Arctic Greens sets example for northern hydroponics – The Arctic Sounder

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.”

Homegrown solutions

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.”

View the original article here

Arizona botanist hopes for Arctic hydroponics – The Arctic Sounder

Phil Sadler tries to grow food on the moon.

He started in Antarctica, made his way to Mars, and now has his sights set on Arctic Alaska, specifically Nuiqsut.

“I missed plants when I was down in Antarctica. I knew there was a need for it,” he said. “Honestly, I’m very interested in space, too. I enjoy doing this sort of stuff.”

Sadler has a degree in botany from Northern Arizona University. After he graduated, he got a job working for the contractor to the National Science Foundation in Antarctica. He spent 13 seasons as a heavy equipment operator there and in his off-time, he built greenhouses.

“Ever since mankind’s been going to Antarctica, they always bring seeds with them. There’s been people before me trying to grow crops. People like to have plants around so they try to grow them,” he said.

What he did differently from his predecessors was navigate the bureaucratic twists and turns to make it happen.

“It wasn’t the environment, it was the politics,” he said. “That was the hardest part.”

With a record low of 118 degrees Fahrenheit below zero at the South Pole station, he put that greenhouse inside the existing structure as a growth chamber.

At McMurdo station, he cobbled together a separate building and repurposed double-paned window material for a glasshouse.

“During the wintertime, they’re isolated for six months in McMurdo with no flights in and no fresh produce, so it generated salads and stuff for the crew there. Out at the South Pole, they’re isolated for eight-and-a-half months and so they run through their stored fresh produce really quickly and then they have nothing,” he explained.

The desire for fresh fruits and veggies was high and his work paid off. The houses were successful. The foundation eventually constructed a new South Pole station and wanted another greenhouse to go with it. Sadler, who had moved back to Arizona by that time, worked on the proposal.

Since then, he’s been working on contracts for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for lunar and Martian greenhouses, which would help support long-term space travel and habitation efforts.

His introduction to the opposite pole was in Greenland and Canada, working on the Distant Early Warning, or DEW, Line.

“I used to go into the Hudson Bay store and see what they had available for the local residents and it was pathetic,” he recalled. “That’s what sort of gave me the idea that we should do something in the Arctic.”

It’s a familiar story across the North Slope. There’s rarely good produce, especially in the winter. What fruits and vegetables are available have often traveled thousands of miles and are damaged, under- or over-ripe, frostbitten, smashed, or have melded into a solid block of ice by the time they arrive.

“The fresh produce would be the No. 1 thing,” said Bud Washburn, who works at the hotel in Nuiqsut and hopes Sadler’s greenhouse idea will become reality in his village.

“Working here at the hotel, we have a restaurant and we support all the ice road crews in the winter and getting the produce is a challenge. It’s so expensive,” he explained. “It costs more to ship it up here than it does to buy it. You pick it up at the airport in 50 below weather. For a big head of lettuce, by the time they get it back to the hotel and peel off everything that got frozen, it’s the size of a baseball.”

That lack of dependable fresh food is what the Arctic, the Antarctic, the moon, Mars, and space, in general, have in common.

“It’s a food desert. This is a term that’s making its way through the horticultural community,” said Sadler. “A food desert is a geographical area where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain and I think that fits the Arctic very well.”

There are already efforts underway to develop dependable greenhouses and growing operations on the North Slope and in the Northwest Arctic.

Gardens in the Arctic, an independent business based in Anaktuvuk Pass and owned by Rainey Nasugraq Hopson, recently received funding to build a high tunnel, which is a step up from the small greenhouse and backyard raised bed garden she had been maintaining for the past couple of years.

Sadler’s concept is different from that, however. He envisions a technology-heavy house, using the McMurdo station structure as a model, with a larger production capacity than could be afforded by a typical greenhouse.

“We’re advocating a high-tech approach with no soil,” said Sadler. “We want to be able to provide assistance remotely. Being in the Arctic, heated growing space is extremely expensive, so you have to get the highest production possible out of a given space. These are the issues you have to work with.”

No soil in this case would mean hydroponics, or water-based growing. Soilless food production is already commonplace in many of the country’s commercial greenhouse operations for plants like tomatoes.

