How Arctic Farming Is Transforming the World’s Northernmost Food Supply Networks

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Arctic Farming has been around since the 10th century, but as the permafrost melts it’s becoming a viable food source for northern communities.

Nowhere is it more difficult to grow fresh produce than in the high arctic – there are months of pure darkness and long stretches of midnight sun, not to mention that the isolated landscape is essentially frozen to the core. However, the earth’s rapidly rising temperatures and a range of technological advances have prompted an influx of farming projects that seek to challenge the outdated and wasteful arctic food supply networks that currently exist.

The origins of arctic farming extend back to the 10th century with the heritage territory of Kujataa. Located in Greenland’s subarctic north, the renowned region is recognised as one of the first great agricultural societies. Nowadays, in many arctic communities, it’s almost impossible for local residents to obtain fresh fruit and vegetables, with most having to settle for food that’s frozen, sealed in plastic and then flown or shipped into the region. However, complex hydroponic innovations and inventive farming strategies are combating the frozen landscape, leading to a healthier and happier population overall.

Polar PermacultureIMAGE—Polar Permaculture

One such initiative is Polar Permaculture; an organic farm founded in 2015 by eco-chef Benjamin Vidmar and based along Norway’s Svalbard archipelago in the close-knit coal-mining town of Longyearbyen. A large percentage of the 2300 residents in the ‘northernmost town in the world’ are foreign-born miners, whose constant transience contributes to an atmosphere of short-termism within the community. Currently, approximately 330 tonnes of waste are registered each year in Longyearbyen, which is equal to one-third of Norway’s entire recorded waste. In addition, rubbish in the town is crudely compressed and disposed of into the sea, leaving the surrounding landscape at risk of becoming inundated with trash. While some positive changes have been made in recent years, the local administration’s solution to dealing with its garbage problem is to transport it out of the archipelago via plane or ship, eventually being incinerated on the mainland. Naturally, this only further contributes to Longyearbyen’s already disproportionately large ecological footprint.

“Thoughtfully structured, the farm’s circular economy produces minimal waste and provides Svalbard’s restaurants, hotels and homes with their only source of freshly grown produce.”

Seeing this damage take place firsthand, Vidmar was inspired to take action, and over the past three years, he has developed Polar Permaculture into a thriving arctic farm with a 50m² arctic dome and an indoor hydroponic garden. Thoughtfully structured, the farm’s circular economy produces minimal waste and provides Svalbard’s restaurants, hotels and homes with their only source of freshly grown produce, including chillies, tomatoes, basil and chives, among many other options.

Polar PermacultureIMAGE—Polar Permaculture

“We help change the food supply chain by working to grow more local food,” says Vidmar. “Not only that, but we are also looking for ways to process the organic waste into compost and biogas. This will allow us to grow more food, and to reduce the waste going out to the sea.”

Polar Permaculture also offers less tangible benefits like hosting arctic farming and permaculture workshops that provide educational opportunities for locals and tourists alike. However, Vidmar believes that stringent local regulations have held back agricultural development in the area with most experimental ideas needing government permission before even the smallest of actions can be taken.

“Here on Svalbard, the rules are very challenging,” says Vidmar. “On the one hand, they are so strict that I must ask for permission for my dog to be here, but on the other hand, we dump all of the sewage and organic waste into the sea.”

Longyearbyen’s agricultural evolution might be a gradual process, but in Alaska’s comparatively temperate conditions, this transformation is already well underway. Capitalising on the warmer conditions, places like Meyers Farm in the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta are now able to consistently produce in the previously frozen soil. Having operated for the last 16 years, the 15-acre farm still makes use of a hydroponic greenhouse, but in recent times has moved to a more conventional approach by utilising outside fields to support the likes of potatoes, cabbages and kale.

“The lack of importance placed on farming has led to a deficit of governmental support leaving the long-term viability of the industry uncertain.”

Despite Meyers Farm’s success, due to a range of cultural and societal influences, the agricultural industry remains largely unexplored in Alaska. The lack of importance placed on farming has led to a deficit of governmental support leaving the long-term viability of the industry uncertain. In the past two decades as little as $400,000 of government subsidies has been made available to the entire farming industry, while the fishing industry has accessed $6 million during the same period. Changing the perception of the agricultural industry in Alaska will be a prolonged process, but initiatives such as Alaska Grown are actively promoting the successes of the state’s farmers to widespread effect.

Polar PermacultureNorthern lights over the "northern most" dome greenhouse. IMAGE—Polar Permaculture

If one positive can be drawn from climate change, it’s the increasing access to fresh food for remote Arctic communities. As ecotourism develops within the region, and more money becomes available to organisations such as Polar Permaculture, showing that food systems can be changed for the better right now is crucial for the safeguarding of the natural environment. For Vidmar, despite his successes to date, his vision for Longyearbyen remains firmly grounded.

“I would like for at least 20 per cent of the food to come from here,” says Vidmar. “I would also like for us to stop dumping all this sewage into the sea – and for people to show a greater interest in community gardens and growing their own food.”

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Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.