Building a Local Food System: Andrea Fraga and Middle Island Organic Produce

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Andrea Fraga, left, and partner Kaleb Aldred, hosted their Middle Island Organic Produce booth at the July 16 Sitka Farmers Market.

(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.)

WP_20160704_11_00_23_ProAndrea 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.

MiddleIslandOrganicProduceKalebAldredAndreaFragaWithCustomersOn 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.”

WP_20160707_18_03_42_ProExperiencing 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.

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Building a Local Food System: Dave Nuetzel and Blatchley Community Gardens

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Dave Nuetzel, right, helps build a memorial garden bed for longtime Blatchley Community Gardens supporter Kathy Swanberg.

(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 third article of the series.)

BlatchleyCommunityGardenSignDave Nuetzel has held the role of lead gardener at Blatchley Community Gardens since 2007. Nuetzel grew up outside of Cleveland, and he toured around the country on a two-year road trip after he graduated from college. At the end of the trip, he wound up in Anchorage. In 2005, he followed his partner, who came to Sitka to work at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, and he has lived here ever since. With a background in special education, he originally worked for the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), and he now works for Southeast Alaska Independent Living (SAIL).

The Blatchley Community Gardens, located behind Sitka’s middle school on what used to be a gravel terrace, started in 2000 as a project of Sitka Community Schools. When Sitka Community Schools lacked the staff to run the garden, Nuetzel took on his role as lead gardener. This year the garden has transitioned from Sitka Community Schools to become a program of Blatchley Middle School. The community garden consists of about fifty garden plots, approximately 6-by-12-feet each. It is personal-use garden, although it does contain a few communal plots of plants such as mint, rhubarb, and flowers. Gardeners pay for the square footage of a plot, and Nuetzel explained that the community garden particularly appeals to people who live in apartments, on boats, or in houses with yards that receive little sunlight.

MiddleOfBlatchleyCommunityGardenAs someone who “has always liked to fix things and learn new skills,” Nuetzel had small gardens when he was growing up, as well as in college. In addition to his personal plots at the Blatchley Community Gardens, Neutzel says that he has “basically cultivated his whole yard.” Any areas around his house where he is not growing vegetables or flowers contain salmonberry, blueberry, or raspberry plants. Gardening appeals to Nuetzel’s desire to strive for self-sufficiency; he also fishes and forages for beach asparagus for subsistence.

LeaveProduceAloneSignBlatchleyCommunityGardenNuetzel explained that, as lead gardener of Blatchley Community Gardens, maintaining a unified vision for the garden has posed a challenge. At the community garden, each plot represents the gardener’s individual approach to cultivation. Some gardeners devote themselves to experimentation, and they use their plots as a space for attempting to grow one type of vegetable that they have never succeeded in cultivating before. Others are committed to growing a wide variety of plants that they know will yield an ample harvest. Furthermore, gardeners choose to amend the soil in unique ways; while one might opt for buried salmon carcasses, kelp, and ground-up shells, another might rely more heavily on compost and coffee grounds.

An even larger challenge that Nuetzel has faced in his role is coordinating the management of common plots. Dividing up the responsibility of caring for a plot of chard, for example, becomes difficult when gardeners travel schedules and family obligations interfere. Furthermore, trying to ensure that everyone has equal to the resources of common plots, such as the apples from a communal apple tree, can be tricky.

BlatchleyCommunityGardenPicnicTableAndBedsNevertheless, Nuetzel appreciates Blatchley Community Gardens as a space where he and others can experience the tangible results of physical labor. Regular visits to the garden allow him to appreciate how well one can grow food for oneself when one puts in the effort. Nuetzel believes that gardening has grown more popular in Sitka in recent years. He has seen new gardens emerge in yard, and in the future, he would like to see new community gardens established in town. As gardening in the community becomes more popular, he wishes that more people would view gardening as a basic need, not just a hobby.

CherryBlossomsBlatchleyCommunityGarden“At one time, producing food was a requirement for life,” Nuetzel said. “Now, people think that gardening is only something you do if you have lots of ‘extra’ time. But if you provide people with a little bit of guidance and get them invested in the process of gardening, they will value it and treat it like something that is necessary.”

