A Q&A about growing garlic in Sitka with Andrea Fraga of Middle Island Gardens

In recent years, Andrea Fraga and her partner, Kaleb Aldred, have been growing garlic at Middle Island Gardens, which they sell at Sitka Farmers Markets and on Sitka Food Co-Op pick-up days. They also are selling some of their garlic to local restaurants. Recently, Andrea responded to some questions about Middle Island Gardens.

Q: What prompted you to start Middle Island Gardens? Also, please tell me some of the basics about how you started the operation.

A: Kaleb and I began gardening as a means to be more self-sufficient, and after finding it immensely satisfying, we expanded our efforts into every semi-flat, semi-sunny spot. We even got away with growing unfenced potatoes before the deer developed a taste for them. So, one garden became two, then three years ago we were able to expand our efforts to a third, much larger and sunnier spot, and the idea to grow food commercially naturally arose. The hard work that stood between us and our goal was encouraged by the excitement of a shared vision to grow lots of local produce in a place where food security is a real consideration. At the same time, we got to create an artistic edible space together that we are both rather addicted to spending time in, and when someone eats our produce they get to share in that beauty a bit.

beach garden

Q: Did you have much of a farming or gardening background before you started Middle Island Gardens? If not, how did you learn about growing garlic in Southeast Alaska?

A: We both come from grandparents who worked the soil, though Kaleb took to fishing the seas as a young adult. Meanwhile, I was dabbling in gardening down in southern Oregon, and working on a few farms as well. When I moved to Sitka I was eager to continue in this vein, which seemed especially important considering how far fruits and veggies have to travel to get here. Kaleb likes to be helpful, so he whacked together a couple of raised beds, and we were off. Luckily there are some great local resources for a gardener adapting to Southeast Alaska’s soggy climate, and I remember reading Juneau Garden Club’s Gardening in Southeast Alaska and discovering Juneau master gardener Joe Orsi’s article Growing Garlic in Rain Country, as well as Florence Welsh’s excellent blog “Sitkavores.” She very generously donated some planting stock to us after I asked her which varieties she recommends (Georgian crystal and Persian Star, a.k.a Samarkand).  Washington grower Ron Engeland also wrote the very informative book Growing Great Garlic.

Q: What types of garlic do you grow, and what are the differences?

A: There are two main types of garlic. The softneck, or non-bolting type, and the hardneck type which produces a flowering scape.  We grow hardneck garlic, as it is hardier, more delicious, and produces those tasty scapes too. Among the hardneck garlics there are several subcategories — rocambole are most sought after for flavor; porcelain types have fewer, but larger cloves (2-6); then there are the purple-striped. We grow Killarney red, German red, Russian red and carpathian (rocambole), Georgian crystal, music and Russian giant (porcelain) chesnok red (purple stripe), and purple glazer (glazed purple stripe), as well as elephant garlic.

Q: What other crops do you grow and how have they done?

A: We grow just about everything that can tolerate this cool, wet, short season climate — potatoes, kale, carrots, peas, parsley, fava beans, broccoli, beets, lettuce, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries. We have also planted hardy kiwi vines, apple, plum and cherry trees, but they are still in their unfruitful adolescence at this point. One challenge I have noticed in the past couple of years is the arrival of a few different defoliating caterpillars. They seem to prefer berry bushes, especially raspberry canes, but will also eat apple leaves and even kale. It’s been a challenge that we have been dealing with by squishing them so far.

Q: Do you have any secrets for growing garlic in Southeast Alaska you’d like to share? (Andrea taught a growing garlic class Sept. 14 and her handout is linked at the bottom of this Q&A.)

A: We have had such wonderful results by using IRT (infrared-transmitting) plastic. Because garlic spends 10 months in the ground, many of which involve torrential rains, planting through this plastic mulch protects the soil from erosion, while also suppressing weed growth and warming the soil.  We’ve also increased the plant spacing from 4×4” to 6×8” and noticed a major increase in bulb size, which could also be a result of planting a couple of weeks earlier …. in late September. Mixing a nitrogenous cover crop such as vetch into the soil may also help, as it provides slow-release nitrogen and a loose, fluffy soil environment for bulbs to grow in.

Q: How hard is it to make a small garden/farm work in Southeast Alaska? What kinds of barriers and rewards are there?

