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Harvesting Alaska: High tunnels protect environment, spur sustainability in the Last Frontier

By Gina Romero 7:00 AM June 16, 2016

Kathryn Fritz came to Alaska from Oregon on contract as a speech and language therapist. She made a commitment to stay after meeting her husband. There was one catch.

She needed fresh produce.

“If I can’t find a way to grow things, I don’t want to live here,” she said.

Produce in Alaska is much different than what Fritz experienced in the Willamette Valley. Difficult growing conditions combined with a shorter season forces residents to rely on outside sources for produce. Costs are high and quality is often low.

[RELATED: Harvesting Alaska: Eating like we want to]

Still, there are stories of Alaskans growing fresh cantaloupe, cherries, artichokes, tomatoes, corn, green beans and cucumbers — all because of the mighty high tunnel.

A high tunnel, also known as a hoop house, is different from a greenhouse in that it is an unheated structure where plants grow directly in the soil. Nationally, they’ve been known to improve productivity of farms during shoulder months. For Alaska, those extra growing months are an important part of maintaining food security.

“Local food is healthier,” said Molly Voeller, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “It doesn’t lose its nutrients in transport. We aren’t paying for transportation, it brings more variety.”

High tunnels are a hot item in Alaska. The idea of being able to produce fresh, local food is catching on in several communities throughout the state.

[RELATED: What does it take to garden in the Arctic?]

Hoop houses are popping up in urban neighborhoods throughout Southcentral with a heavy concentration in Kenai and Homer. In fact, Voeller said there are more high tunnels per people in Homer than anyplace else in the United States.

“Homer is the high tunnel capital of America,” Voeller said.

Incentive to conserve

Increased interest partly stems from a U.S. Department of Agriculture incentive program to promote conservation while providing whole food to the community. The Environmental Quality Incentive Program in Alaska, also known as EQIP, is administered by the NRCS.

The program provides financial and technical assistance to help landowners improve natural resources. Kathryn Fritz and her husband are in their second season of growing in their NRCS high tunnel. Additionally, the couple was able to have experts analyze their soil and get recommendations on how to fertilize correctly to prevent pollution of Cottonwood Creek.

Participants are able to take various conservation measures, allowing them to play a role in protecting the environment while enjoying quality, local produce.

Interior of Kathryn Fritz's high tunnel in Wasilla. They grow in boxes and so everything grows up.

Interior of Kathryn Fritz’s high tunnel in Wasilla. They grow in boxes and some things grow as tall as the ceiling.

“It’s been very exciting. Last summer, we ate fresh cantaloupe every morning,” Fritz said. “It was so delicious.”

Since 2010, NRCS has helped install nearly 850 high tunnels in Alaska.

Rob Brown, an Anchorage horticulturist, is in the first year of growing in his NRCS hoop house. He is growing a variety of things including Yukon Chief sweet corn, watermelons, bush pickles and heirloom chilies from Rwanda. Brown hopes his family can eventually produce enough to live solely off of Alaska grown food for one year.

“I don’t trust anybody as much as I trust myself and I know what’s going into these foods that we’re growing,” he said. “It brings us together as a family, it’s something to do as a family and get excited about.”

How the program works

The process to apply for the federal program is involved. First, applicants are taken continuously but are ranked for funding in batches. Those who submit by the next deadline on Sept. 1 will be considered in February 2017, pending funding from Congress and the USDA.

Then, applicants must prove eligibility. Applications are ranked on how their high tunnel system will meet the program goal of addressing resource issues. Highest-ranked applications are funded first. So far, NRCS has obligated $1.6 million in fiscal year 2016 for 146 contracts specific to high tunnels. Eleven applications are still pending, Voeller said.

Finally, after approval, applicants enter into a contract and are required to maintain the high tunnel for four years. Landowners are responsible for purchasing materials and construction. NRCS will issue a reimbursement after an inspection assures they meet program guidelines.

Voeller noted people who want to use a high tunnel to grow marijuana are not eligible for the program.

Fritz and her husband ordered their 30-by-48-foot high tunnel from a company in Oregon. Cost, with shipping to Wasilla, was around $10,000. A majority of the costs were reimbursed, Fritz said.

Reimbursement through NRCS ranges because it is based on many factors including whether applicants are historically underserved and if they live off the road. There are no size limitations on the high tunnel, however, the payment cap through the program is $16,700, Voeller said.

Voeller emphasized the program is geared toward addressing resource issues through high tunnels. The idea of helping the environment in exchange for fresh, local produce is growing on more and more Alaskans, like Fritz and her husband.

“There was corn hitting the ceiling last year,” she said.

During their first season, the couple harvested a healthy bounty of spaghetti squash, tomatoes, green peppers and green beans.

Gina Romero is the executive producer of KTVA’s Frontiers, a weekly public affairs program about the faces and places of Alaska. She’s lived throughout Alaska, including Bethel, Aniak and Talkeetna. She can be reached by email.

Harvesting Alaska is an ongoing series exploring all the ways Alaskans live off the land. Our next installment airs Sunday, June 19 on KTVA Channel 11 at 10 p.m. Photojournalist Carolyn Hall will profile how a farm in Palmer is nourishing people in Anchorage.

[Read more: Harvesting Alaska: How to make the most of early season veggies]

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