Another update about the 2020 Sitka Farmers Market and our contingency plans

It’s May and we are still living in unusual times, with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and COVID-19 disease outbreak keeping many of us sheltered in place. The pandemic has scuttled some of our plans for the 2020 Sitka Farmers Market season, and we’re trying to adapt to our changing world so we can host something this year. We gave Sitka an update on our plans in late March, and now it’s time for another update.

We are still finalizing plans, but it doesn’t look as if we’ll be able to host a full Sitka Farmers Market this summer. Our regular venue, Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall, is still closed, and even if we could use the building current state mandates limit what we can do. While the state considers farmers markets to be essential businesses, the state is limiting markets to food sales only and not allowing arts and crafts (about 65-70 percent of our vendors). We’d love to hold a regular market, but under the current situation we just can’t. We love serving as an incubator for small businesses and a community gathering place, so we hope to return to having a full market next summer.

So where does that leave us for the 2020 summer? The Sitka Local Foods Network, as usual, is growing fresh produce at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm. Our produced-growing operation has a Certified Naturally Grown designation, showing our commitment to sustainable agriculture, and we built a second high tunnel this spring to extend our growing season.

We think giving Sitka residents access to healthy, local food is critical to our food security, and we still plan to sell produce this summer. It’s in our mission, and we plan to do it. Since we are losing our market manager of the past three years (Nina Vizcarrondo) to Coast Guard relocation, we hired two co-managers to replace her — Ariane Martin Goudeau and Nalani James. Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham also will assist with the markets, and Laura Schmidt has been our lead gardener at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm for about a decade.

Right now our plan is to use an online sales portal, Salt and Soil Marketplace based in Juneau, where people will order a box of produce during the week, pay for it online, and then pick it up on Saturday. We plan to sell a $20 box of produce that will feature four selected veggies that are currently in season, and a $40 box which will include additional veggies. We also may sell selected individual veggies when we have an abundance beyond what we’d put in the boxes. In order to simplify things this year, we will not carry our usual Alaska Grown products this summer. We plan to work with Middle Island Gardens, which will sell its produce on Salt and Soil Marketplace and have its own delivery pick-ups at the same time and location.

We are still trying to finalize our agreement on dates and times with our proposed venue, and that will be announced once it’s confirmed. We are negotiating with a centralized outdoor venue, and our proposed hours are from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. We hope to hold our first pick-up on June 20, and then every Saturday in July, August, and September.

Due to health and safety concerns from the COVID-19 outbreak, things will look different on market Saturdays. We are trying to minimize contact as much as possible, and all of our volunteers will wear gloves and masks and we ask all of our customers to also wear masks. We have been attending several workshops on how to safely run a market, and we decided simplicity and safety was our priority this year. That’s why there will only be two vendors — the Sitka Local Foods Network and Middle Island Gardens — this year and all of our produce will be pre-sold before Saturday, so customers can get in and out as quickly as possible and we don’t have to handle cash or checks.

We will ask customers to drive up to our pick-up location, and wait in their cars (with engines turned off) until our greeters get their names and then gets their orders so they can be placed in their vehicle. There will be no at-market sales, so please stay with your vehicles and don’t come up to our tables. If you bike or walk, we will ask you to maintain proper social distancing until we can bring you your order. The first half-hour we are open will be designated for seniors and those with high-risk health issues, so they can get in and out before the big rush. Periodically, we may stop what we’re doing so everybody can wash their hands and reglove, and we can wipe down our tables. We want to make this safe for our customers and our volunteers.

One of our biggest issues is how we will be able to make sure our produce gets into the hands of lower-income Sitka residents. Normally we accept SNAP Alaska Quest EBT cards and WIC farmers market nutrition vouchers, but unless something changes soon we’re not allowed to use those methods if we use an online sales portal. We are trying to come up with a solution, and that may mean we have WIC/SNAP beneficiaries send us an email or call a special phone number to receive a free $20 box of produce every other week. Since we won’t get reimbursed by the state, we’ll cover the costs from our general fund. This will only be for the Sitka Local Foods Network produce.

We still have a few things to work out, so we will will provide another update as those details are confirmed. If you have any questions, feel free to call Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham at 623-7660 or email sitkalocalfoodsnetwork@gmail.com.

An update about the 2020 Sitka Farmers Market and our contingency plans

Usually the Sitka Local Foods Network has announced the dates of the summer’s Sitka Farmers Market by now. But, as most of you are aware, these are not ordinary times.

We had been making our usual plans, and even had dates we planned to announce about now, but with the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak we had to go into wait-and-see mode. We even hired two new people to coordinate the Sitka Farmers Market this year — Ariane Martin Goudeau and Nalani James — because we’re losing our market manager of the past three years, Nina Vizcarrondo, to Coast Guard relocation.

Even though we’re in wait-and-see mode, the SLFN feels it does need to update the community.

First, we had big plans to grow even more produce than before at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden. We bought a second high tunnel, which has been erected on the site, so we can extend our growing season and have a little help with climate control. Laura Schmidt has been our lead gardener for about a decade, and deserves a lot of respect for how much produce she grows on the small patch of land we have access to behind St. Peter’s By The Sea Episcopal Church. We thank St. Peter’s for allowing us to continue growing food for the community on its property.

