When Southeast Alaskans think of local food, we usually think of foraging, fishing and hunting. In the realm of produce, however, we have become accustomed to eating fruits and vegetables shipped in from the lower 48 and around the globe. But a gardening movement is on the rise around the islands. In Sitka, a city with no agricultural property, people have been working with the city to create ways to grow and sell local produce. Like all southeast towns, Sitka has a small and strong community, which makes negotiating with local lawmakers to change the structure of land and food policy more direct and personal. With the farmer’s markets gaining steam and gardens springing up all over town, the future of the local food movement in Sitka is bright. But it has taken many pioneers to get it on its feet.
One of those leaders is Lori Adams, owner and operator of Down-to-Earth You-Pick garden. She was raised on a farm in Oregon and moved to Sitka to fish with her husband in the 80s. With no dirt to play in, living on a fishing boat was a rough adjustment. Once she and her husband bought property of their own, however, Lori began scheming up plans to get back to veggie production. “I just have farming in my roots and dirt under my fingernails,” she told me, “and it won’t go away. And I always wanted to farm, and we moved up here and I just decided that I would farm where I went.”
Lori wanted to create her own You-Pick garden where she could sell her produce to customers who came to her house to harvest it directly from her front yard. “Where I grew up a You-Pick garden was a common thing,” she explained, “… So, I feel like it’s really important to grow my own food and teach other people how to grow their own food. And many of the children who grow up here have never seen a carrot in the ground, have never picked a pea off the vine, and so they just don’t have a connection like that with their food.” With a You-Pick garden, she could satisfy her farming itch, while also giving Sitkans the opportunity to learn about gardening and create a more intimate relationship with how their food is grown.
Immediately she called the planning department to ask for a permit to start a You-Pick garden. “They looked at me with a blank look and said, ‘You want to do what?’” As the law stood in 2007, it was illegal to sell produce directly off of private property and to allow people to harvest their own vegetables. Luckily, the people at the planning department were willing and excited to work with Lori. They thought it was such a good idea that they wanted to help her make it legal. “So we spent 6 months changing the zoning laws and going to the assembly meetings, and once it was worked out it turned out that anyone in Sitka could have a you-pick garden if they applied for a special use permit.” Now, any one in Sitka who applies for a special use permit can start a You-Pick garden right on their property.
Today, Lori has a whole community of return customers. They love coming up to her property, picking her brain about gardening, greeting the ducks, and harvesting their own kohlrabi, kale, leeks, onions, sorrel, lettuce and other cold-weather-loving vegetables. But Lori is just as excited to sell her produce as she is to teach others how to garden, or even how to create their own You-Pick. “That’s my hope,” she told me, “that they’ll sprout up all over and it will just become a common thing.”
Whether or not her story inspires others to create a You-Pick, her collaboration with the planning department is certainly a testament to the responsiveness of Sitka’s local government to new ideas addressing issues of local food. Property may be expensive and limited, but there is plenty of room for innovation, and stories like Lori’s certainly aren’t in short supply! Go to sitkawild.org to hear more stories or to share a story about building sustainable communities in Southeast. You can also learn more about Lori on her blog. If you are interested in getting involved in the local food movement, visit the Sitka local food network’s website.
Protecting old-growth forest is no longer a revolutionary idea. As we continue to discover ways that old-growth habitat are critical to salmon, birds, Sitka deer and numerous other species, people are making the connection between protecting these areas and the wildlife that we depend on. Leaving old-growth habitat intact is a no-brainer for Southeast Alaskans who depend on the forest as the place where they forage, hunt and fish. But we can’t ignore the fact that we use wood on a daily basis. Can these needs coexist?
One way that the Sitka Conservation Society is exploring this question is by looking at ways that Southeast Alaskans have selectively and sustainably harvested old growth trees throughout time. Immediately, we turn to the ways that Tlingit Alaska Native peoples have harvested the trees. In contrast to the ways that the forests were used in the 20thcentury when they were liquidated and exported as commodities, Alaska Natives used craftsmanship to carve useful and meaningful objects that were often imbued with their values and ideals. And they did it while understanding and maintaining the character and quality of the tree.
Equally as masterful was the way the Yakutat Tlingit steered their canoes through unexpected terrain. Lieutenant Frederick Gustavus Schwatk agreed. He wrote prolifically about traveling throughout the Tongass. After being welcomed on a canoe, he described how the Yakutat people delicately maneuvered a large canoe across a dam. In a 1886 New York Times article, he wrote “… . I never knew a canoe would stand so much..” After being carved, the Tlingit took great care of their canoes, covering them with damp clothes and lathering them with seal oil.