A: The climate is by far the most challenging aspect of growing food here, but the landscape is also rather unsuitable. As many Southeast Alaska gardeners know, it can be difficult to come up with enough soil to get started, and then this soil must be heavily amended every year to counteract the incredible rinsing it receives. Kaleb and I are constantly carrying loads of seaweed and shell sand uphill to gardens, but the rewards are well worth it – nutritious food, lovely gardens, mandatory exercise, and spending time in beautiful places.

Q: You are growing garlic on one of Sitka’s barrier islands? Does that help give you better sun exposure, soil, etc.? Does it also make things harder when you need to bring product into town?

A: I think Middle Island may be just a couple of degrees warmer than Baranof Island at times.  Other than that, we are just fortunate to have the majority of our growing space be in a rather sunny spot, though we did work hard clearing trees to achieve this. We are also fortunate in that we don’t have any farming neighbors to compete with when it comes to collecting seaweed off the beaches after a storm. As far as bringing produce into town, I do often envy the farmer who’s able to park a pickup in the field, fill it up and drive it directly to the market. Lately I have made sure to provide a sort of mattress pad for the garlic to sit on in its tote as we skiff to town over autumn’s bumpy seas.

Q: Do you have any mentors who have helped you in your business?

A: Speaking of bringing produce to town, Bo Varsano and Marja Smets of Farragut Farm (outside Petersburg) have a much more challenging situation to overcome.  They live and farm up a tidal slough, and sometimes have to get up in the middle of the night to load their boat for the four-hour journey to Petersburg.  Those folks have definitely been an inspiration to us, as have Sally Boisvert and Rafe McGuire of Four Winds Farm in Haines, Joe Orsi of Orsi Organic Produce in Juneau, and of course Florence Welsh of Sitka, who is so incredibly generous with both her knowledge and her plants. Keith Nyitray of the Sitka Food Co-Op has been very encouraging and helpful, providing us a space to sell veggies and promoting our produce to boot. And, of course, we appreciate the Sitka Local Foods Network doing the same.

Q: How large is your operation and what is your ultimate goal?

A: We have approximately 4,500 square feet in production, minus paths, and are definitely eying every reasonable area for expansion. Though this is ridiculously tiny for agriculture, for Sitka we feel blessed to have so much space, and while we may not be able to ever make our entire living off of it, we’re going to try our best and just have fun along the way, meanwhile providing Sitkans as much nutritious food as the land and our efforts will allow.

Q: Do you have any other comments about Middle Island Gardens you think might interest others in Sitka and Southeast Alaska about your business?

A: I urge everyone to read the incredibly eye-opening book Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson. The premise of the book is that modern-day produce varieties, which have been bred primarily for storage, shipping and appearance, have inadvertently become less tasty and nutritious. In fact, some veggies, such as broccoli, lose a lot of nutrients in transit. This great book recommends specific varieties of plants to grow to maximize your nutrient intake, and Middle Island Gardens will be selecting next year’s varieties with this in mind. Also, when you eat local produce, grown with the seaweed, sand, fish and rain of this place, you are yourself made of this place, which is a really cool thing.

• Growing Garlic In Sitka handout from Middle Island Gardens

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Learn how to grow garlic with Andrea Fraga and Kaleb Aldred of Middle Island Gardens

Most gardeners do their planting in the spring. But if you’re growing garlic, the fall is the best time to plant.

The Sitka Local Foods Network education committee will host a free class on growing garlic with Andrea Fraga and Kaleb Aldred of Middle Island Gardens from 6:30-8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 14, at the Sitka Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall (408 Marine Street, parking off Spruce Street).

Andrea and Kaleb have been selling their locally grown garlic at the Sitka Farmers Market and on Sitka Food Co-Op pick-up days this year. They grow a variety of garlic types, including music, Killarney red, and Georgian crystal.

For more information, contact Andrea or Kaleb at middleislandgardens@gmail.com, or contact Jennifer Carter of the Sitka Local Foods Network at 747-0520 or jlc63@alaska.net.

Sitka Food Co-op to host annual meeting and potluck on Sunday, Feb. 26

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The Sitka Food Co-op will host its annual membership meeting and potluck lunch from noon until 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26, at the Sitka Fire Station conference room. The meeting is open to all Sitka residents, regardless of co-op membership.

This meeting will give members and prospective members a chance to learn what the co-op is doing, where its going and how it plans to get there. There also will be elections for the board of directors (five seats on the seven-member board are open and you must be a co-op member to run or vote), amendments to the by-laws, and there will be several new and important committees created. Co-op officers encourage people to attend and take part in building the co-op to the next level.

