Alaskan Growers School Story

Alaskan Growers School which is funded by the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Dev

Yvonne Baker is an Alaska Native who lives in the remote Alaskan community of Yakutat. In 2011, Yvonne participated in the very first Alaskan Growers School which is funded by the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program. The goal of this course is to teach the knowledge and skills necessary to grow enough food for your own family and ten other families, as well as to successfully raise livestock, bees, and start a small business or farm for profit. Because the course was offered using a variety of distance delivery methods, Yvonne was able to join other students from across the state using a program called elluminate Live or eLive. This program allows the instructor to click through a PowerPoint and talk over the Internet while students have the opportunity to chat online and ask questions.

Yvonne completed the ten lesson Beginning Alaskan Growers School in June 2011 and the twelve lesson Advanced Alaskan Growers School in December 2011. During this time she was able to get hands on experience in the greenhouse. She took the Alaskan Growers School course so that she could learn more about what it takes to garden. After completing the course she said, “I am just a beginning gardener, so my knowledge was very minimal. After this course I feel like I have the confidence needed move forward with the community garden as well as my garden at home.” Soil testing has been an important lesson for her. Yvonne explained “My only experience was house plants and that was just using potting soil, learning how to get my soil to grow the fruits and vegetables was a big thing to me.” She said another key lesson for her was “Learning what can actually grow here …and what we can’t grow,” in Alaska’s cold, wet soil. Yvonne said she was able to look through the lessons and her notes to see what she might be doing wrong when she encountered problems and what she could do to make it better. In addition to the knowledge and skills Yvonne has gained via eLive, she will also have a chance to experience farming in the summer of 2012 through a five day experiential learning course at Calypso Farm & Ecology Center located in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Yakutat, which is translated as “the place where the canoes rest”, has a population of less than 700 and is inaccessible by road which makes fresh food expensive. Yvonne has a big family and the rising cost of produce in the villages started her on the road to creating a community farm. Yvonne plans to grow food for her own family of eight and for ten other families in her community with their cooperation. Sharing food is a tradition practiced by Alaska Native cultures and that’s why the goal of the Alaskan Growers School is not only to help for-profit farmers, but also to help non-profit farmers. “I thought that if we could get people to garden within the community, then that cost would be brought down,” Yvonne said. Yvonne examined the cost of living using information from AmeriCorps, the agency she works for. “One of the big ones is just buying food,” she stated. Yvonne hopes to show the community that by freezing, canning or storing community grown food in a root cellar that they can cut costs and improve their budget.

Yvonne has put a great deal of work into the community and the response has been very positive. “We wanted to have an area in the middle of town where we could showcase how easy it is to get started,” Yvonne said. The first year the tribal office gave them the spot for the greenhouse; given community interest Yvonne went back and asked if they could expand the site. The request was granted and they were given an area in the center of town 100 feet wide and about 600 feet long. “They [the tribal office] would like to see it used this way as a community effort instead of turning it over to just one person. It’s a pretty prime spot because it’s in the center of town, and it’s got an ocean view. The other side of it is making sure we have a little bit more shelter for our plants next year because they get pretty beat up from the wind coming off the water,” Yvonne said. 

Members of her community helped build a greenhouse out of a portable carport covered with clear Visqueen in the summer of 2011. It was a trial run to see what supplies they lacked, how much space they needed and what other things they might want to add to the garden in the future. In the greenhouse, they grew eggplants, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, cabbage, lettuce and rutabagas. “The cold weather crops did better, the rutabagas got huge!” Yvonne said. Their cabbages had a late start, but the children that helped out with them were still able to see the head of the cabbage form. “It was really exciting for all our kids that were involved from the point of planting all the seeds and they helped transplant them over to the greenhouse,” Yvonne said.

The growers face some natural challenges. “We got a crazy wind storm. It knocked out our satellite and our telephones, it was huge,” Yvonne said. “Our greenhouse was a casualty there.” It wasn’t a complete disaster; they will salvage the pieces to make row covers for next year and they plan on looking for a grant to build a more permanent greenhouse. Two years ago the village had so much rain that gardens in the community were rotting due to over saturated soil. “We get a lot of rain,” Yvonne said, “It’s pretty heavy rain. We kinda have to look into things like greenhouses and hoop houses to garden with.” The short growing season is another pitfall to be watched for in Alaska. The greenhouse had some wonderful looking eggplants that were flowering and growing very well, but before they fully ripened the weather turned cold very quickly. “Once we hit a point in August it goes from warm to cold in an instant. …even in the greenhouse it wasn’t staying warm enough for plants to grow,” Yvonne said.
Ten other families and people within the tribe are planning to help out next summer. “We are hoping for that number to grow each year,” Yvonne said. They plan on growing the community farm by building and planting more each year and by making it more accessible and inviting to the community. “There is a really big ditch between the street and the greenhouse area, so we want to make a nice fun walkway there to try and encourage people to come over,” Yvonne said. The people from the community that came late in the season to see the greenhouse were really interested in the garden and wanted to know if they could plant their own vegetables next year.

In addition to growing a garden, Yvonne hopes to start a mini livestock area for the community. “We really want to get kids involved. We wanted to be able to have some chickens and some goats and a nice little mini farm area that we could use as education for the kids to get them more involved with the gardening,” Yvonne said. She has plans to convert a doghouse into a chicken coop with a run next summer. Another goal is to get the school involved with their own school garden. “I’ve seen other programs where schools are able to integrate that [into their curriculum] and get fresh vegetables right from their school garden,” Yvonne said.

The Alaskan Growers School project was supported by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2010-49400-21719. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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