tanana River, a tributary of the Yukon. Her family sold their catch to local processing plants until the early nineties, when the fish stocks began to decline. She became an oil and gas engineer, but, after a change of heart, pursued a graduate degree in natural-resource management with a focus on sustainable agriculture and rural development. She told me that, because all of the state’s ecosystems are interconnected, botched attempts at local farming could reduce food security not only for Indigenous people but for all Alaskans. Local fish populations have already dropped so precipitously that, in 2021, the Department of Fish and Game banned all salmon fishing along the Yukon, including subsistence harvests. In Totchaket, she told me, Native people have traditionally hunted moose, beaver, and ducks; century-old traplines run along the proposed road. “That land is our grocery store,” she said.

Many Nenana residents have similar fears. “I’m particularly horrified by the idea of potentially opening large tracts of land up to industrial farming in a biologically fragile area with inadequate studies having been done,” one Nenana farmer told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in July. A local advocacy group, the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, has asked the Governor to delay the auction. “The main issue is that it’s being rushed and done poorly,” Margi Dashevsky, one of the group’s leaders, told me. Dashevsky pointed out that the auction does not offer preferential access to Alaskans, which could mean that locals could be outbid, and said the state has not outlined a process for identifying which tribal sites it will protect. (State officials said that Alaska’s law does not allow preferential access, and that the project’s planning stage involved extensive consultation with local tribal groups.) Dashevsky also worried that most Alaskans lack the time and money to develop the raw land—it still lacks electricity, running water, and road access—which could create an opening for industrial agriculture companies from outside of Alaska.

Perhaps the most glaring discrepancy in the plan is that a new survey of the region’s soil is not yet complete, meaning that potential farmers might not know the extent of permafrost, or how stable it will be in years to come. A recent paper in Nature Geoscience showed that many parts of Alaska’s interior are thawing: since 1999, the study found, new patches of ground that are unfrozen year-round have formed in twenty-four different places, and the pattern is expected to continue as the climate changes. But Johnson, with the Division of Agriculture, told me that government data from the early two-thousands found permafrost under less than one per cent of the lands currently available for sale. That’s not likely to have changed in the last twenty years, he argued. He described the data as “good enough” until the new study, which is scheduled to be released in September, identifies “exactly where that less than one per cent is.” Until then, he has advice for farmers who encounter permafrost on their land: “Don’t touch it.”

If Permafrost Grown is successful, its findings could help farmers salvage the growing number of fields that are marred by thawing permafrost. In June, Gannon visited Ice Wedge Art and Farm, outside Fairbanks, and planted neat rows of asparagus in a field which was so pitted that it had to be abandoned. Robins sang in the willows; the farmer’s children splashed in thermokarst ponds. She planned to return throughout several months to measure crop-survival rates. Despite a haze of smoke from record-breaking wildfires, the scene was “as idyllic as it gets,” Gannon told me. Experiments like hers could help determine whether lands lost to subsidence can be brought back to life.

The Alaskans I spoke to shared a handful of traits. They referred to the continental U.S. as the “lower forty-eight,” or simply “outside,” and assumed, perhaps rightly, that Outsiders know little about their far-flung state. They always mentioned whether they were born and raised in Alaska, and, if so, where: Fairbanks, fish camp, logging camp. I came to think of these references as a way of asserting that they are part of, and care deeply for, the land.

One thing that set my sources apart from one another was the way that they talked about Alaska’s size. The state is big enough to contain four Californias; Julie Sande, who serves in the Dunleavy administration as the commissioner of commerce, community, and economic development, described it as “overwhelming—and I come from this place.” Wrigley, the longtime barley farmer, noted that Alaska spans four different climatic zones. It is so big, the Governor pointed out, that Alaska had four time zones until 1983, when they merged into two. From this perspective, the Nenana-Totchaket area seems negligible. “This is a hundred and forty thousand acres,” Dunleavy said. “And we are a huge state.”