The Sitka Food Co-op was incorporated on Sept. 26, 2011, as a way to bring good food and community together. The purposes of the Sitka Food Co-op are to:

  • Create a community-based, member-owned buying service;
  • Make available wholesome natural and organic foods and products as inexpensively as possible;
  • Support and encourage local growing of fresh organic foods;
  • Purchase and purvey, whenever feasible, the goods or services of local and regional growers and producers; and
  • Serve as a center for activities and services which otherwise enrich the life of the community.

Please note that the Sitka Food Co-op is a separate organization than the Sitka Local Foods Network, even though we share some of the same goals.

To learn more about the Sitka Food Co-op and its annual meeting, email sitkafoodcoop@gmail.com or go to http://sitkafoodcoop.org/. Potential board members should submit an online candidate application form by 5 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 24, telling a little bit about yourself and why you want to serve on the board of directors.

• Draft agenda for Sitka Food Co-op 2017 annual meeting

Sitka Health Summit chooses two community wellness projects related to local food

groupshotofcitizenplanners

newsitkahealthsummitlogoHealthy nutritious local food was the theme as about 75 Sitka residents gathered to choose two community wellness projects to pursue in 2016-17 at the 10th annual Sitka Health Summit planning day Friday, Oct. 21, at the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka Campus.

The citizen planners chose one specific topic project (which can be finished in one year) and one broad topic (which may become a multi-year project). Identifying, developing, organizing and maintaining a new community garden was the choice for specific topic project. Combining all healthy and local food organizations into one nonprofit was broad topic project chosen.

dougosbornereadsoffprojectideasbeforevotingThese two projects were chosen from 21 specific topic project and nine broad topic project ideas introduced by the citizen planners (some similar project ideas were combined into one submission before voting). The topic ideas submitted by the citizen planners fell into a variety of categories, such as physical activity, nutrition, mental health, health equity, etc. The two chosen projects will each receive $2,000 in seed money, as well as some facilitation services from the Sitka Health Summit advisory team, to help get the projects off the ground.

Each of the two chosen community wellness projects will host a kick-off event in the near future, and these events are open to the public and anybody who wants to help with the project. More information about the projects, their kick-off meetings, and contact people are listed below.

  • emptyblatchleycommunitygardenIdentify, develop, organize and maintain new community gardens in Sitka — 6 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 3, Harrigan Centennial Hall, contact Dave Nuetzel, 738-8372, community.garden@hotmail.com — This project is to create one or more community garden spaces in Sitka, which has become a need due to the recent closure of the Blatchley Community Gardens behind Blatchley Middle School. Building more community gardens will allow landless Sitkans and those who don’t have good sun exposure to have a place to grow their own food. The former Blatchley Community Gardens page on Facebook has been renamed the Sitka Community Gardens page, https://www.facebook.com/Sitka-Community-Gardens-210713299032006/, which people can like for more information.
  • Combine all healthy and local food organizations into one nonprofit — 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 10, Harrigan Centennial Hall contact Charles Bingham, 623-7660, charleswbingham3@gmail.com — This project’s goal is to help the large number of Sitka groups working on healthy and local food projects (such as the Sitka Local Foods Network, Sitka Kitch, Sitka Food Co-Op, etc.) find ways to collaborate and work together to become more efficient and not burn out so many board members and volunteers because of the duplication of efforts. This project may result in some organizations combining into one, or at least finding ways to collaborate. The project may take longer than one year, as the various groups merge their missions, purposes, values, and organizational structures, while avoiding turf wars. But the overall goal is to make sure “Every Sitkan has access to healthy, affordable food.”

dougosbornepresentsawardtogirlscouttroop4140In addition to choosing two community wellness projects, the Sitka Health Summit recognized Girl Scout Troop 4140 for its work in promoting and improving the safety of the Peterson Street and Halibut Point Road intersection following recent car-bike and car-walker collisions that left people seriously injured.

The Sitka Health Summit is coordinated and funded by a coalition of local groups that includes Brave Heart Volunteers, the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), Sitka Community Hospital, the Sitka Community Hospital Foundation, and the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka Campus, with additional financial help from Guardian Flight, Southeast Radiation Oncology, White’s Pharmacy, Lakeside-Milam Recovery Centers, Sitka Vision Clinic, Unity Botanicals, and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco-Seattle Branch Community Development Division.

