A century ago, when Fairbanks was a young mining town and a hilly area was set aside for agricultural experiments, people tried growing potatoes there to help feed the community. It was not a success. Disturbance of topsoil caused permafrost thaw, producing lots of mud in which tractors became mired, and the melt of below-ground ice wedges resulted in bumps nearly impossible for farm equipment to navigate.

Today, the area is part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks ski trail system and is called “Potato Field.” It holds an important lesson for farmers who are increasingly active as climate change expands the Alaska growing season and makes agriculture more attractive in the far north: Pay attention to permafrost.

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