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  • 11.09.15

Climate Change Is Making It Possible To Farm The Alaskan Tundra

For Alaskan farmers, there’s an upside to melting permafrost.

Alaska has heated up about twice as fast as the rest of the U.S. over the last 60 years. While that’s leading to a long list of problems–wildfires, roads sinking as permafrost melts, threatened fisheries–it also means that now it’s possible to grow vegetables in the tundra.

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In remote Bethel, Alaska, 400 miles west of Anchorage, food usually arrives with the mail. But now a local farmer is growing carrots and kale in ground that used to be frozen almost all year.

“Better weather is definitively a plus,” says Tim Meyers, who started experimenting with small garden plots 10 years ago and grew over 50,000 pounds of produce at Meyers Farm last year. “I’m sorry, but it’s exciting that it’s warming up. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I see it as, in my situation, I’m taking advantage of what’s being dealt to us.”

Meyers also uses plastic greenhouses and grows seedlings in cellars that stay warmer because the ground stays at a steady temperature. But as the average outdoor temperature keeps going up, he’s able to also farm more and more outside.

“The growing season was a lot shorter when we started,” he says. “Basically the last frost date was end of May, early June, and by the end of September it was over.”

Now, with a combination of greenhouses, plastic covers on the ground, and melting permafrost, he thinks he’ll soon be able to grow throughout the winter. “Now we’re planting in March and April,” he says. “We’ll have stuff we’ll harvest up until Christmas, for sure. So we’ve really lengthened the season. I’ll bet in a couple of years we’re going to figure out how to have stuff harvestable year-round.”

That might mean people in Bethel slowly start to eat a little healthier. “We sell a lot of organic produce every week, but I’m sure we’re only dealing with about 5% of the population out here,” Meyers says. “There’s so many people who don’t think about health–really no one talks about health. They think if it’s in the store it’s good for them.”

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As his production methods improve, and the weather continues to heat up, he expects to be able to grow more and become more competitive with other groceries, which have an added freight shipping cost.

Across Alaska, the number of small farms increased about 10% between 2007 and 2012, when the state last took count. Near Bethel, no one else is attempting to farm, though there are a few local community gardens. Meyers hopes that changes.

“If we would take the money we were putting into community gardens and we would build two or three farms a year, pretty soon we could feed that whole region,” he says.

Even if it’s helping his livelihood, Meyers is still concerned about climate change–including the effects that it will continue to have on other farmers elsewhere.

“I’m extremely worried,” he says. “I don’t know what everyone’s going to do. Even though I’m taking advantage of the positive side, I’m not going to be able to deal with the negative side that everybody is faced with. It’s going to be harder and harder to grow stuff outside–the droughts and severe weather. I grow a lot of food, but I sure can’t replace all those guys.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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