For more information about the Sitka Health Summit and its current and past projects, go to http://www.sitkahealthsummit.org/. A slideshow of scenes from the 10th annual Sitka Health Summit is posted below, as well as a slideshow of scenes from the now-empty Blatchley Community Gardens.

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This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Building a Local Food System: Keith Nyitray of Finn Island Farm and the Sitka Food Co-Op

KeithNyitrayWithCabbage

(Editor’s Note: The Sitka Local Foods Network’s Bulldog on Baranof intern this summer, Claire Chang, is writing the Building a Local Food System series of articles about Sitkans working to improve food security. This is the first article of the series.)

As owner of Finn Island Farm and general manager of the Sitka Food Co-Op, Keith Nyitray is committed to improving access to quality, affordable food on a local level.

DSCN0863Born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island, Nyitray arrived in Alaska after college in 1979 to pursue mountaineering. He has had his fair share of rugged adventures, including a 10-month, 1,500 mile solo expedition across the Arctic Brooks Range that he wrote about for National Geographic in 1993. When he arrived in Sitka for the first time 17 years ago, the town’s “wonderful community” inspired him to stay.

Nyitray says he learned to garden “at his grandfather’s knees.” He operates his farm and lives on Finn Island, located three miles from Sitka in the Kasiana Islands. On about 2,000 square feet of garden space, he produces plant starts and vegetables, and he also maintains a greenhouse and raises chickens.

Compared to other gardens in Sitka, one of the biggest advantages of the farm’s location on an island is what Nyitray calls the “270 degrees of sun” his garden receives. Annually, he sells 5,000 to 6,000 plant starts to True Value, to private individuals, and through the Sitka Food Co-Op. He sells most of his mature vegetables — such as green beans, zucchini, lettuce, beets, broccoli, English cucumbers, and peppers — through private trades and through the co-op.

KeithNyitrayRobertBainesExplainSitkaFoodCoOpNyitray helped establish the Sitka Food Co-Op in 2011 to help meet the needs of the community. “A lot of people were struggling financially at the time,” Nyitray said, “and food prices were going up and down.”

According to Nyitray, the co-op provides Sitkans access to organic, healthy food at lower prices than local markets. Co-op members make purchases through food distributors online, and the bulk orders are shipped to Sitka as freight on barges. Organic apples purchased through the co-op, for example, cost half as much as organic apples at the grocery stores in Sitka. In addition, the co-op provides individuals with unique dietary needs, especially families with children who have allergies, with access to a wider variety of foods than local markets.

What started as a cooperative of 13 families now has more than 220 members, and sales are projected to exceed $260,000 this year. Nyitray explained that the “slow growth approach” has allowed the organization to keep membership fees at affordable levels while including as many community members as possible.

SitkaFoodCoOpKeithNyitrayMany co-ops, often in big cities or areas with large universities nearby, raise significant capital to open a retail storefront before going into operation. In contrast, the Sitka Food Co-Op does not yet have a retail store, and Nyitray describes the Sitka co-op as a “hybrid between a non-profit buyers club and a for-profit co-op.” This model, which prioritizes the co-op’s connection with the community, is consistent with Nyitray’s belief in “food for people, not for profit.”

The success of the Sitka Food Co-Op has even inspired other rural Alaskan communities, such as Petersburg and Kodiak, to ask Nyitray about starting their own co-ops. Nyitray is excited about supporting these new co-ops, as one of the “seven cooperative principles,” a set of ideals for the operation of cooperatives, is “cooperation between cooperatives.”

Nyitray describes his roles on Finn Island Farm and with the Sitka Food Co-Op as “the most rewarding jobs or positions he has ever had.” He views his work as an embodiment of the saying, “think globally, act locally.” In working toward food security in Sitka, Nyitray has been able to see “definite, positive, immediate results.”

IMG_9866For instance, Nyitray says the competition from the co-op has already led some local grocery stores to reduce some of their prices. Having previously been involved in politics, he finds these results especially gratifying. “In politics, the work was very challenging, but not always very rewarding. You could work really hard, but rarely see results.”

He also enjoys the relationships with community members that he forms through his work. “When people purchase stuff from you they are actually saying thank you,” he explains. “They appreciate the service and the quality of food and the savings. It’s very social. I know everyone by name.”

