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A pile of dirt and food for thought

Amanda Coyne

It started so simply, with a little pile in the corner of my yard, against the fence, between the raspberry bushes and the raised garden bed. It's been there for years. And for years, I've dumped grass clippings, old potting soil, old weeds, and some raked leaves onto that pile. I sometimes kind of try to stir it up, but then my arm gets tired and I quit. The other day I found myself just staring at it, in the same way that sometimes I open my refrigerator and stare. It's not conscious. By the time I awake from the trance, I know what I need to buy for dinner, or I finally have a problem solved.

This time, though, after I finished staring at the pile, nothing was etched anywhere, no problem was solved.

What I want is compost. Rich, thick, warm, black gold for my perennial and vegetable gardens. Both of which in the last few years, have been growing dyspeptically, if at all. Compost would help. I could buy it, I suppose, and I have done so, just as I buy the vegetables that I could grow in the garden. But I'm beginning to rethink these things. I know I'm late in the game in all of this. The eco-conscious, farm-to-table, anti-industrial-agriculture movement is practically passé by now. But I'm a late bloomer in a lot of ways. I've just begun to eye a pair of Uggs. I've just recently realized that a daily mascara application isn't a life-or-death necessity. I'm just now thinking of reading Michael Pollan's food books. It goes on, but you get the picture.

If you look online, you'd think that I have everything I need to start a compost heap. In fact, many sites, intent on trying to do that compost-for-dummies thing, have told me that the compost should, at this point, be all hot and gooey. Green and brown, the websites say. Nitrogen and carbon, they say. Green grass, brown leaves or twigs. Throw in some paper, some cardboard, kitchen scraps. So easy, the websites promise. Well, I've mixed the brown and the green, and I've thrown in some paper, I'm still without the goo. Nothing's breaking down. Am I doing something wrong?

Speaking of what I’m doing wrong, how do other people in the state compost? Not lots of brown or green in Barrow. Nome? The Pribilof Islands? Do they garden in Nome? What grows up there?

That's where I went wrong. I should have stuck to my own little pile, in my own little yard, minding my own little business. Because, before I knew it, I was talking to experts all across Alaska and some Outside about soil science, which lead to conversations about "food security," the hot new buzz phrase, which is not one of President Obama's top priorities. I was learning about droughts in Kansas, the price of corn in Iowa, wheat in Russia and in China, riots in Africa. Subsistence and whaling and predator control, alternative energy and excrement. Global warming and terrorism. The impending water shortage and disease. Love, life and death. And it all can be linked to hunger, to those approximately 925 million people in the world who don't have enough to eat.

It was very deep, very perplexing.

Composting can be that way, I guess. Who knew?

Alaska composting takes a village garden

Daniel Consenstein, for one, knew. He's from the federal government and he's here to help. He's working with local farmers to try to help them be better local farmers. He's the state director of the Alaska Farm Service Agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and he's elbow-deep in these issues.

"Part of what keeps me getting up in the morning is thinking about food, and where we get it," Consenstein said. "And the more you know, the more you know how screwed up our food production system is, how vulnerable we are."

We're particularly vulnerable in Alaska. We are, in a way, our own country. And in this country, about 95 percent of our food comes from Outside: that includes the meat and fish we eat. Compare that with the United States as a whole, which as of 2007 imports about 13 percent of its food. As a state known for self reliance and self sufficiency, we're terribly dependent on others, far away, for the very thing that we most need to keep us alive.

And then there's the financial impact. In Alaska, we spend roughly $2.5 billion on imported food, resulting in what Consenstein called an "economy bleeding" of our food dollars. All that economic bleeding and still many Alaskans are still hungry. Rural Alaska is particularly hungry.  A 2006 Center for Disease Control survey found that eleven percent of adults and 14 percent of children in rural Alaska had to skip or cut down on meals because there was not enough money for food. Twenty-six percent of rural Alaskans said they could not afford to eat balanced meals, and 34 percent struggled to make their food last through the month. That survey was taken before the high cost of fuel and the early freeze up in rural Alaska in 2008 and 2009 that left western villagers stranded without food.  

Meantime, obesity has become one of the state's most expensive health problems. Public Health Director Ward Hurlburt said last year that complications related to obesity, such as diabetes and high blood pressure generates about $465 million in medical bills a year in Alaska.

Much of the problem, nearly everyone agrees, is the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly in areas dubbed "food deserts." The White House has gone as far as proposing $400 million a year for the eradication of these deserts, defined by the secretary of agriculture as places where there's no access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

The country is dotted with such deserts, but Alaska is the Sahara.

