Across much of Alaska at this time of the year, as winter tightens its grip with darkness and cold, finding a nice crisp head of lettuce at an affordable price can be like prospecting for gold. “Most of our produce looks like a truck ran over it,” said Susie Linford, managing partner at Alaska Coastal Catering, a company here in the state’s largest city.
But now there is hope. Two small start-ups, each with a starkly different vision for how to grow produce year round, under uniquely Alaskan conditions, have opened their doors. “This town wants lettuce,” Jason Smith, founder of Alaska Natural Organics, said.
Smith raises greens hydroponically — in water, without soil or pesticides, under blue-and-red LED lights — and sold his first crop this fall.
Vertical Harvest Hydroponics, another new company, has ideas of growing green where climate might otherwise frown by aiming for portability. The company’s three partners are refitting boxcar-size ship cargo containers into indoor grow spaces that can be installed in restaurant basements, parking lots or remote, off-the-road-grid villages where the only access is by air or sea.
Urban indoor farming is blossoming in many seemingly unlikely places around the world. A company in Newark, New Jersey, is building a huge urban farm inside a former steel plant. Growers from Japan to Vancouver, British Columbia, to the suburbs of Chicago have found that cultivating compact indoor spaces as close as possible to the consumer can pay off.
What makes Alaska different, perhaps especially with food, are the big distances and the knotty logistics. With short growing seasons here, and no roads in many places, fresh produce for much of the year comes from California or Mexico. Because of the lag time in reaching consumers, the produce starts its journey having been picked long before ripening, to reduce spoilage on the way, chefs and agricultural experts here said. That hurts the quality.
Alaska imports about 90 to 95 percent of its food, putting about $2 billion a year into out-of-state farmers’ pockets.
“Local food production is something we enjoy,” said Kyle Belleque, 40, who lives in Dillingham. “The problem is that with such a small growing season, we just focus on growing for ourselves.” Belleque and his wife, Johanna, 39, are buying a Vertical Harvest unit scheduled for delivery this spring and are in talks, he said, with local stores and restaurants that might want to buy greens. “All of a sudden you’re producing 12 months a year,” Belleque said.New York Times