“What I see is that our role at the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center is to demonstrate the technology, provide some degree of education, and then it will be up to the Arctic people whether it is successful or not,” said Sadler. “The technology is there but the community buy-in is so important. If they aren’t interested, then it’s going to die. But, if they are interested and it works well, it could spread throughout the entire Arctic.”

He described the remote expert component as a key element of a successful high-tech house. What that means is the structure could be monitored remotely for moisture levels, temperature, light, and more, by technicians based at the Arizona lab.

Before a permanent structure could be built, there would have to be a test greenhouse to gather data on the cost and labor to grow food in-house versus purchase it and fly it to the Arctic.

“What I envision is the test greenhouse is like a 16-foot by 10-foot growing area,” he described.

It would be covered, potentially, in a relatively new material called Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, which is the same as the membrane covering the Olympic Aquatic Center built for the Beijing games.

“We use it for our Mars effort,” said Sadler. “It’s extremely durable. If you took regular greenhouse [material] up there, the environment would tear it apart. I don’t like having glass overtop people because if the wind blows it in, you could get hurt.”

The greenhouse would look like a typical glasshouse, more or less, in the summertime, using the long daylight hours to grow the plants. In the winter, it could be shrouded in a protective cover and utilize artificial lighting.

“One neat thing about Nuiqsut is we have natural gas and it’s very reasonable and then with the new LED lighting, you can grow year-round without any sunlight,” said Washburn, the Nuiqsut resident.

So far, Sadler’s ideas have had some trouble gaining traction on the Slope, but he hopes with increased awareness about the potential for more locally-sourced produce, interest could also grow.

“From my Antarctic experience, [without produce] I degenerated into a meat and potatoes kind of guy and that’s not the formula for living a long and healthy life,” said Sadler. “I know there’s a diabetes problem [in the Arctic] and the fresh produce is the most difficult part of a healthy diet to acquire. Plus, if you have a greenhouse where people are working in it, it generates a consciousness for healthy diets. That’s the goal — to give the people the opportunity to improve their diets.”

Besides, as Washburn pointed out, if it could work for the moon, why not Nuiqsut?

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at sgoarctic@gmail.com.

View the original article here

Arizona botanist hopes for Arctic hydroponics – The Arctic Sounder

Phil Sadler tries to grow food on the moon.

He started in Antarctica, made his way to Mars, and now has his sights set on Arctic Alaska, specifically Nuiqsut.

“I missed plants when I was down in Antarctica. I knew there was a need for it,” he said. “Honestly, I’m very interested in space, too. I enjoy doing this sort of stuff.”

Sadler has a degree in botany from Northern Arizona University. After he graduated, he got a job working for the contractor to the National Science Foundation in Antarctica. He spent 13 seasons as a heavy equipment operator there and in his off-time, he built greenhouses.

“Ever since mankind’s been going to Antarctica, they always bring seeds with them. There’s been people before me trying to grow crops. People like to have plants around so they try to grow them,” he said.

What he did differently from his predecessors was navigate the bureaucratic twists and turns to make it happen.

“It wasn’t the environment, it was the politics,” he said. “That was the hardest part.”

With a record low of 118 degrees Fahrenheit below zero at the South Pole station, he put that greenhouse inside the existing structure as a growth chamber.

At McMurdo station, he cobbled together a separate building and repurposed double-paned window material for a glasshouse.

“During the wintertime, they’re isolated for six months in McMurdo with no flights in and no fresh produce, so it generated salads and stuff for the crew there. Out at the South Pole, they’re isolated for eight-and-a-half months and so they run through their stored fresh produce really quickly and then they have nothing,” he explained.

The desire for fresh fruits and veggies was high and his work paid off. The houses were successful. The foundation eventually constructed a new South Pole station and wanted another greenhouse to go with it. Sadler, who had moved back to Arizona by that time, worked on the proposal.

Since then, he’s been working on contracts for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for lunar and Martian greenhouses, which would help support long-term space travel and habitation efforts.

His introduction to the opposite pole was in Greenland and Canada, working on the Distant Early Warning, or DEW, Line.

“I used to go into the Hudson Bay store and see what they had available for the local residents and it was pathetic,” he recalled. “That’s what sort of gave me the idea that we should do something in the Arctic.”

