It’s been a month since the first locally-grown leafy greens hit the shelves at Kotzebue’s Alaska Commercial store.
When the heads of lettuce appeared, local residents had high hopes for the certified Alaska Grown produce and the stakeholders behind the hydroponics pilot project had their sights set on building the foundation for a long-term endeavor.
“It’s a sustainable operation,” said Jeffrey Hicks, chief operating officer of Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corp., which spearheaded the project. “We want to expand. This cycle is meant for production.”
Planting the seed
The story of how a hydroponics operation came to Kotzebue began last fall at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage.
Hicks was there representing the corporation and he happened upon a series of presentations by a relatively new Anchorage-based company called Vertical Harvest Hydroponics.
The presenters extolled the virtues of hydroponics, or a method of growing plants in a liquid, gravel, or sand environment, without soil.
Vertical Harvest manufactures large shipping containers designed specifically to contain hydroponic grow operations that Hicks thought his corporation might be interested in.
Back in Kotzebue last October, corporation representatives set up meetings with the local AC store to investigate the potential for selling locally-grown produce. By March of this year, the corporation’s board of directors had approved the acquisition of a growing unit, though Hicks declined to specify the cost.
After a few months of construction, it arrived on a C-130 on May 21. The first planting happened a week later and the first crop was ready for harvest at the end of June.
“I just saw, last night, an example of romaine lettuce you would just not even believe,” said Hicks. “We’re using one-gallon Ziplock bags to put them in. This thing would be lucky to fit in a two-and-a-half-gallon bag. The plants are coming along very well.”
So far, the dozens of varieties of leafy greens, from kale to mustard to chives, lettuce, and basil, have been warmly welcomed into the community.
With a roughly six-week seed-to-harvest turnaround, more than one crop has already made its way out of the store and into local residents’ kitchens.
The process of growing the greens is fairly direct:
“We take a seed and we put it in a product called rockwool,” which is a mixture of basalt and chalk and is a medium for the seed to soak up nutrient-rich water, explained Hicks. “You put [the seeds] in the nursery and they germinate. They stay in that system for two to three weeks depending on how long the germination cycle is.”
Lettuces take about two weeks while many herbs take up to three weeks.
“They’ll be about two to three inches tall at that point,” he said. “Every Wednesday we take plants out of the nursery and transplant them into the growing room and that’s where they’ll be until they are harvested,” which is typically about a month later.
Now that the cycle has run its course a few times, it’s found its rhythm. On Tuesdays, employees harvest the plants, bag them, and drive them around the corner to the AC store.
By Wednesday morning they are on the shelves, said Hicks, a mere 12 hours after they are harvested.
“It’s a safe and secure method. We are not in soil. We are in a contained environment. We control that environment. There are no bugs. There are no pesticides,” he said. “If it’s in the middle of the winter and it’s icy and the wind’s blowing, we don’t have to depend on the airplane landing for us to get vegetables. In that way, it’s a more safe and secure source of nourishment.”
Seeds of change
Finding a way to bring good fruits and veggies to remote northern villages was the impetus behind the creation of Vertical Harvest two years ago.
Dan Perpich, one of the company’s three co-founders, used to be in the military. He first came to Alaska in 2008 and by 2011 had become a training officer. That year, he traveled to Canada as an advisor for their Arctic training program.
“I went up to a small village in northern Canada called Resolute,” said Perpich. “About 130 people live there. I went into the supermarket and saw a head of lettuce that was about the size of my fist and dark brown and cost about $18. [I talked] to people and said, ‘Do you actually buy that?’ And they said, ‘That’s just what it looks like up here.’ It’s really shocking to see it like that.”
He returned to Alaska and found similar produce situations in villages throughout the Interior.
At a party two years ago, he met up with a horticulturist and the two decided to pair up and devise a way to help alleviate the fresh greens problem in rural Alaska. They teamed up with a third partner who has a background in sales and marketing and Vertical Harvest was born.
“You kind of need a mix like that to grow a business because you can’t just have a good technology and you can’t just have numbers, you have to bring it all together,” Perpich said. “I can safely say that no one person can do this alone — it’s got to be a team effort.”
