Andrea Fraga of Middle Island Gardens and Michael Miller of Field to Fire are the winners of the sixth annual Sitka Food Business Innovation Contest, sponsored by the Sitka Local Foods Network.
Middle Island Gardens, operated by Fraga and her partner Kaleb Aldred, has been a regular participant of the Sitka Farmers Market for several years (note, Fraga is on the Sitka Local Foods Network board but did not participate in the judging for this contest). Field to Fire is a new business in Sitka, but Miller has operated the pre-made packaged meal company at farmers markets in the St. Louis area.
“We’re glad to support two businesses that are trying to bring more local food into Sitka’s food system,” Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham said. “Middle Island Gardens has been one of Sitka’s main suppliers of fresh, local produce for nearly a decade, while Field to Fire plans to use locally sourced ingredients in his meals.”
Fraga said she planned to use her winnings to make repairs around her small farm, which is located on one of Sitka’s barrier islands. The repairs will fix some winter damage and open up new space for growing produce.
“Middle Island Gardens will use the prize money to make repairs to our veggie wash and pack station, which was smashed by a large tree last winter, and to offset costs associated with machine rental to clean up the fallen tree,” Fraga said. “We are nearly done removing the tree and plan to expand our growing space into its footprint.”
Middle Island Gardens started selling produce at the Sitka Farmers Market in 2016, and has been a regular market vendor since. Fraga and Aldred grow about half of the locally grown produce sold at each market. They grow garlic, lettuce and other greens, carrots, turnips, onions, flowers, and more on their farm, and they use a skiff to bring the fresh veggies to town.
“While this event is a major setback for us, once we have removed the fallen tree and its root wad, we will be able to utilize the footprint of this large tree for new growing space,” Fraga wrote on her contest entry form. “Additionally, we hope to see increased success in the edible crops grown in the area, as they will no longer be competing with an old growth spruce tree for nutrients and sunlight.”
While Middle Island Gardens already is a known entity in Sitka, Field to Fire is a new business in town even though it’s been in operation at the Tower Grove Farmers Market in St. Louis. Miller said he plans to use his prize to buy supplies for launching his business in Sitka (his St. Louis operation is still going). He moved to Sitka when his wife, Julie, took a clinical dietician job at SEARHC Mount Edgecumbe Medical Center, and now Mike works in the MEMC kitchen.
“What an incredible honor it is to have won this contest,” Miller said. “I very much look forward to providing unique, delicious and sustainable meal options to this amazing community.”
With his St. Louis operation, Miller has more local farmers to work with to source locally grown produce for his small-batch meals. He still intends to source locally grown produce in Sitka, if enough is available. But he also plans to work with local fishermen to provide seafood dinners.
“Now that we have relocated to Southeast Alaska, we are focussing in on the sustainable seafood market with hopes to build a line of products caught ethically and sustainably and processed in the region,” Miller wrote on his contest entry. “Building ties to the community and telling the story in our products are just a few of our core operational goals.”
In addition to using locally sourced ingredients as much as possible, Miller said he plans to do his own pickling, processing, and preserving produce so he can have local product available through the winter.
“Our products will be prepared by hand using a small-batch cooking method,” Miller said. “All of the dishes will be made with the freshest and most thoughtfully sourced products available. Meals come in recyclable, microwave-safe containers. Portion sizes are generally 16 ounces for soups, curries and entrées, and eight ounces for dips and appetizers. All products come available frozen.”
He plans to have a presence at the Sitka Farmers Market, and to also offer pop-up events where people can buy his food. In addition, he had plans to start a meal subscription service where people can order weekly meals.
Last year’s winners were Gretchen Stelzenmuller of Enoki Eatery (musubi with an Alaska twist), and the duo of Edith Johnson and Lexi Fish-Hackett with an unnamed fish broth project to use fish waste.
The 2021 winners were Joanne “Chef Jo” Michalski of Muddy Mermaid Mudd Pies (frozen yogurt pies) and Nalani James of Eggstravgant (eggs from her chickens). The 2020 winners were Andrew Jylkka of Southeast Dough Company (fresh sourdough bread and fermented foods) and Levi Adams of Forage and Farm (mushroom growing and foraging). In 2019, our winners were Brittany Dumag of Castaway (food cart with Cuban pork sandwiches using Alaska pork) and Tamara Kyle of Sitka Sauers (fermented foods), with a special youth winner award for Abigail Ward of Sitka Spices (meat and fish rubs). In 2018, the winner was Hope Merritt of Gimbal Botanicals (beach greens and local teas).