To learn more about Blatchley Community Gardens, go to the Facebook page or contact Dave Nuetzel at community.garden@hotmail.com.

Building a Local Food System: Florence Welsh of Welsh Family Forget Me Not Gardens

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Florence Welsh and her Welsh Family Forget Me Not Gardens occasionally host a booth at the Sitka Farmers Market.

(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 second article of the series.)

FlorenceWelshGoing on a tour of Florence Welsh’s Welsh Family Forget Me Not Garden is a magical experience. Raspberry bushes teem with succulent, red berries. Flowers of many shapes, sizes, and colors draw the eye in all directions. Sea kale yields abundant, hearty leaves, and the squash plants have begun to fruit. A cascade of pink roses hangs over the fence that surrounds fennel and artichoke beds. Rubbing one’s hand through the copious lemon balm or mint is a wonderful, sensory experience. The branches of elegant trees near the border of the garden abound with small, round apples. With a dehydrator, pressure cooker stand, and freezers literally overflowing with frozen berries, her garage indicates that her household makes use of the growing season’s bounty throughout the year

Raised in Weymouth, Mass., Welsh grew up exploring the seashore, swamp, and woods with her large family. She came to Sitka in 1965 and immediately fell in love with the unspoiled nature that she could experience here. For many years, she worked for the Sitka School District as a guidance counselor and as an administrator. During her summers off, she and her family hunted, fished, foraged, and spent lots of time in the garden. Welsh explained that though her family did not have a garden when she was growing up, she has “felt compelled to have at least a little bit of a vegetable garden” wherever she has lived since college.

Florence Welsh with copies of her Sitka gardening book

Florence Welsh with copies of the first edition of her Sitka gardening book

The prolific space that is now Florence Welsh’s garden did not emerge overnight. Her success as a gardener required years of trial and error. Gardening, Welsh explained, “is always place-specific, and the maritime Northwest is rainier and cooler than elsewhere.” Even compared to conditions in Seattle, gardeners in Sitka must adapt to a cooler, wetter climate. As she honed her gardening skills over the years, Welsh developed her place-specific gardening knowledge. For example, she came to understand how to improve soil fertility with seaweed and herring eggs and when to start and transplant various plants.

Forget-Me-Not-Gardens_Page_01Welsh’s desire to share her gardening knowledge inspired her to try to write a book for children and others in the Sitka community. She quickly realized, however, that the highly visual nature of gardening made it difficult for her to share her knowledge in a book. About a year and a half ago, Welsh decided to start a blog, SitkaVores, which allows her to incorporate photographs and format the gardening and foraging information. At sitkavores.blogspot.com, one can read about growing a wide variety of vegetables and flowers here in Sitka, as well as about foraged items like beach asparagus and berries. The blog also includes photos at various stages of the gardening process and recipe ideas. Welsh hopes to continue to add to the blog so she can share as much of her knowledge as she can. “I don’t want people to have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to gardening here,” she says.

SitkaVoresBlogScreenshotAs much as she enjoys working in the garden, what Welsh really loves is “getting out there” and experiencing the surroundings. She fondly remembers her and her family’s many hunting, scuba diving, fishing, and snorkeling adventures. The weather in Sitka, especially in fall and winter, can make it difficult to “get out there”, but Welsh explained that creativity helps people get through the periods spent indoors. In addition to working on her blog, Welsh personally enjoys reading and making artwork, such as drawings on bracket fungus, also called bear bread.

FlorenceWelshNow that she is getting older, Welsh explained that she is in the process of downsizing her garden. She will grow more perennial plants and cultivate fewer beds of vegetables. When her kids lived at home, they both helped out in the garden and ate a lot of the produce. Now, they are all grown, and Welsh “does not have the energy or endurance that she once had.” Still, her years of hard work have most certainly paid off. Not only does Florence Welsh have a beautiful, productive garden, but she has also helped many other gardeners get started her in Sitka. Without her commitment to sharing her hard-earned knowledge, many local gardeners would not have achieved the success that they have.

To learn more about Florence Welsh and the Welsh Family Forget Me Not Gardens, go to http://sitkavores.blogspot.com/.

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

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(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.