Start-Ups Closing Alaska's Farm-to-Table Gap

By Johnson, Kirk | International New York Times, January 5, 2016 | Go to article overview

Start-Ups Closing Alaska's Farm-to-Table Gap


Johnson, Kirk, International New York Times


The quest for a crisp head of lettuce has opened the door to two start-ups with starkly different visions for growing fresh produce in a frozen state.

ANCHORAGE

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. Where the farm-to-table distance is measured in thousands of miles, the odds get long.

"Most of our produce looks like a truck ran over it," said Susie Linford, the managing partner at Alaska Coastal Catering, a company here in the state's largest city.

But now there is hope; the salad wars are on. Two new 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," said Jason Smith, the founder of Alaska Natural Organics, as he showed a visitor through his garden inside a former dairy warehouse two miles from downtown on a recent blustery day when five-and-a-half hours of natural sunlight was all that residents in this part of the state could hope for.

Mr. Smith, a 34-year-old Marine infantry veteran, 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 by aiming for portability. The company's three partners, all in their 30s, 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 -- for people or produce -- is by air or sea.

Each container can nurture 1,800 heads of leafy greens and herbs at a time and is designed for harsh conditions, or what Cameron Willingham, one of the company's founders, called, "Arctic- capable growing."

"Our target market is the northern communities where you can pay $6 or $7 or $8 for a head of lettuce," he said.

"It's hard to ship stuff out there," he added. "It freezes on the tarmac."

Urban indoor farming is blossoming in many seemingly unlikely places around the world. A company in Newark 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 -- even if costs are higher than at dirt farms farther from town -- can pay off.

What makes Alaska different, perhaps especially with food, are the long distances and the knotty logistics. With short growing seasons -- 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 is picked long before ripening to reduce spoilage on the way, chefs and agricultural experts here said. That hurts the quality.

Alaska imports about 90 percent to 95 percent of its food, state officials said, putting about $2 billion a year into out-of-state farmers' pockets.

While locally grown produce has become more common in recent years, farmers and food distributors tend to focus on the state's biggest cities, especially Anchorage, leaving rural residents out in the cold. …

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