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Harvesting Alaska: Something’s hatching in Old Harbor

By Rhonda McBride Photojournalist: Will Mader - 12:07 PM April 17, 2017

Old Harbor hugs rugged mountains on the southeast side of Kodiak Island, home to about 200 people who think of themselves as farmers of the sea, not the land.

But that’s about to change.

The tribal government recently built a chicken coop on a hillside, which staffers regularly check for fresh eggs.

“We’re getting about 40 eggs a day right now,” says Bobbi Barnowsky, the tribal administrator. “We’re looking to supplement our subsistence way of life.”

Barnowsky says not all of the tribe’s ventures are profitable right now, but she believes it’s much healthier for the community to grow more of its own food than import it from Outside.

Most people in Old Harbor depend on seal meat, sea lion, fish, deer meat and other wild foods to survive, but they also buy groceries from the store, which can be expensive and full of sugar and salt.

A box of cereal at the tribal store can cost more than $10, due to the extra cost of airfreight. Just like every small community on Kodiak Island, Old Harbor has no roads in or out — only scheduled airplane flights and occasional visits from a barge or ferry.

The clerk at the tribal store, Masha Larionoff, says the fresh eggs are popular, and that people say they’re good for baking cakes.

“They’re about $3.47 a dozen,” Larionoff said. “And when we order them from Kodiak, they’re $5 – 6 a dozen.”

Tribal members like Al Cratty say the locally grown eggs taste better because they’re fresher. He says he’s bought a lot of eggs in Kodiak over the years, and discovered upon the return flight that they were either frozen or broken.

The tribe has also prepared ground to grow produce. Old Harbor has very little in the way of soil, so the tribe has brought truckloads of seaweed to a plot of land next to the chicken house, where there’s a frame for a hoop garden.

Once the rain and snow have washed the salt away, and the weather has decomposed the algae enough to create a bed of soil, the outdoor greenhouse will be covered with plastic to prolong the growing season. Elders say they’ve used seaweed before to grow crops that thrive, especially when combined with fish wastes.

Aside from growing food, the tribe hopes to create jobs for people like Steve Inga, who gathers eggs and tends the chickens. He’s glad to work close to home. In the past, he’s had to leave his family to find work outside of the community, because there are few regular jobs in Old Harbor — except during fishing season.

The tribe is not the only group in the community experimenting with agriculture. The Old Harbor Native Corporation plans to barge in a herd of buffalo sometime this month. They’ll be set free to graze on Sitkalidak Island, right across from Old Harbor. They will supply meat to locals, but may eventually attract sports hunters, who come to the Old Harbor to shoot bears and other big game.

The Old Harbor chicken and garden projects are part of a three-year federal program under the Administration for Native Americans. Three other Kodiak Island communities — Larsen Bay, Ouzinkie and Port Lions — are also involved. The projects will be tracked to develop a long term business plan for each village.

Harvesting Alaska is a featured series exploring all the ways Alaskans live off the land — from growing and foraging to fishing and crafting. Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include information about other communities on Kodiak Island experimenting with agriculture. 

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