The surreal abundance of Alaska’s permafrost farms
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 regularly experiences winter temperatures below minus ten degrees Fahrenheit.” In summer, however, the sun shines twenty-one hours a day and the weather resembles that of San Francisco.Heavy cabbages and carrots thrive in the ground, while tougher tomatoes and cucumbers thrive in greenhouses.
The main challenge of 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, called ice lenses, melt and engulf the surrounding land in a process called subsidence. They tend to expand each year and sometimes merge with other nearby pits; they can be filled in, but farmers often run out of soil, so the pits become ponds. Sometimes holes hide under frills of kale or in the shade of tart cherry trees, or threaten to swallow Brad’s tractor. “All of a sudden, you have to stop,” he said. “There is no grass. There is only one hole.
The St. Pierres eventually leased seventy-five acres and named it Goosefoot Farm. He now grows everything “from arugula to zucchini,” Brad told me, which helps the farm stay nimble through tough times and replenish nutrients in the soil. He also runs the bi-weekly Tanana Valley Farmers’ Market, which runs May through September and is packed with produce, flowers and honey from an area of Alaska as vast as Indiana. The farm is thriving, although 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 down,” he said.
Interior Alaska, a stretch of forests and wetlands surrounded by mountains that includes the Tanana Valley and is larger than the state of Montana, is part of the “climate-driven agricultural frontier,” a term invented by scientists, in 2020, to describe the places that will become suitable for staple crops in the next forty to sixty years. Fifty to ninety percent of Alaska’s interior has permafrost underneath, meaning the ground has been frozen for at least two consecutive years. But the permafrost is uneven enough to call the region a “discontinuous” zone, and it’s on the move: Polar regions are warming faster than the rest of the planet, and Alaskan lands contain many microclimates. North-facing slopes, for example, are colder, while hollows retain more heat. When farmers and developers clear-cut surface vegetation, the permafrost thaws even faster. Some farms are surrounded by “drunken forests,” or trees that crumble when the ground gives way.
In much of Alaska, as well as parts of Russia and Canada, where ice-rich permafrost is abundant, subsidence is the “No. 1 agriculture-related problem we know,” Melissa Ward Jones, a geomorphologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, or UAF, told me He 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 earlier appears as hilly as the Shire.The ice in the permafrost beneath these farms, Ward Jones said, was likely a vast network underground, or a “cobweb,” of polygonal formations called 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 agriculture and permafrost interact and to establish best practices for farmers with permafrost beneath their fields. Titled Permafrost Grown, it is funded by three million dollars from a young National Science Foundation initiative called Navigating the New Arctic. Northern farmers will need to know how to farm well on the land, instead of just piloting it, argued Ward Jones and his colleagues in a recent comment. “We have this history of permafrost farming, but a lot of people are just doing experimental things,” she told me. “There hasn’t been dedicated research that has actively tried to understand this system.”
With its cheap land, fertile soil, few pests other than hungry moose, and a growing season extended by global warming, Alaska is becoming increasingly attractive to a younger generation of growers looking to start small farms. . Between 2012 and 2017, the number of farms under nine acres jumped 73% statewide. (In contrast, the average American farm is now four hundred and forty-five acres, and the total number of farms in the United States is declining.) Most Alaskans agree that the state, which imports nearly all of its goods and often experiences shortages, should develop local agriculture to improve food security. For this reason, even local environmental activists are not outright opposed to new farms, despite their potential danger to the environment. Some Alaska Natives fear further encroachment on their traditional hunting and fishing grounds, but the decline of wild plants and animals has made agriculture a necessary addition to subsistence diets.
Farms are likely to further outpace the polar regions of the world in years to come. On June 1, the state Department of Natural Resources launched the first phase of the Nenana-Totchaket agricultural project by opening a tender for twenty-seven parcels of land located in a boreal forest about sixty miles south- west of Fairbanks, and ranging from about twenty acres to three hundred. (Bidding ends October 4.) Over the next thirty years, state officials plan to gradually open up more than one hundred thousand acres between the Nenana River and the Kantishna Zigzag for agriculture. Bidders are warned that the plots are not guaranteed: “It is up to you to inspect the land and to be familiar with its condition”.
Despite its reputation for ice and snow, Alaska has been cultivated for hundreds of years. Members of the Nenana Native Village traditionally used controlled burns to stimulate new growth of wild plants, which in turn attracted moose and beavers. Along the coast, the Tlingit and Haida grew potatoes. The Russians who settled in Sitka in the early 19th century tended gardens of cabbage, turnips, and other potatoes. Then came Americans dreaming of “the last frontier” – a maxim now imprinted on Alaskan license plates – who colonized the territory at the expense of local indigenous communities.
In the 1890s, a Presbyterian missionary turned federal civil servant named Sheldon Jackson became something of a lobbyist for Alaska’s agricultural potential. Whaling and sealing had decimated the species Alaska Natives relied on for food; Jackson promoted reindeer herding to take their place. Forty years later, the New Deal moved two hundred struggling Midwestern families to the Matanuska-Susitna, or Mat-Su, Valley of south-central Alaska to establish an agricultural colony. Potatoes and dairy cows did well for a time, but many farms collapsed in the face of harsh winters and competition from affordable imports. According to anthropologists Philip Loring and S. Craig Gerlach, the state’s agrarian dream persisted because agriculture was “generally seen as necessary to ‘make Alaska American’.” ”
Subsequent state agricultural projects do not inspire confidence. In the late 1970s, Alaska attempted to revive the dairy, grain, and red meat industries with the notorious Delta Barley Project, an attempt to convert sixty thousand acres of forest in Delta Junction, an area southeast of Fairbanks, on huge farms which averaged over a thousand acres. A public relations campaign inspired a new migration north. “People basically had to clear those 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 food systems, told me. durable at the UAF. The bison also trampled and ate in the crop. Although barley grew reasonably well, world prices quickly crashed and the state never completed the infrastructure it had promised. In total, the project cost the state one hundred and twenty million dollars. Many Alaskans I spoke to called it a “mess-up.”
There is still Delta barley in interior Alaska. On a rainy day in June, Bryce Wrigley gave me a scenic tour of his seventeen hundred acres via Zoom. Wide rows of green gave way to tall forests, the towering peaks of the Alaska Range, and marble-colored skies. 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 was lucky: Beneath his farm there was no permafrost to turn his land into cottage cheese. “These things are happening further north,” he said.