They began designing growing boxes like the one being used in Kotzebue. So far, they’ve developed a box specifically for leafy greens and they’re working on making one that can handle plants like strawberries and cherry tomatoes, though that design isn’t finished yet.
There are many variables that have to be considered when constructing a hydroponic growth chamber from a complex electrical system to an air circulation and ventilation system.
“We’re trying to maximize plants per cubic foot but at the same time, we have to account for the end marketing of the product,” Perpich explained. “For example, if we’re going to put produce into the supermarket, we need more growing space for the plants with fewer plants per cubic foot because the plants need to be larger.”
People buying produce in a store will gravitate toward the larger, heavier vegetables whereas restaurants buying produce will focus on color and overall quality, not size.
“So, that right there is a huge difference — something seemingly small but massively important,” he said.
The design process is constantly being evaluated and tested and improved, he said, and the company is always looking for ways to add value to the final product and reduce overhead.
“Because in the end, what the customer cares about is how much money they’re making and how much it’s costing them,” he said.
The root of the problem
Bringing fresh produce to the Arctic has posed a challenge since markets first made an appearance here.
That’s why, when the corporation approached the AC store proposing locally-sourced veggies, the company’s interest was piqued.
“For us as a corporation and looking at our business model, there’s a lot of positives regarding the dependability and the quality [of local produce],” said Walter Pickett, general manager of the Alaska Commercial Company. “It’s very difficult at times to get fresh product into a market as isolated and remote as Kotzebue. You’re basically taking a lot of the risk out by buying locally.”
The risk comes from the often long and arduous trek from farm to store the food must make.
“For example, if we’re selling stone fruit, peaches or nectarines, we’re getting that product primarily from South America. That product is being shipped from South America to Seattle and then from Seattle it gets put on a ship to Anchorage and then from Anchorage to the market it gets flown,” explained Pickett.
“Then, the piece that is outside our control is the time it takes in the air. If there’s ice fog in Kotzebue, it might have to stay a day or two in Anchorage before it flies. If there are challenges with rough weather on the ocean or if there are mechanical problems, you have to wait. We have our best case from time of order to time of delivery but we really don’t have any control over when it was picked in the field or which field it was picked in or any delays associated with getting it into the market on either the water leg or the air leg,” he said. “All of that, of course, goes away when we’re able to gather it locally.”
The risk of damage to the produce increases the longer it’s in transit. If it’s arriving in winter, just a brief encounter with 40 below temperatures are enough to ruin a batch of lettuce. Likewise, on warm summer days, a delay on a hot tarmac could mean greens arrive wilted and rusted.
“A lot of times we end up throwing product away and, of course, we incur that cost when it happens,” he said. “We let down our customers because they come in to buy a head of lettuce or fresh spinach greens and we don’t have any because it didn’t arrive at the store in sellable condition.”
This is the first time AC has partnered with a locally-run hydroponics operation to provide produce year-round. In Bethel, AC contracts with Meyers Farm for root veggies like potatoes and carrots, but as that is a seasonally-dependent farm, it can’t provide leafy greens in the winter months.
Pickett hopes this partnership in Kotzebue will open the doors for similar relationships around the state in the future.
“We’re paying close attention to the model,” he said. “Hopefully this will set a precedent for other communities and other remote markets like Barrow or Nome, or smaller markets like Unalakleet or Hooper Bay. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the community of Kotzebue and the business leaders there with the determination to see this through.”
Likewise, Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corp. plans to expand its distribution into the surrounding villages, if this pilot project continues successfully.
“That’s why we did the pilot the way we did it,” said KIC’s Jeff Hicks. “We felt very comfortable knowing that we can expand in a very meaningful way in a relatively short period of time to different villages both with AC stores and without. That’s the whole purpose for how we went about approaching this project.”
As for the people behind the technical side of hydroponics, Vertical Harvest’s Dan Perpich said his company’s vision is to see these modular growing systems go into every community in the north.
“We think there’s a huge impact to be had here to food security and we want to be a part of it,” he said. “I think what excites us most with the deal up in Kotzebue is that’s a direct channel to recognize the vision. I think it’s so cool what we’re doing up there. They’re doing a phenomenal job and they’ve been putting food into the stores and on the shelves and that’s saying to me, hey, we can do this.”