What's to be done? There are no easy solutions in Alaska. For anything. Government can help. Consenstein for one meets with local farmers, and helps with grant applications. The University of Alaska Fairbanks is working with the community and conducting exciting agriculture experiments. It recently broke ground on a $5.3 million research greenhouse, and is lobbying the state hard for money to research food security issues, including research on livestock, expanding the growing season and producing produce grown inside.

And then there're local efforts. Nome, for instance, has a thriving gardening culture, and if you work hard enough at it, build raised beds, shelter others, really work your soil (composting!) you can get some pretty good vegetables, said Kathi Tweet, a master gardener for the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"We grow all sorts of things," she said. Certainly not tomatoes? "Don't tell a gardener that you can't grow a tomato," Tweet replied. Apparently, there're all sorts of tomatoes being grown in Nome.

There is a 25-foot long geodesic greenhouse in Nikolski, a town of about 40 people on Umnak Island in the Aleutians. It keeps the town in vegetables nearly all year long. Nikolski is lucky in that there soil is pretty good, says Robert Mikol, a UAF natural resources graduate student. He's working with the mayor of St. George, in the Pribilof Islands, who's interested in building a greenhouse there. The soil there is workable, he said. It's not so workable on St. Paul, the other principal Pribilof island, where Mikol said one would "need tremendous amendments."

"It's amazing how soil can be different in just a few miles," Mikol added.

But then again, you don't really need soil. There are all sorts of interesting gardening experiments and projects throughout the state that are going without it. Chena Hot Springs, outside of Fairbanks has a large hydroponic greenhouse that produces vegetables all year long.

Some young students from Barrow recently talked to Consenstein about trying to get a greenhouse under way there, which would probably, like Chena's, be a hydroponic one. It would almost have to be. In Fairbanks you can get some soil but there aren't many lawn clippings or old dried leaves to create compost in Barrow. But with enough care, it could be done. More practically, however, to grow vegetables for the community -- at least on a large scale -- it would most likely have to be done hydroponically, which isn't an impossible task. Barrow has water, and it has energy. And it certainly could use the vegetables.

But so much of it depends on soil, which gets back to soil amendments, which brings me (sort of) back to the compost pile.

Get a wheel barrow, she's getting to the compost

After hours of totally enjoyable, draining, eye-opening food-politics discussions, I finally was able to talk to the person I really needed to talk to about my compost pile. Jeff Lowenfels, Alaska’s gardening guru, the king of the microbe, the author of "Teaming With Microbes: The Gardener's Guide to The Soil Food Web." Lowenfels is also steeped in food-politics. He's the founder of Plant a Row for the Hungry, a nonprofit associated with the Garden Writers Association. It has taken root in a huge way. Since its inception in 1995, the gardeners have produced 96,832 pounds of produce and 50 million meals for the hungry as of 2010.

Like my little pile, it started as a small idea. Lowenfels, who was president of Yukon Pacific Corp., a company that wanted to transport Alaska's natural gas, was in Washington, D.C., walking from dinner to his swanky hotel when a man approached him, asking for money for food. The city was plastered with signs that warned people against giving money to panhandlers, he said. He refused and kept on walking. The guy followed Lowenfels, and promised that he could even sit down with him and watch him eat.

Still, Lowenfels said no all the way into his fancy hotel. In his room, a bottle of wine and a box of chocolates awaited him. "I didn't have a good night's sleep," he said. It was worse the next day. "I had to fly home," he said. "There I was sitting in first class, eating steak and zucchini, and I had refused to give that guy two dollars."

The experience haunted him. Lowenfels did then, and still does, write a gardening column for the Anchorage Daily News. So, he had a venue, and he had an idea.

When he got back to Anchorage, he wrote a column, challenging everybody in Anchorage to plant one row and donate the spoils to Beans Café. "It's been pretty darned successful," he said. "But you know what? I still feel bad," he said. And when people say they're hungry and ask for money, he always gives it to them.

Back to my pile. Lowenfels said I should basically start all over. For one, he doesn't think the location of my compost pile is accessible enough. Secondly, it's been sitting so long that the sugars from the grass are probably depleted. He suggests that I get some kind of enclosure, something that will create a cube that needs to be at least three feet, and put what I have in the box. Then throw some alfalfa meal in there to make up for the sugars. Keep it wet enough so that if you were to take a handful and squeeze, only one drop of water would fall from it. And, for the next week, turn the whole thing over and over again. Soon, he promises, it’ll start to heat up. Soon, he promises, I'll get that compost.

It's a bit more complicated than that, of course. You need more brown than green, certain veggies break down faster than others, foul smells and pests are involved. And bears. But then most things get more complicated the more you dig. After all, so much depends upon a simple thing, like that red wheel barrow, glazed with rain.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com