BETHEL, Alaska — The red barn on the barren, windswept plain along the Kuskokwim River outside of this village-cum-regional-hub in far Western Alaska is more than a touchstone for some foolish pioneer yearning for a homeland far away. Tim Meyers doesn’t much miss Wisconsin.
He left there a long, long time ago, and he has never harbored any desire to go back. Alaska is in his blood. He likes the freedom of the frontier where a man can pursue just about any crazy idea that comes into his head because there aren’t a lot of people around to tell him he can’t.
And farming the tundra is a crazy idea. Everyone knows that. Alaska is a cold, dark place.
Arguably the biggest public boondoggle in state history centered around farming. The late Gov. Jay Hammond — a Republican, an environmentalist, and in some ways a man before his time — envisioned a sustainable agriculture industry in the Far North, exporting Alaska barley to the world and supplying the state with milk from the backyard of a then 14-year-old future basketball player from Wasilla named Sarah Palin. The idea didn’t work.
“The Alaskan farm project, a curious hybrid of Soviet-style agriculture and traditional American romance with the land, would be the stuff of black comedy were there not so many families stuck with a lifetime of debt,” The New York Times reported in 1992 as the project finally went under.
One of Alaska’s earliest ventures into state capitalism, the project was a $120 million loser. Agriculture in Alaska was left with a black eye.
“You want to know how to lose money in a hurry?” Harvey Baskin told Times reporter Timothy Egan two decades ago. “Become a farmer with the state of Alaska as your partner. This is what you call negative farming.”
Meyers is not partnered with the state. In the wake of a history of bad investments, the state has become too smart. Who in their right mind would want to partner with someone who thinks he can farm the friggin’ tundra?
‘We’re never going to survive out here living above ground’
The weather in late May is still chilly in Bethel. Patches of snow linger in places. The waterfowl returning by the millions to nest on the delta of the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers find the ponds and lakes that dominate the landscape still half frozen.
It all looks a bit like North Dakota in March, right down to the incessant, chill wind. So it’s not exactly where you’d expect to find strawberries in bloom or leaf lettuce already a couple inches high. Meyers Farm has both, and this is not something new. Meyers has been at this for years now.
The only farmer between Anchorage, 500 miles to the east, and Russia, about the same distance to the northwest, Meyers wonders why he is so alone. When he looks out across the treeless landscape that rolls southwest in ponds, wetlands and tractor-high hills all the way to the Bering Sea, he sees what an earlier generation of Americans saw on the Great Plains: A rich, fertile and treeless landscape. A landscape where you can start farming without a bunch of time-consuming and costly land clearing. And a landscape with another big plus.
“It’s a delta where there’s been millions of salmon going up the river every year and washing out to sea,” he said. Those spawned-out salmon float down the river to become natural fertilizer.
“I grew 50,000 pounds of food last year,” Meyers said. “I’ve got a root cellar I can keep that and sell it all winter.”
His goal is to store 100,000 pounds of potatoes, beets, rutabaga, carrots, turnips and cabbage, and sell them at an average of $1 per pound over the winter. His storage costs in an underground bunker are minimal.
The temperature behind the south-facing, heavily insulated door on a deeply buried steel building stays “31 degrees almost year round,” Meyers said. It doesn’t take much heat to boost it a degree or two. Meyers tries to keep the temperature just above freezing with the humidity near 97 percent.
Restaurant waste oil burned in a barrel stove for about half an hour per day will provide all the heat necessary. Humidity management is even simpler. The door on the root bunker is big enough to drive through. If the humidity starts to fall, Tim or his wife, Lisa, can usually just dump a loader bucket full of snow on the floor.
“I figure things out differently,” Meyers said. “It comes from no education. The system that they’re teaching everybody won’t work.”
Not that Meyers has anything against education. Just the opposite in fact. Trained as a commercial airplane pilot, he gave that up to teach himself how to become a building contractor before he taught himself to be a farmer.
Meyers might be largely self-educated, but he is a testament to the powers of education no matter how one gets it. What Meyers clearly dislikes, however, is rigid and predictable thinking.
He’s an outside-the-box kind of guy, right down to his issues with the stick-frame wooden boxes in which his neighbors dwell atop the surrounding tundra.
“We’re never going to survive out here living above ground,” he said. “You can’t live above ground with diesel (fuel) at $10 a gallon.”
He’s got a point. Many in this community have now switched to burning wood because of the high cost of oil. They collect driftwood, or raft logs downriver from logging areas which have led to concerns about denuding the surrounding forests.
The original inhabitants of the region knew better. Before Westerners changed the way of life, Yup’ik Eskimos spent their winters in easily heated subterranean homes. A return to that way of living isn’t gaining much traction, Meyers admits, but it’s great for his chickens.
He raises both laying hens and roasters. The former produce 160 dozen eggs per month. He can legally sell 1,000 of the latter each year. He says he could sell more, but state laws would then require him to set up a specially licensed slaughterhouse.
Meyers said he keeps his underground chicken coop at a temperature of 70 to 75 degrees through the winter in a region where temperatures sometimes dip to 50 degrees below zero. He’s used a small, oil-burning stove that consumes 20 to 30 gallons of fuel a month in the worst of the cold.
By local standards, a $200 to $300-a-month heating bill is cheap. Suffice to say, Meyers manages to turn a profit on both the sale of eggs and chickens, as he does on most everything else. In any area where government is the main employer — more than half the jobs in Bethel are tied to government in some way — he’s the entrepreneurial outlier.
Not that it’s always easy.