Regardless of whether we hold the Sitka Farmers Market or not, we will grow produce this summer at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm. Sitka’s food security needs more local food, so we plan to find ways to get the food into the community, somehow, someway.

If all things were normal, our plan was to hold seven Sitka Farmers Markets again this summer for our 13th season. Our tentative dates are from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, July 4, July 25, Aug. 8, Aug. 15, Aug. 29, Sept. 5, and Sept. 19, all at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall.

The Sitka Farmers Market is about local food, but it’s so much more. It’s about community and providing local entrepreneurs with a place to sell their products. We really enjoy seeing everybody come together to see their neighbors and friends at the market. That’s a big reason we want to host the market, if it’s possible.

But we don’t know when our shelter-in-place orders are going to end and we can start returning to normal. We are researching alternative ways to get our fresh produce into the hands of Sitka residents. We want to provide fresh produce, but also need to be conscious of everybody’s health during an outbreak.

That may mean going to an online portal, such as the Salt and Soil Marketplace out of Juneau, which has been expanding into Sitka and other towns in Southeast Alaska. Middle Island Gardens, Gimbal Botanicals, and a couple of other Sitka businesses have used Salt and Soil Marketplace, so it’s not a new concept. How it works for Sitka is vendors post their products online, and from Tuesday through Thursday Sitka residents go online and order what they want, with a delivery usually on Saturday.

This is great and relatively easy, except you lose the community aspect of the market when it’s online. Also, the Sitka Farmers Market serves as a business incubator, and we lose that when we can’t have a market.

There’s another thing we lose, and that’s the ability to accept WIC farmers market coupons and SNAP Alaska Quest EBT cards, which is how we get local produce into the hands of lower-income Sitkans. We are still trying to work that problem out. We want to get fresh local produce into this part of the community, because Sitka has some major inequality with about one in every six residents on some form of food assistance program. Our mission is “to increase the amount of locally harvested and produced food into the diets of Southeast Alaskans,” so we have to make sure we include getting food to lower income people.

We will come up with a plan of some sort to make sure we do get produce into the hands of all Sitkans, but we have to be conscious of not spreading the coronavirus. It may mean we donate produce to a local food bank for distribution, or we donate some produce to WIC/SNAP beneficiaries and skip the normal reimbursement we’d get from the state. We have our White E grant to match WIC/SNAP benefits, so we can use that grant to help distribute the food, and absorb some of the loss through our general fund. It’s within our mission, and we can afford to do it for a few months.

Ideally, we will host our Sitka Farmers Markets as normal. But these are unusual times. We will look at what’s happening in mid-May, and we will make a further announcement then as to what our plans are. Hopefully we will be recruiting vendors for our market. If not, we will start setting up an account so people can order produce online.

If you have any questions, feel free to call Sitka Local Foods Network board chairman Charles Bingham at 623-7660 or email sitkalocalfoodsnetwork@gmail.com.

Sitka Local Foods Network applies for Certified Naturally Grown status for St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm

The Sitka Local Foods Network is in the middle of the application process for a Certified Naturally Grown status for St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden and its satellite gardens.

We had an inspection on Tuesday, July 2, and as soon as the inspection paperwork is submitted showing we follow the CNG principles, St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm will become the fifth, sixth or seventh farm in Alaska to earn the status (there also are farms in Juneau and Palmer awaiting the results of their inspections).

“This certification will show our commitment to making sure Sitkans are able to buy naturally grown produce at the Sitka Farmers Market, and they can know it’s being grown without chemical fertilizers or other additives,” Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham said. “Nearly all of the produce we sell at the Sitka Local Foods Network farm stand at the Sitka Farmers Market is grown at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden and its satellite gardens, and now people will have more assurances that the food they are buying is grown in a natural and sustainable manner, and that it’s the healthiest we can provide.”

The Certified Naturally Grown program is fairly new to Alaska, but many farms are turning to the CNG program because of the difficulty receiving an USDA organic certification in Alaska. Right now there are no USDA organic certification inspectors in Alaska, so it is costly to bring an inspector from the Lower 48 to Alaska and usually only happens when a couple of farms in one area get together and split the cost. The Certified Naturally Grown program has similar principles about not using chemical fertilizers and other enhancements, but uses a peer review inspection process where other local  farmers (even those not in the CNG program) who follow these principles can perform inspections. It also costs less money.

For this inspection, Andrea Fraga of Middle Island Gardens worked with St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm lead gardener Laura Schmidt to go through a multi-page checklist that asked questions about how you prepare your garden beds, how you compost, what types of fertilizer and other enhancements you use, what types of crop covers you use, how you rotate crops, and more. There are separate certifications for produce, livestock, apiaries (beekeeping), aquaponics, and mushroom farming.

There currently are four farms in Alaska that have passed their CNG inspections — Faith Farms in Kodiak, Four Winds Farm in Haines, Wilderness Earth Farm of Soldotna, and Wilderness Greenhouse of Anchor Point. The three Alaska farms waiting for CNG inspection results include Sitka Local Foods Network/St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm in Sitka, Orsi Organic Produce in Juneau, and Seeds and Soil Farm in Palmer.

Some photos from the St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden inspection are posted below.

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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

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.