MicroFEWs Blog

19 November 2019

F is for Food

By Daisy Huang

The F in FEW stands for food, and food security is a critical issue in Alaska. A common statistic quoted is that 95% of Alaska's purchased food is imported. (This statistic is given by The Alaska Food Security Council, and quoted in these articles: Farming in Alaska is increasingly possible | Higher Country News; In a Tough Place to Farm, Discovering Much to Love | The New York Times; State department heads come together to figure out Alaska food security | ADN)

How to increase food security in Alaska, particularly rural Alaska, is a major question being addressed by many researchers, farmers, and consumers besides our MicroFEWs team. The piece of that challenge that we are tackling is how to grow food in a way that is optimized with respect to local energy resources. For example, over the past decade or so, communities throughout Southeast Alaska and Prince of Wales have been installing biomass-fired boilers to heat schools, libraries, and other community buildings. However, they also realised that there could be great utility in using biomass to heat greenhouses to grow fresh veggies for the local schools, which often lack cafeterias and were only capable of serving microwaved food to students. The first biomass-fired greenhouses were installed in Coffman Cove and Thorne Bay, and were very successful. The students got fresh salads with their lunches, and sold excess veggies to the community. Eventually the Southeast Island School District purchased and revived what had once been, and is now again, the only restaurant in Thorne Bay. The students work there and provide veggies from the greenhouse to to customers. Along the way, the students are gaining invaluable education in horticulture, business management, and hospitality. Prince of Wales Island now has two other school greenhouses, in Kasaan and Naukati, and they are using techniques that are both traditional and experimental--growing Haida/Tlingit potatoes, and using aquaponics with goldfish and koi.

The mild climate and local availability of biomass on Prince of Wales has enabled the development of this wonderful community of student food producers. What might renewable energy usage for food look like in our case study communities? Tanana is in the Interior of Alaska and has deeper, colder winters, but they, too, have a biomass economy and expertise, and they have a history of local farming, having once provided food supplies and hay to Fort Gibbon, an army base that was active from 1899-1923. A lot of this historical knowledge is still in Tanana, with many locals tending bountiful gardens and producing cabbages, carrots, potatoes, peas, cucumbers, and even warm-weather produce such as tomatoes and peppers. Tanana has installed a greenhouse next to the school, but right now it is passive solar only. Funding is being sought to install a biomass-fired boiler. Cordova, which has a climate similar to that on Prince of Wales (with the sea's proximity bringing cooler summers and milder winters), also has local gardening expertise. However, their predominant renewable energy resource is hydropower. Cordova also has a large fish processing industry, which can make the electrical demand change up to fourfold rather suddenly, between when processing is happening and when it is not. The hydro production also has seasonal variation depending on when the snow melts and makes the rivers run. At some times of the year, there is excess hydro--more than the community can use--and water is spilled. Could some of this excess be used to heat and/or light a greenhouse?

Other research questions depend on individual communities. Would hydroponics work better, or would dirt? Is it economically worthy to keep growing food in the bitter cold months of December through February, when the solar resource is also at its lowest, or would the value of the fresh food be greater than the value of the energy spent? Or is there a good wind resource that peaks during those times, that would reduce energy costs? What do the local people want to grow and eat, and what are the energy requirements of growing and storing those crops? What would be done with overproduction? Is cold storage available? Are people interested in processing, pickling, canning, and/or dehydrating? Could these preservation resources also be used to benefit utilization of wild foods such as fish, game meat, berries, and fiddleheads?

These are some of the compelling questions to which we are seeking answers! Please get in touch with us to join our conversation!