In the future, Nyitray hopes the Sitka Food Co-Op will be able to include even more members and eventually open a retail store. A retail store helps reach more people in the community who are not members of the co-op and allows shoppers to use food stamps and other forms of food assistance as payment. As he works to serve community, Nyitray will continue to enjoy some of the smaller perks of his job. “I like the organic oranges that I get,” he says, “because I like the juice.”

To learn more about Finn Island Farm, contact Keith Nyitray at knyitray@yahoo.com. To learn more about the Sitka Food Co-Op, contact Nyitray at sitkafoodcoop@gmail.com, or visit the co-op website at http://sitkafoodcoop.org.

• Sitka Food Co-op to host annual membership meeting and potluck on Sunday, Feb. 21

ANNUAL MEETING FLYER

The Sitka Food Co-op will host its annual membership meeting and potluck dinner from noon until 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 21, at Sprucecot Cabin (308 Peterson St.). The meeting is open to all Sitka residents, regardless of co-op membership.

This meeting will give members and prospective members a chance to learn what the co-op is doing, where its going and how it plans to get there. There also will be elections for the board of directors (several seats are open and you must be a co-op member to run or vote), amendments to the by-laws, and there will be several new and important committees created. Co-op officers encourage people to attend and take part in building the co-op to the next level.

The Sitka Food Co-op was incorporated on Sept. 26, 2011, as a way to bring good food and community together. The purposes of the Sitka Food Co-op are to:

  • Create a community-based, member-owned buying service;
  • Make available wholesome natural and organic foods and products as inexpensively as possible;
  • Support and encourage local growing of fresh organic foods;
  • Purchase and purvey, whenever feasible, the goods or services of local and regional growers and producers; and
  • Serve as a center for activities and services which otherwise enrich the life of the community.

Please note that the Sitka Food Co-op is a separate organization than the Sitka Local Foods Network, even though we share some of the same goals.

To learn more about the Sitka Food Co-op and its annual meeting, email sitkafoodcoop@gmail.com or go to http://sitkafoodcoop.org/. Potential board members should submit an online candidate application form by 5 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 19, telling a little bit about yourself and why you want to serve on the board of directors.

Here is the tentative agenda:

  • Annual report overview – actions and accomplishments
  • Budget and financial report
  • Committees
  • Bylaw Amendments (all co-op members in good standing are eligible to vote), the following are proposed:
    • Increasing from a 5-member board to a 7-member board to increase our capacity and spread out the workload.
    • Allow for board members to receive a stipend for their services and reimbursement of expenses. It is common practice for co-ops to provide some level of compensation or stipend to Board of Directors in recognition of their service and contributions. Board members have been giving over 1,000 hours of time annually to the Sitka Food Co-op to help our organization grow and succeed. This change may also help with recruitment and retention of board members, which has been an ongoing challenge.
  • Election of Directors (all co-op members in good standing are eligible to vote)
  • 2016 Program of Work: transition to a member equity fee structure, establish a formal policy governance structure, formalize a donation policy, clarify our vision of a ‘Sitka Community Marketplace,’ and more!
  • Membership Feedback/Discussion

• Sitka Food Co-op, Sitka Local Foods Network make plant starts available on co-op delivery days

FLYER-w tear offs-EDIT-26APR2015

IMG_9869The Sitka Local Foods Network and Sitka Food Co-op are teaming up to make garden starts available for Sitka food gardeners.

Plant starts from Finn Island Farm and other Sitka gardeners will be available for sale or swap on the next two Sitka Food Co-op delivery days, from 4:30-7 p.m. on Monday, May 4 and May 18, at the Sitka First Presbyterian Church, 505 Sawmill Creek Road. (NOTE: Due to a late-arriving barge, the May 4 pick-up day has been postponed until May 5.)

Finn Island Farm will be bringing the following starts — red Romaine lettuce, Tuscan kale, snap peas, sweet bell pepper, basil, Waltham broccoli, dark green zucchini, English cucumbers, pickling cucumbers, dark red and bulls blood beets, tomatoes (a large variety), and more.

The sale of these plant starts helps benefit the Sitka Local Foods Network, and we thank the Sitka Food Co-op for the opportunity to sell them on their delivery pick-up days. The plant starts are from Sitka gardeners and are of plants that do well in Sitka’s climate.

For more information, contact Keith Nyitray of the Sitka Food Co-op at sitkafoodcoop@gmail.com or go to http://sitkafoodcoop.org/