The Surreal Abundance of Alaska’s Permafrost Farms

In 2010, Brad St. Pierre and his wife, Christine, moved from California to Fairbanks, Alaska, to work as farmers. “People thought we were crazy,” Brad said. “They said, ‘Can you grow things in Alaska?’ Their new home, not far from where Christine grew up, was as far north as Reykjavík, Iceland, and gets about two feet of snow each year. It routinely experiences winter temperatures below minus ten degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer, however, the sun shines twenty-one hours per day and resembles that of San Francisco.Sturdy cabbages and carrots thrive in the open ground, while fussier tomatoes and cucumbers thrive in greenhouses.

The biggest challenge with farming in this part of Alaska, Brad told me recently, is that craters often open up in fields, and some are the size of Volkswagen Beetles. The holes are formed when chunks of frozen water, known as ice lenses, melt and engulf the surrounding earth in a process known as subsidence. They tend to expand every year and sometimes merge with other nearby pits; they can be filled, but farmers often run out of land, so the pits become ponds. Sometimes holes hide under ruffles of kale or the shade of sour cherry trees, or threaten to swallow Brad’s tractor. “Suddenly you have to stop,” he said. ‘There is no grass. There is just a hole.”

The St. Pierres eventually rented seventy-five acres and named them Goosefoot Farm. It now grows everything “from arugula to zucchini,” Brad told me, which keeps the farm nimble in tough times and replenishes nutrients in the soil. He also runs the fortnightly Tanana Valley Farmers’ Market, which runs from May through September and is teeming with produce, flowers and honey from a region of Alaska the size of Indiana. The farm is thriving, although the holes are starting to form more often and three acres are now a “minefield” too pockmarked to plant. “At that point, you just write it off,” he said.

Inland Alaska, a mountainous expanse of forests and wetlands that encompasses the Tanana Valley and is larger than the state of Montana, is part of the “climate-driven agricultural frontier,” a term coined by scientists in 2020 to describe places that will become suitable for basic crops in the next forty to sixty years. Fifty to ninety percent of Alaska’s interior contains permafrost underneath, meaning the ground has been frozen for at least two consecutive years. But the permafrost is so patchy that the region has been called a “discontinuous” zone, and it’s on the move: The polar regions are warming faster than the rest of the planet, and Alaska’s land contains many microclimates. For example, north-facing slopes are colder, while cavities retain more heat. When farmers and developers shear surface vegetation, permafrost thaws even faster. Some farms are surrounded by ‘drunken forests’ or trees that collapse when the ground gives way.

In much of Alaska, as well as parts of Russia and Canada, where ice-rich permafrost abounds, subsidence is the “No. 1 agricultural problem that we know of,” Melissa Ward Jones, a geomorphologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, or UAF, told me. It has a long history in Alaska: a black-and-white aerial photograph of an abandoned field in Fairbanks, taken in 1938, shows a lumpy surface with the texture of cottage cheese. In a 1939 image, a deforested field that was flat seven years earlier looks as hilly as the Shire. The ice in the permafrost beneath these farms, Ward said Jones, was likely a vast underground network, or “spider web,” of polygonal formations known as wedges that, when they melt, can leave behind a pitted landscape called thermokarst.

In February, Ward Jones embarked on a five-year effort to understand how agriculture and permafrost interact, and to identify best practices for farmers with permafrost beneath their fields. It’s called Permafrost Grown and is funded with $3 million from a fledgling National Science Foundation initiative called Navigating the New Arctic. Northern farmers will need to know how to grow well on the land, rather than simply cut it, Ward Jones and her colleagues argued in a recent commentary. “We have a history of farming on permafrost, but a lot of people just do things experimentally,” she told me. “There has been no specific research that has actively attempted to understand this system.”

With its cheap land, fertile soil, few pests other than hungry moose, and a growing season delayed by global warming, Alaska is increasingly appealing to a younger generation of growers looking to start small farms. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of farms under nine acres in the state increased by seventy-three percent. (By contrast, the average U.S. farm is now four hundred and forty-five acres, and the total number of farms in the U.S. is declining.) Most Alaskans agree that the state, which imports nearly all of its goods and often has shortages, must expand local agriculture to to improve food security. For this reason, even local environmentalists are not outright opposed to new farms, despite their potential environmental damage. Some Native Alaskans are wary of further encroachment on their traditional hunting and fishing grounds, but the decline of wild plants and animals has made farming a necessary livelihood supplement.

In the coming years, more of the world’s polar regions are likely to be overtaken by farms. On June 1, the state Department of Natural Resources began the first phase of the Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project by bidding on twenty-seven lots located in a boreal forest about sixty miles southwest of Fairbanks, ranging from about twenty acres to three hundred. (Bidding ends Oct. 4.) Over the next thirty years, government officials plan to gradually open more than 100,000 acres between the Nenana River and the zigzagging Kantishna to agriculture. Bidders are warned that the lots come with no guarantees: “It is your responsibility to inspect the land and be thoroughly informed of its condition.”

Despite its reputation for ice and snow, Alaska has been cultivated for hundreds of years. Nenana Native Village members traditionally used controlled burns to encourage new growth of wild plants, which in turn attracted moose and beavers. Along the coast, people in Tlingit and Haida grew potatoes. Russians who settled in Sitka in the early 1800s tended gardens with cabbages, turnips, and more potatoes. Then came Americans who dreamed of “the last frontier” — a maxim now stamped on Alaska’s license plates — who colonized the area at the expense of local Indigenous communities.

In the 1990s, Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary turned federal official, became something of a lobbyist for Alaska’s agricultural potential. Whaling and seal hunting had decimated species that Alaska Natives relied on for food; Jackson promoted reindeer husbandry to take their place. Forty years later, the New Deal relocated 200 struggling Midwestern families to the Matanuska-Susitna, or Mat-Su, Valley of south-central Alaska to establish an agricultural colony. Potatoes and dairy cows did well for a while, but many farms were watered down due to harsh winters and competition with affordable imports. According to anthropologists Philip Loring and S. Craig Gerlach, the state’s agricultural dream persisted because agriculture was “generally deemed necessary to “make Alaska American.” ”

The state’s subsequent agricultural projects do not inspire confidence. Awash in oil money in the late 1970s, Alaska attempted to kick-start the dairy, grain, and red meat industries with the infamous Delta Barley Project, an effort to convert 60,000 acres of forest into Delta Junction, a region southeast of South Africa. Fairbanks, in huge farms averaging over a thousand acres. A PR campaign inspired a new migration to the north. “People basically had to clear these fields and wait for the permafrost to thaw,” Glenna Gannon, a Permafrost Grown researcher who works as an assistant professor of sustainable food systems at UAF, told subsidence in some cases. Bison also stamped on and ate the harvest. Although the barley grew well enough, world prices soon collapsed and the state never completed its promised infrastructure. In total, the project cost the state one hundred and twenty million dollars. Many Alaskans I spoke to referred to it as a “boondoggle.”

Delta barley can still be found in the interior of Alaska. On a drizzly day in June, Bryce Wrigley gave me a panoramic tour of his seventeen hundred acres via Zoom. Broad green rows gave way to tall forests, the imposing peaks of the Alaska Range and a marble-colored sky. White posts showed where Wrigley was experimenting with ground covers: peas, turnips, oats. The rest was soft green Sunshine Hulless barley, an easy-to-peel variety developed for northern climates. Wrigley was lucky: under his farm there was no permafrost to turn his land into cottage cheese. “Those things happen further north,” he said.

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