Until the early 20th century when Alaska Natives turned to skiffs with on-board motors for hunting and fishing, canoes made from old-growth wood were critical to the Tlingit lifestyle in southeast. And with the Alaskan coastline being longer than any of the other states’ combined, paddling is and always has been one of the most intimate ways to navigate our unpredictable waters. With craftsmanship, care and respect of the old- growth dug-out, the Tlingit perfected the art of floating through Southeast.
Keep an eye out as we explore the way that canoe-building in southeast demonstrates a sustainable use of our crucial old-growth trees.
by Sarah Stockdale
I am in a land of light. Alaska is alive in the summer, and in southeast, the rainforest is abundant with green foliage. As part of the Alaska Conservation Foundation Summer internship program, I have been blessed with the opportunity to spend three months here in Sitka as a media and storytelling intern with SCS. And in the three weeks since I arrived here, I’ve found Alaskans themselves to be not unlike the native flora and fauna that surround them in the summer. They take advantage of their daylight hours, knowing that winter will bring plenty of time for hibernation. The fisherwomen from whom I rent sleep only three hours a night, especially when they’re on their boat and alert for King salmon snapping at the line. Karen Schmidt, an attorney who hosted me in Anchorage for the ACF intern orientation, was the same way. She worked tirelessly during the day, but was still happy to spend the late evening down at the beach until midnight, treasuring every last glimpse of light that bounced across the Cook Inlet mudflats.
As part of the Alaska Conservation Foundation internship program, I attended a weeklong orientation in Anchorage before heading off to my internship placement site. There, I met with young folks interning with conservation organizations across the state. We heard from conservation leaders on a variety of topics, from organizing to Alaskan history and GIS. While in Sitka, it’s easy to feel like one of only a handful of groups concerned with issues of conservation. In Anchorage, however, I was able to experience the interconnectedness of all the conservation movements across this enormous state. We certainly need one another.
In my first three weeks in Sitka, I’ve been able to sit back and breath in the Tongass, orienting myself to the sites, smells and culture. And when I look around me I see… green!!! For a New Mexican like me, you can’t imagine my awe at the density of life that the rain brings to this unique and hidden corner of the world. As one of the Alaska native speakers commented during the orientation, it’s less like subsistence out here, and more like abundance. And the Tongass is certainly abundant. Food prices may be high, but looking around, I see nourishment on ever corner from the salmonberry bushes to king salmon coming into the harbor on trollers.
I couldn’t feel further away from the suburban desert where I grew up. Yet it’s clear to me that maintaining and protecting the future of these natural resources is an issue that is not just important to Alaskans. With almost 80% of wild-caught salmon in North America coming from Alaskan fishermen, campaigns like the fight to protect Bristol Bay impact people all over the United States. Recently, New Mexico senator and congressman Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich spoke out against the Pebble mine. People are concerned, even down south.
And while a lot of people have a stake in the future of these lands, the people in southeast who have the time and energy to work on these issues are few. This is both overwhelming and deeply hopeful. It reminds me of the way a friend from Southern Colorado once described ranch culture. On a ranch, everyone’s help is needed. Nobody is turned away and everyone’s contribution is welcome. When there is a job to be done, you need all the hands you can get. Southeast Alaska feels similar to me. Every person’s energy adds to the greater goal. It’s nice to feel that you can really make a difference.
As a Media and Storytelling Intern, my job is to capture the ways that people in Sitka live in relationship with their natural environment. By sharing these stories, SCS hopes to connect people with their own sense of place in the Tongass, and their personal reasons for contributing to the fight to protect it from abusive extraction practices. There is certainly no shortage of stories here in Sitka. Every person I have spoken with has a relationship with the rhythms of the rainforest, whether through fishing, hunting, foraging, hiking, wood-work, etc. From artists, students, carvers, fishermen, elders to avid gardener, everyone has an appreciation for their home. And I’m falling in love more quickly than I’d imagined.
While my job here is to inspire others to recognize the singularity of the Tongass and the importance of protecting it, I’m not surprised to find that I’m the one being inspired. As the intern coordinator for ACF, Claire Pywell, commented: people come to Alaska for the landscape, but they stay for the people. And I’m starting to believe her.