It’s a familiar story across the North Slope. There’s rarely good produce, especially in the winter. What fruits and vegetables are available have often traveled thousands of miles and are damaged, under- or over-ripe, frostbitten, smashed, or have melded into a solid block of ice by the time they arrive.

“The fresh produce would be the No. 1 thing,” said Bud Washburn, who works at the hotel in Nuiqsut and hopes Sadler’s greenhouse idea will become reality in his village.

“Working here at the hotel, we have a restaurant and we support all the ice road crews in the winter and getting the produce is a challenge. It’s so expensive,” he explained. “It costs more to ship it up here than it does to buy it. You pick it up at the airport in 50 below weather. For a big head of lettuce, by the time they get it back to the hotel and peel off everything that got frozen, it’s the size of a baseball.”

That lack of dependable fresh food is what the Arctic, the Antarctic, the moon, Mars, and space, in general, have in common.

“It’s a food desert. This is a term that’s making its way through the horticultural community,” said Sadler. “A food desert is a geographical area where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain and I think that fits the Arctic very well.”

There are already efforts underway to develop dependable greenhouses and growing operations on the North Slope and in the Northwest Arctic.

Gardens in the Arctic, an independent business based in Anaktuvuk Pass and owned by Rainey Nasugraq Hopson, recently received funding to build a high tunnel, which is a step up from the small greenhouse and backyard raised bed garden she had been maintaining for the past couple of years.

Sadler’s concept is different from that, however. He envisions a technology-heavy house, using the McMurdo station structure as a model, with a larger production capacity than could be afforded by a typical greenhouse.

“We’re advocating a high-tech approach with no soil,” said Sadler. “We want to be able to provide assistance remotely. Being in the Arctic, heated growing space is extremely expensive, so you have to get the highest production possible out of a given space. These are the issues you have to work with.”

No soil in this case would mean hydroponics, or water-based growing. Soilless food production is already commonplace in many of the country’s commercial greenhouse operations for plants like tomatoes.

“What I see is that our role at the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center is to demonstrate the technology, provide some degree of education, and then it will be up to the Arctic people whether it is successful or not,” said Sadler. “The technology is there but the community buy-in is so important. If they aren’t interested, then it’s going to die. But, if they are interested and it works well, it could spread throughout the entire Arctic.”

He described the remote expert component as a key element of a successful high-tech house. What that means is the structure could be monitored remotely for moisture levels, temperature, light, and more, by technicians based at the Arizona lab.

Before a permanent structure could be built, there would have to be a test greenhouse to gather data on the cost and labor to grow food in-house versus purchase it and fly it to the Arctic.

“What I envision is the test greenhouse is like a 16-foot by 10-foot growing area,” he described.

It would be covered, potentially, in a relatively new material called Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, which is the same as the membrane covering the Olympic Aquatic Center built for the Beijing games.

“We use it for our Mars effort,” said Sadler. “It’s extremely durable. If you took regular greenhouse [material] up there, the environment would tear it apart. I don’t like having glass overtop people because if the wind blows it in, you could get hurt.”

The greenhouse would look like a typical glasshouse, more or less, in the summertime, using the long daylight hours to grow the plants. In the winter, it could be shrouded in a protective cover and utilize artificial lighting.

“One neat thing about Nuiqsut is we have natural gas and it’s very reasonable and then with the new LED lighting, you can grow year-round without any sunlight,” said Washburn, the Nuiqsut resident.

So far, Sadler’s ideas have had some trouble gaining traction on the Slope, but he hopes with increased awareness about the potential for more locally-sourced produce, interest could also grow.

“From my Antarctic experience, [without produce] I degenerated into a meat and potatoes kind of guy and that’s not the formula for living a long and healthy life,” said Sadler. “I know there’s a diabetes problem [in the Arctic] and the fresh produce is the most difficult part of a healthy diet to acquire. Plus, if you have a greenhouse where people are working in it, it generates a consciousness for healthy diets. That’s the goal — to give the people the opportunity to improve their diets.”

Besides, as Washburn pointed out, if it could work for the moon, why not Nuiqsut?

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at sgoarctic@gmail.com.

View the original article here