Pickles from Space: Extending Alaska’s Food Independence
The tower garden is an experiment in companion planting to see if certain combinations can increase plant size, harvest amount, and flavor. The experiment also tests blue versus red/blue lighting spectra.
Flavorless tomatoes are the price of living in the great land. Alaskans are accustomed to fruits and veggies bred less for taste than for ruggedness to be shipped without bruising. Foods produced locally make up about 5 percent of the average Alaskan’s diet, and efforts to expand that share (beyond one meal per week) are drawing on resources from medicine, mental health, and even outer space.
Farming Like Astronauts
“NASA’s deep space exploration missions are so in tune with our Arctic climate… that we specifically have a unique understanding of what it’s like to live on a future lunar surface colony or on Mars,” says Lorrie Irwin, founder of the Space Farming Institute in Anchorage. The organization is based on the premise that techniques developed for the Final Frontier apply just as well to the Last Frontier, and vice versa.
“I believe we should be NASA’s testing ground,” Irwin said last week at the Alaska Food Festival and Conference, hosted by the Alaska Food Policy Council in Homer.
At the institute’s “living lab” in Midtown Anchorage, Irwin has already been testing different lighting, soil, and water conditions on a variety of plants, often with the help of school-aged kids. The “Starting from Scratch” partnership with the Anchorage School District teaches 4th through 8th graders how to grow food in tower gardens. Another group cultivated radishes like astronauts would, in cooperation with Fairchild Botanical Gardens in Florida, which obtained a NASA grant for the project. The kids are presenting their findings to NASA in April.
Irwin is also experimenting with different microgreens to see which types grow better in combination. Microgreens are a stage of growth, the second leaves after germination, which Irwin says have forty times the nutrition of later-stage leaves. The kitchens at Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC) are taking advantage of the nutritional bonus through the Food Is Medicine partnership with the institute.
ANMC Executive Chef Amy Foote mixes microgreens into salads and fish dishes, “healing our patients one meal at a time,” as she puts it. Her kitchen has become part of the care team, as ANMC dieticians find ways to integrate yarrow, fireweed, sorrel, and other indigenous plants the Space Farming Institute raises.
“The rest of the world is trying to kill all the dandelions,” says Foote, “and I’m begging the space farm to grow dandelions so I can feed them to patients.”
Fresh greens provide more dietary fiber and displace refined foods, Foote adds. She notes that fireweed grown indoors can bloom in January, which brightens up a patient’s day.
Double the Growing Season
The Space Farming Institute in Anchorage tests how different plants react to different wavelengths of light.
An extended growing season need not depend on space-age technology. Repurposed bricks and corrugated culverts can do the job, too.
Art Nash, a statewide energy specialist with the UAF Cooperative Extension, explained at a conference panel that heat applied to soil stimulates young roots early in the season. This can be done with warm-water irrigation or water circulating through the soil. Another simple method is to build the flue of a stove underneath the soil, surrounded by a layer of brick or stone that absorbs the heat and releases it slowly.
Later in the season, heating the air helps mature plants add mass. Nash described a space heater made of a simple box faced with an aluminum panel. He saw a demonstration in South Dakota where, on a hot day, the box reached 200°F within fifteen minutes. Another method uses a $2 computer fan to blow air from the peak of a three-season greenhouse down into benches packed with bricks.
“If we can double the season for growing vegetables, we feel that can go a long way,” Nash says.
Heat becomes the enemy of veggies once they are harvested. Nash’s colleague Darren Snyder explained the importance of bringing cold air into a root cellar. Ventilation also removes ethylene, a gas plants produce as they ripen but which leads to spoilage if it builds up.
Saving for the Future
A plantain is tested for hydration, lighting requirements, and planting medium. Baseline measurements are intended to lead to soilless growing methods.
Another way to preserve a garden’s bounty is with some salt, water, and lactobacillus. The same bacteria that give yogurt, cheese, and sourdough bread their tangy flavors also ferments vegetables, as Alaska Seeds of Change has learned over the last couple of years.
Alaska Seeds of Change is a program of Alaska Behavioral Health to teach vocational skills to youth ages sixteen to twenty-three. Since 2016, its indoor hydroponic farm has been cranking out kale, jalapenos, garlic, dill, and other goodies from May to December. To preserve produce for the off season, two years ago the program acquired Evie’s Brinery from its founder, Evie Witten.
At the time, Drake King didn’t know anything about fermentation, but now he’s head chef and production manager. He says the last two years have been interesting, as he learned how to make Evie’s established products— kimchi, sauerkraut, and ginger citrus carrots—which are sold at Natural Pantry and New Sagaya.
King and his sous chef, Faith Beaty, have also experimented with combinations of carrot, Thai chili, and lime; kohlrabi, mint, and fennel; and cardamom with beets. Beaty is also developing a pumpkin spice kimchi. King told the conference that the brinery would like to expand its products to include kelp, cheese, pickles, and fermented soda.
The production line is staffed with youth apprentices referred from Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Nine Star, as well as culinary students from SAVE and King Tech high schools. King says the program enabled up to forty youth to acquire their food handler certificates last year.
Apprenticeships are also part of Irwin’s vision for the Space Farming Institute, as a way for young people to carry what they learn back to their neighborhoods and hometowns. Those lessons include not just techniques for growing plants but an understanding of where their food comes from. And, of course, an appreciation for the taste of fresh produce.
“It’s really funny,” Irwin says. “In the classrooms, when kids taste food that actually has flavor—because it’s fresh, right—their eyes get real wide and their mouths get puckered sometimes, and they are just, ‘What is that? Why does it taste like that?’ It’s their first introduction to true flavor.”
Yummy tomatoes are a fringe benefit. The larger goal is to end Alaska’s dependency on 95 percent imported food. Whether the solution comes from astronaut spinoffs or Cooperative Extension garden hacks, the state gains a resilient food supply, possibly without the added cost of transport.
Furthermore, Irwin adds, “It’s not just technology in the fact that we’re able to do this now year-round for the first time in Alaska, which is just huge. We’re also looking at what sustainable agriculture means so we’re not having a bad impact on the environment.”
To that end, the Space Farming Institute aims to eliminate plastic from its set-up. Doing so requires inventing new materials, possibly derived from Alaska-grown hemp.
“It’s a way that we’re going to change what we eat and how we grow our food year-round,” Irwin says. “It’s going to be such an exciting time.”