The challenges of growing food in the Arctic

Harvesting vegetables at Pyrah's Pioneer Farm in Alaska's Mat-Su Valley, north of Alaska's largest city. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch)
Harvesting vegetables at Pyrah’s Pioneer Farm in Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley, north of Alaska’s largest city.
(Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch)
The way barley farmer Bryce Wrigley sees it, farmers in the north are like bacteria.

That’s not to disparage the hard-working farmers living in the circumpolar Arctic. Instead, that makes them a hardy bunch, capable of surviving — even thriving — despite numerous challenges.

“If there’s a way of growing it, we’ll figure it out,” said Wrigley, barley farmer and owner of the Alaska Flour Company in Delta Junction.

Wrigley is one of more than a hundred people in Girdwood this week for the eighth annual Circumpolar Agriculture Conference trying to elaborate on how to keep producing food in and for the Arctic. While many ideas focus on agriculture and the numerous ties the industry has to other social drivers, the focus of the summit is to look at where people of the north get their food and how that can continue in rapidly changing times.

Karen Tanino, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and one of three co-chairs who helped plan the conference, said the hope is to come away with at least four policy needs to take back to lawmakers in Arctic nations.

“If we don’t do something like this, it’s an opportunity missed,” she said.

It won’t be easy. For Milan Shipka, animal scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and fellow co-chair, Arctic food issues fit together. The conference helps create a conversation that puts all the pieces together.

“It’s a multi-level, multi-country, multi-disciplinary, multi-governmental and agency approach,” he said.

‘Awareness of the tenuous situation’

Both Shipka and Tanino recognize that making changes to those policies won’t be simple. But Shipka is optimistic that with 128 minds from seven Arctic countries and Japan focused on the issues, a dialogue can begin.

“If nothing else, people will gain an awareness of the tenuous situation we could find ourselves in if there’s a change in food streams to northern communities,” Shipka said.

Monday’s speakers focused on global food policy and safety issues. Despite the variety of speakers from different parts of the region, themes were similar.

Lassi Heininen, University Arctic Thematic Network Lead from Finland, spoke to the unique geopolitical issues facing the Arctic. Despite its relative stability, the focus has been on economic and business development in the Arctic. Solutions for how to regulate pollutants, food policy and even defensive strategies are still being explored in an environment that’s seeing rapid climate change, particularly as sea ice melts.

Two presenters focused on challenges faced in Old Crow in the Yukon. The small Vuntut Gwich’in community of about 300 has struggled to overcome bureaucratic hurdles related to subsistence food in recent years, according to researcher David Natcher, director of the Indigenous Land Management Institute at the University of Saskatchewan.

While access to land claims has opened possibilities for Canadian First Nations people and Alaska Natives, he said it has also posed some challenges. Natcher noted the Athabascan Gwich’in nation — which extends from Interior Alaska into large parts of the Yukon Territory — is governed by three different land claims (the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and two others in Canada) one territorial government, one state government and two federal governments.

All that bureaucracy is placing a burden on Native people who need access to food in the region, Natcher said. For residents of Old Crow to trade caribou with their neighbors across the border in Fort Yukon, complex permits and forms must be navigated. For the indigenous culture, one that’s been sharing food among other villages for thousands of years, are permits really necessary?

‘Devil’s in the details’

It’s a small issue, but one that illustrates the numerous small challenges Arctic residents face. And while the issues might seem small, that’s where the small change that morphs into larger policy updates may happen, according to Tanino.

“The devil’s in the details,” Tanino said. “There could be big changes, depending on where you are.”

Danny Consenstein, state executive director of the Alaska Farm Service Agency and governing member of the Alaska Food Policy Council, said many people talk about how the food system is failing.

But the bigger issue might be why it’s failing. The food policy council hopes focused talk about these issues builds awareness at a local level, which will eventually filter into change.

In Alaska, Consenstein hopes policy can be shifted through the “power of procurement,” by incentivizing groups to purchase locally grown food. It will take time, he noted.

And for the farmers who already feel overburdened, Wrigley said to consider where the policy comes from in the first place.

“People create these things,” he said. “People can uncreate things, too.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at) Follow her on Twitter @suzannacaldwell

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