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 were, like, ‘You can grow things in Alaska?’ ” Their new home, not far from where Christine grew up, was as far north as Reykjavík, Iceland, and receives about sixty inches of snow each year. It routinely experiences winter temperatures below minus ten degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer, however, the sun shines for twenty-one hours a day and the weather resembles San Francisco’s. Sturdy cabbages and carrots thrive in the ground, while fussier tomatoes and cucumbers flourish in greenhouses.

The main 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 form when patches of frozen water, known as ice lenses, melt and gulp down the surrounding earth in a process known as subsidence. They tend to expand each year and sometimes fuse with other nearby pits; they can be filled, but farmers often run out of soil, so the pits become ponds. Sometimes holes hide under ruffles of kale or the shade of tart-cherry trees, or threaten to swallow Brad’s tractor. “All of a sudden, you have to stop,” he said. “There’s no grass. There’s just a hole.”

The St. Pierres ultimately leased 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 hard times and replenishes nutrients in the soil. He also manages the twice-weekly Tanana Valley Farmers’ Market, which runs from May to September and teems with produce, flowers, and honey from a region of Alaska that is as large as Indiana. The farm is thriving, though the holes have started to form more frequently and three acres are now a “minefield” too pockmarked to plant. “At that point, you just write it off,” he said.

Alaska’s interior, a mountain-ringed expanse of forests and wetlands that includes 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 commodity crops in the next forty to sixty years. Fifty to ninety per cent of Alaska’s interior contains permafrost underneath, meaning that the soil has been frozen for at least two consecutive years. But the permafrost is patchy enough that the region is called a “discontinuous” zone, and it is in flux: the polar regions are warming faster than the rest of the planet, and Alaskan land contains many microclimates. North-facing slopes are colder, for example, while hollows retain more heat. When farmers and developers clear-cut vegetation on the surface, permafrost thaws even faster. Some farms are encircled with “drunken forests,” or trees that slouch as the ground gives way.

In much of Alaska, and also in parts of Russia and Canada, where ice-rich permafrost is abundant, subsidence is the “No. 1 issue related to farming that we know of,” Melissa Ward Jones, a geomorphologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, or U.A.F., 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 before looks as hilly as the Shire. The ice in the permafrost beneath these farms, Ward Jones said, was probably a vast underground network, or a “spiderweb,” of polygonal formations known as wedges. When they melt, they can leave behind a pitted landscape called thermokarst.

In February, Ward Jones began a five-year effort to understand how farming and permafrost interact, and to establish best practices for farmers with permafrost under their fields. Called Permafrost Grown, it is funded by three million dollars from a young initiative of the National Science Foundation called Navigating the New Arctic. Northern farmers will need to know how to grow well on the land, instead of simply winging it, Ward Jones and her colleagues argued in a recent commentary. “We have this history of farming on permafrost, but a lot of people are just doing things experimentally,” she told me. “There hasn’t been dedicated research that’s actively tried to understand this system.”

With its cheap land, fertile soil, few pests other than hungry moose, and a growing season that is being drawn out by global warming, Alaska is becoming increasingly attractive to a younger generation of growers who want to start small farms. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of farms smaller than nine acres jumped seventy-three per cent across the state. (In contrast, the average American 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 almost all of its goods and often experiences shortages, should expand local agriculture to improve food security. For this reason, even local environmental activists are not outright opposed to new farms, despite their potential harm to the environment. Some Native Alaskans are wary of further encroachment into their traditional hunting and fishing grounds, but the decline of wild plants and animals has made agriculture a necessary supplement to subsistence diets.

Farms are likely to overtake more of the world’s polar regions in the years to come. On June 1st, the state’s Department of Natural Resources began the first phase of the Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project by opening bidding on twenty-seven parcels of land that are situated in a boreal forest about sixty miles southwest of Fairbanks, and that range from about twenty acres to three hundred. (Bidding ends on October 4th.) Throughout the next thirty years, state officials plan to gradually open more than a hundred thousand acres between the Nenana River and the zigzagging Kantishna for agriculture. Bidders are warned that the parcels come with no guarantees: “It is your responsibility to inspect the land and to be thoroughly acquainted with its condition.”

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

In the eighteen-nineties, a Presbyterian missionary turned federal official named Sheldon Jackson became a kind of lobbyist for Alaska’s agricultural potential. Whaling and seal hunting had decimated species that Native Alaskans relied on for food; Jackson promoted reindeer farming to take their place. Forty years later, the New Deal moved two hundred struggling Midwestern families to the Matanuska-Susitna, or Mat-Su, Valley, in south-central Alaska, to start a farming colony. Potatoes and dairy cows did well for a time, but many farms petered out in the face of harsh winters and competition with affordable imports. According to the anthropologists Philip Loring and S. Craig Gerlach, the state’s agrarian dream persisted because agriculture was “generally considered necessary for ‘making Alaska American.’ ”

The state’s subsequent farming projects do not inspire confidence. Flushed with oil money in the late seventies, Alaska tried to kick-start dairy, grain, and red-meat industries with the notorious Delta Barley Project, an attempt to convert sixty thousand acres of forest in Delta Junction, a region southeast of Fairbanks, into huge farms that averaged more than a thousand acres. A public-relations campaign inspired a new migration north. “People basically had to clear these fields and then wait for the permafrost to thaw,” which in some cases led to subsidence, Glenna Gannon, a Permafrost Grown researcher who works as an assistant professor of sustainable food systems at U.A.F., told me. Bison also stomped through and ate into the harvest. Though the barley grew well enough, global prices soon collapsed, and the state never completed the infrastructure that it promised. In total, the project cost the state a hundred and twenty million dollars. Many Alaskans I spoke to referred to it as a “boondoggle.”

There is still Delta barley to be found in the Alaskan interior. On a drizzly day in June, Bryce Wrigley gave me a panoramic tour of his seventeen hundred acres via Zoom. Wide green rows gave way to tall forests, the imposing summits of the Alaska Range, and a marble-colored sky. White stakes showed where Wrigley was experimenting with cover crops: peas, turnips, oats. The rest was soft green Sunshine Hulless barley, an easy-to-hull variety developed for northern climates. Wrigley has been lucky: below his farm, there was no permafrost to turn his land into cottage cheese. “Those things are happening farther north,” he said.

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