Community Supported Gardening and Food Security in Rural Alaska
This project was supported as a one-year research project to explore a mix of social and ecological background dimensions of small-scale agriculture in Alaska’s indigenous communities. I was successful, through this research, in uncovering a largely unknown tradition of gardening in many interior Alaskan villages, exploring the historical role that small-scale agriculture played in the long-term resiliency of these communities. In a contemporary setting, many of these same communities are renewing these cropping traditions in ways complementary to their larger cultural patterns and local ecosystems.
Document the history of farming by indigenous communities in Alaska.
This research made use of some recently identified archives to explore the history of gardening practices in the Yukon Flats region of Alaska, its legitimacy in respect to “tradition” as a state-legislative and regulatory context, and the origin of (mis)conceptions regarding its role in household and community economies. By scrutinizing a roughly 20-year history of garden crop records and synthesizing them with interviews and existing ethnographic sources, this research concluded that gardening has and continues to fulfill a role in Athabascan foodways that is perhaps best characterized as ‘outpost gardening’ (after Francis 1967), where agriculture was not valued as a primary or ideal means of subsistence, but as one component of a flexible and diversified cultural system.
Confirm of the relevance of small-scale farming in Alaska via a multiyear analysis of soil nutrients.
Existing soil sample data provided by the Cooperative Extension Service proved too stochastic to support a longitudinal study. However, other existing literature on Alaskan soils, particularly in respect to selenium deficiencies brought some new light to the possible caveats to the benefits of small-scale agriculture. Selenium, though not essential to plant metabolic processes, provides crucial support to human metabolism, through for instance liver function and antioxidant mobility. Thus, selenium as a trace mineral is identified as a key area for monitoring such that Alaskan producers can provide complete, healthful produce capable of sustaining human health. This research is now being pursued.
Research the recent history of subsistence-use patterns of Alaskan communities currently experimenting with farming.
This data are important for understanding current trends, and the niche native Alaskans are hoping to fill with small-scale, sustainable agriculture. This research turned to a contemporary Alaska Native food system, and the roles that a re-introduction of small-scale agriculture might play moving forward. It explored the contemporary foodways of one particular Alaska Native community, that of Minto, looking first to the harvest of traditional, country foods, but expanding beyond subsistence to discuss the whole rural Alaskan food system and Minto’s place within it. This ‘food-system analysis’ looked at some of the ways in which food, nutrition, and community health are linked through ecology, economic and political inistitutions to produce outcomes where food (calories) may be secure but nutrition is certainly not. Minto remains heavily invested in the country food harvest, where people live and eat together in a manner that is respectful of each other, of the land and the environment, and built upon a moral economy where food is considered more than a commodity to be exchanged through a set of impersonal market relationships and held as central to community well being. Yet Minto’s food system is fragmenting, and its people, like so many Alaska Native communities, are faced with contemporary syndromes such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, depression and alcoholism. To get at the dynamics and outcomes of these circumstances I use Kloppenburg et al’s (1996) “foodshed” framework to show how Minto is “coming out” of their foodshed: a process where a variety of exogenous circumstances are causing country foods (those harvested from the land, often called subsistence foods) to be increasingly supplanted by store-bought foods. The framework brought me through an exploration of how this food- and nutrition-transition provides these communities an additional measure of food security, but also increases their vulnerability to external economies and polities, and undermines their overall measure of self-reliance.
Explore community/cultural concerns.
Moving forward, the community of Minto has strong feelings about their potential community garden. They recognize the activity as something their parents and grandparents engaged in, though many don’t see themselves as having the skill/expertise necessary to contribute to the project. Many younger community members, despite the historical research finds made by this project, also question the ‘nativeness’ of gardening and perceived me as an agent of ‘neocolonialism.’ Interviews with 24 households revealed that the community overwhelmingly saw benefit in the garden, but noone felt able to participate.
- Research agenda officially adopted by the Minto Village Council. Community survey protocol approved by UAF IRB, protocol #06-67 Completed a household interview with 24 Minto households. Interview data have been synthesized qualitatively. Some data from the structured survey have yet to be recorded and quantified / processed with statistical methods. These data are expected to result in a publishable manuscript. The entire recordset of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Reindeer Service, for the Interior ‘Yukon Circle’ region of Alaska for early-to-late 1900s, was digitally scanned, recorded, and summarized. These records on early garden projects were combined with ethnographic material and interviews. The result was a total historical record for a vibrant yet overlooked history of small-scale cropping in the region. Existing soil survey data for the region have been synthesized with anecdotal soil sample data. Trace deficiencies have been identified, supporting the use of human nutrition as a yardstick for soil quality, not just plant nutrition. Standardization for soil research in the interior has been identified as a need moving forward. The New Minto community garden was established. Site chosen, ground broken, and cover crops planted the first year. Fence, toolshed, and greenhouse established the second year, but no crops planted. This project seems to hinge on the presence of a charismatic leader, and the community has yet to come together to make this project viable in the long-term. Additional garden projects have also been explored through dialog and field-trips to: Fort Yukon, Emmonak
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
- Alaska Native communities face significant institutional barriers when it comes to complete freedom for how to use their lands, as most lands are managed by state or federal resource agencies. Gardening and other agricultural practices are not considered by regulators to be “customary or traditional” behaviors, and as such cannot be sanctioned on these managed lands. This research has gone far towards changing this perception so that some of the best lands for Alaskan agriculture available to these communities can be made available. Michele Hebert, Land Resources Manager of the UAF cooperative extension service, expressed how fundamental the historical products of this research are to the legitimacy of not just the work she oversees but of the mission of her office at large. New research has been spawned from this initiative, specifically in terms of linking the nuances of Alaskan agriculture (e.g. short seasons, harsh conditions/cold soils, mid-season frosts, etc) to outcomes of human nutrition. Selenium is just one example of a human-nutrition concern related to Alaskan agriculture. Others involve potential benefits (where local foods may be healthier). Alaska has a precarious connection to the global food system. This research has in part gone toward highlighting those systematic vulnerabilities, promoting the greater self-reliance of strong local food systems, not just for rural indigenous communities but for urban areas as well. Through this research, I have become plugged in to the local agricultural community, and have facilitated partnerships between collaborators on other participatory research projects. I partnered with two other PhD researchers at UAF, both interested in agriculture (one researching gardening curricula in schools, another the urban food system). We collaborated on poster presentations and other community outreach to widen understandings of local food culture and the benefits of local food.
University of Alaska Fairbanks