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 dowhat?'" 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 tositkawild.orgto hear more stories or to share a story about building sustainable communities in Southeast. You can also learn more about Lori on herblog. If you are interested in getting involved in the local food movement, visit the Sitka local food network'swebsite.