But locals did not describe the future farmland as a drop in the bucket—they described it as the water that they swim in. “That is not wasted land,” Dashevsky said. “That is the bedrock of our health and well-being.” Burk told me, “I can’t believe they don’t think we go out there and hunt moose.”

I asked Johnson why the Department of Natural Resources didn’t do more to encourage new farming in the Mat-Su Valley instead, where land that has already been developed is available for farming. But many farmers are less interested in land that is already settled and that may be more expensive, he said. “Everybody in America—in the world—wants to buy a virgin piece of Alaska land and start from scratch,” Johnson told me. “That’s just the dream they have.” That old dream seems to rest on the faulty notion that Alaska will never run low on resources. Today, a new dream may be needed.

Not all of the interest in the Nenana-Totchaket area is coming from outsiders. Burk is helping to lead an Indigenous effort to buy some of the land, which aims to empower Alaska Native residents to build a regenerative food system. “I knew we needed agriculture to adapt,” she told me. Burk has joined local Indigenous groups in establishing a network of tiny rural farms across the state, which she hopes can become a co-op. And she hopes to develop a business model for passive-solar greenhouses in villages across Alaska. Her inspiration comes from a greenhouse at Calypso Farm in Fairbanks, where seedlings sprout from raised beds that are warmed by the sun, and by water tanks that radiate heat at night.

On a sunny July morning, I called Susan Willsrud, the co-founder, with her husband, of Calypso Farm, and toured her almost comically lush fields via FaceTime. What makes Alaska different “is not our climate—it’s our communities,” Willsrud told me. Because villages are small and often spaced hundreds of miles apart, Willsrud said, large-scale agriculture—which requires storage, transportation, processing, and a great tolerance for risk—might not make sense here. She showed me a one-acre field and said that it feeds more than two hundred people. (The farm is thirty acres, but only three are used for growing.) Burk also uses the farm for a free, Indigenous agriculture training program, which teaches rural students how to start a garden.

Willsrud bounded down a terraced hill that was crowded with cruciferous greens and speckled with orange and red flowers. Leafy beanstalks brushed her shoulders. Cabbages, planted five weeks ago, looked as big as volleyballs. “Everything just booms here,” she said. “It’s our best-kept secret.”

As Willsrud introduced me to a geriatric goat named Ella, and then showed me a flower-dappled field that produces seeds for the next year’s harvests, I was struck by how intimately she knew her land. The original Alaskan dream, which positioned the state as an enormous well of resources, was not about intimacy with the earth; a farmer who tills thousands of acres is unlikely to remember the subtleties of each one. But, in a place where the slope of a field can mean the difference between fertile and frozen ground, where invisible melting ice can suck a thriving crop into a thermokarst crater, growers need to know every inch. Maybe the future of America’s largest state, I thought, will depend on its smallest farms. “We’re such an ideal place to be able to grow on a community scale,” Willsrud told me. “Most days, I’m hopeful.” 

This entry was posted on Friday, September 2nd, 2022 at 8:30 am and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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About This Blog And Its Author
Seeds Of A Revolution is committed to defining the disruptive geopolitics of the global Farms Race.  Due to the convergence of a growing world population, increased water scarcity, and a decrease in arable land & nutrient-rich soil, a spike of international investment interest in agricultural is inevitable and apt to bring a heretofore domestic industry into a truly global realm.  Whether this transition involves global land leases or acquisitions, the fundamental need for food & the protectionist feelings this need can give rise to is highly likely to cause such transactions to move quickly into the geopolitical realm.  It is this disruptive change, and the potential for a global farms race, that Seeds Of A Revolution tracks, analyzes, and forecasts.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has long held a keen interest in natural resource policy and the geopolitical implications of anticipated stresses in the areas of freshwater scarcity, biodiversity reserves & parks, and farm land.  Monty has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries spanning Africa, China, western Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast & Central Asia, and his personal interests comprise economic development, policy, investment, technology, natural resources, and the environment, with a particular focus on globalization’s impact upon these subject areas.  Monty writes about freshwater scarcity issues at and frontier investment markets at