“The weather’s changed the last few years,” he said as the snow and ice lingered this May. “It’s been hard. On Sept. 8 (2012), the ground was frozen so hard I couldn’t get carrots out. (And) April 13 was the first morning it wasn’t below zero.”
Meyers longs for the good old days of global warming before the new millennium shivered in an Alaska cooling trend that appears to be continuing. That has made life more difficult for Meyers, but it hasn’t stopped him.
Technology is key
Meyers has gone back to the earth by rocketing into the future. His farm in May looks a little like what a moon station might. Everything is buried in bunkers or hidden beneath the plastic “high tunnels,” as they are called.
High tunnels are really nothing but Quonset huts, once a mainstay of Alaska architecture, revisited in high-tech, durable and translucent plastic. They are large and easily constructed greenhouse sans the cost of glass. When you open the door of one of the several on Meyers Farm and step inside, the weather goes from chill to balmy.
With the sun baking the rich, dark soil inside, the thermometer says the temperature has climbed to 70. Condensation shakes free from the walls almost like rain when outside winds buffet the temporary building. The brightness inside makes you squint.
All in all, it seems almost perfect for small-scale farming.
“I’ve doubled the growing season,” Meyers said. “I go with plastic and underground. I just cover everything with plastic, and it just explodes.”
Usually, he can begin harvesting crops in May. He was a little behind this year, but those strawberries were in bloom and lettuce, onions, parsley, celery, broccoli, rosemary, peas, turnips, cauliflower, beets and more were all taking off in the somewhat stinky tunnels.
There was the strong smell of dead and decaying salmon.
“I grind up thousands of pounds of fish carcasses,” Meyers said. “It’s pretty easy. People donate a lot. I make a lot.”
He has two, 1,000-gallon steel tanks for making fish waste into fertilizer every summer. He wishes he had more.
“I’m limited,” he said. “If I could do it in a pond, I think I could do a lot more.”
He appears to spend a lot of time thinking about how to increase production. A scruffy, 58-year-old man with a scraggly beard and a ball cap regularly perched on his head, Meyers shows no sign of backing away from his offensive of new ideas.
When he isn’t at work on the farm, he spends a lot of his time proselytizing for small-scale agriculture in Alaska, especially in rural Alaska.
He appears to be make at least some converts. “Why Farming In Bethel Makes Sense,” University of Alaska professor emeritus Steve Aufrecht posted on his blog after Meyer’s appeared at a “Bioneeers” conference in Anchorage two years ago.
Meyers, Aufrecht wrote, “emphasized the difference between gardening and farming. Farming is much easier than gardening because you can make good use of a tractor. His five acres wasn’t that hard to maintain. I’d just been to a session where Matt and Saskia … talked about how much work it was to keep up their urban garden where they are growing much of their food for the year.”
Meyers said he started out as a gardener, hoping to feed his family in Western Alaska, and eventually decided gardening is just too damn much work. Farming, he said, is considerably easier, a fact which has probably helped keep him in business.
Even on a cold day in May, there is steady stream of customers through the produce stand he opens at the farm on Tundra Ridge twice a week. Many of the customers appear to be regulars.
“Those are those sweet onions,” one remarked on as she picked up vegetables and eggs. “I’m hungry for an omelet.”
Meyers just smiled. “People seem to be pretty happy with where we’re at.”
Farmer Meyers would like to spread that happiness statewide, but confesses it’s tough to sell farming as a worthwhile pursuit in modern rural Alaska.
“I’m trying to feed this region,” he said. “I’ve got the right idea. But if they don’t want to do it, so be it.”
This is not going to stop Meyers from plowing on. He’s making money, the prime objective in a capitalist society, and he’s enjoying himself.
“Pretty cool, huh?” he said. “It’s fun. That’s why I don’t want to get a real job. We’re fortunate to be doing this out here in a very remote location.”
And you can’t help getting the feeling that the independent streak that runs deep in Meyers — something you find in a lot of entrepreneurial Alaskans — sort of relishes the idea of doing what supposedly can’t be done.
“I flew airplanes for four or five years” in the 1970s, he said. “Since then, I’ve never worked for anybody.”
He started his own businesses building houses, including welded steel structures that can be buried, and then farming.
“Food is a good thing,” he said. “Housing is a good thing. Obviously what we’ve been doing isn’t working. So let’s try doing things differently.”
Or not so differently, because really what Meyers proposes is, as he admits, a high-tech journey back to the future, back to when the Yup’ik lived in fuel-efficient subterranean houses and the first Westerners turned the country green with small-scale farms.
Not that far north of Meyers Farm the Holy Cross Mission made the tundra bloom long before the invention of the high tunnel. The gardens of 1914 there look not unlike those of Meyers Farm today, minus high tunnels.
The mission had what “they called a cellar in those days, and they had big bins that separated cabbage, turnips, carrots, potatoes, oodles of potatoes,” former mission resident Alice Demientieff told a University of Alaska Fairbanks oral history project in 2002. “That’s where they stored everything for the winter, and all winter we had fresh stuff.”
The Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks, which oversaw the Holy Cross Mission, says the mission grew enough produce during the war years to sell it “to the Army base in Galena. Profits from the sales helped improve conditions at the Mission during the war years when the mission was left to its own resources.”
The mission closed in 1956. A few people still garden in the riverside village of less than 300 some 420 miles southwest of Fairbanks, but there is no longer any large-scale production. Times change. Lifestyles shift. Old ways disappear.
But, as Meyers is working to demonstrate, sometimes it’s possible to make the old new again.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com