(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 fourth article of the series.)
Andrea Fraga grew up in Hawaii and lived in Oregon for 10 years before she moved to Sitka. While in Oregon, she met a friend from Sitka who invited her to visit, and after her third trip she decided to embrace the rainy weather and move here. Sitka’s tremendous opportunities for subsistence appealed to her desire to become more self-sufficient. “I had been really interested in leading more of a subsistence lifestyle for a while” Fraga said.
Fraga lives on Middle Island with her partner, Kaleb Aldred. They started with a small garden on the beach, and then established a garden with a greenhouse behind their home. They have since expanded to a lot due south of their house. “We had always lusted to have that space as an ideal garden spot,” she said.
Creating the “small farm or large garden” on Middle Island was not an easy task. They had to cut down trees and rent a machine to pull the stumps out. When they tried to dig the stumps out by hand, removing one stump took a whole week. The machine that removed the stumps compacted the soil, so they then had to dig a trench and fill it with gravel to provide the boggy field with adequate drainage. “I never thought I’d be someone to say, ‘Yeah, let’s cut down all the trees,’ but it’s necessary if you want to garden here,” Fraga said. Removing trees created a sunnier space and also has enabled Fraga to plant fruit trees along the perimeter of her garden.
On occasion, Fraga sells vegetables at the Sitka Farmers Market through their Middle Island Organic Produce stand. She and Aldred hope to grow garlic commercially one day, although they are well aware that “weather and crop failure coalesce and can slow plans down.”
Currently, they have planted about a quarter of their garden in garlic so that they can harvest enough to plant a larger area in the future. Seed garlic costs about $25 dollars a pound from most sources, so generating seed on site will help save a significant amount of money. Fraga said growing garlic commercially makes sense because deer and slugs do not eat it and it is not highly perishable. Furthermore, unlike most garden vegetables she plants in the spring, garlic goes in the ground in the fall, so she can distribute her labor throughout the year.
At a commercial growers conference last spring, Fraga learned about using plastic mulch on garlic to control moisture levels and minimize weeds. The infrared- transmitting plastic transmits heat wavelengths of sunlight that warm the soil and absorbs the wavelengths that plants require for photosynthesis, so weeds cannot grow beneath it. Fraga has begun using the plastic mulch on her own garden this year.
Having farmed in Oregon where one can cultivate a wider variety of plants with greater ease than in Sitka, Fraga does find adapting to Sitka’s weather challenging. Living on an island also has its challenges. For example, in the fall and winter, storms and darkness can restrict travel to and from town. However, Fraga views these challenges as small tradeoffs that allow her to live and garden in a “beautiful, quiet place away from all the noises and distractions of town” and where she is “more in touch with the environment.”
Experiencing beauty is, in large part, what Fraga finds so appealing about subsistence. She explained that gardens, berry thickets, and areas where she forages for mushrooms and seaweed are all beautiful places to spend time. For her, gardening “is just such a beautiful process.” She appreciates the exercise and fresh air involved in gardening, as well as the taste and nutritional value of fresh food. Fraga especially appreciates when she can refer to her dinner as a “Middle Island meal” because all of its components, apart from perhaps the fish,” came from the island that is her home. “It’s really satisfying to eat something that’s entirely grown or harvested yourself.”
Fraga is also a part of a gardening group that meets at one member’s garden every week to work there together. “It’s really great because garden projects that seem daunting end up being fun when you have people to work with,” Fraga said.
For those who find the prospect of starting a garden daunting, Fraga recommends “starting small and simple.” For example, one could begin by growing hearty plants like kale and potatoes that do not require extremely fertile soil. Learning about wild edibles also intimidates many people. Fraga took a class on mushroom identification through University of Alaska Southeast, but she also pointed out one can learn by reading field guides and talking with individuals who willing to share their knowledge on the subject. Gardening and foraging “are really rewarding,” she said. “They don’t have to be discouraging.”
For questions about her garden on Middle Island, contact Andrea Fraga at 738-5135.