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.
In a new paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change, experts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and other organizations make recommendations for policies that can help the state’s farmers work in permafrost regions.
Unlike the situation in the Lower 48, where people are leaving the farming business, agriculture is on the rise in Alaska. The number of farms in Alaska grew 30% from 2012 to 2017, compared to a 3.2% decrease nationally during the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census.
But Alaska’s new farmers may need help understanding the best practices in areas where soils remain frozen year-round, said Melissa Ward Jones, lead author of the newly published paper.
“A lot of them are new to the state, so they might not be familiar with permafrost,” said Jones, who is with UAF’s Water and Environmental Research Center.
The published paper comes from a UAF project led by Jones and funded by the National Science Foundation that is intended to help new farming enterprises be successful. Called “Permafrost Grown,” it examines the interactions between permafrost, climate change, the built environment and agriculture.
Jones and her research partners are working with farmers and gardeners in various parts of the state as far north as Anaktuvuk Pass on the North Slope to figure out which crops grow best in permafrost conditions.
Climate change is a major factor driving the project. The growing season in Fairbanks expanded by about 45% in the century after the unsuccessful Potato Field cultivation, according to UAF experts. It has also expanded in some other key regions of the state. The Alaska growing season is projected to continue expanding, the experts said.
Expanded growing season aside, the challenges of frozen ground remain, and they vary with geography and ice content.
In the Fairbanks area, which has a vibrant farming sector, permafrost is classified as “discontinuous,” meaning it is distributed in a broken pattern, a big challenge is knowing for sure where the frozen soil exists. Some is mapped, but a lot is not. There are some hints, like existence of spruce stands, which tends to indicate permafrost presence, and south-facing slopes, which tend to indicate permafrost absence, but much uncertainty remains, Jones said. “You don’t really know, because it’s underground,” she said.
That leads to one of the recommendations: The presence of permafrost and its particular characteristics – to the extent that they are known – should be disclosed in detail to potential land buyers. Additionally, agency soil classifications generally lack explicit references to permafrost, and that should change, the paper said.
The economic reality is that affordable lands available for new high-latitude farming tend to have permafrost, the paper notes.
Even when permafrost presence is known, it can be categorized in different and inconsistent ways. In some places, such as far-north areas where it is continuous, it’s considered vitally important for supporting infrastructure, while in other places something of a nuisance because of its marginal nature.
Jones and her coauthors recommend establishing common references helpful to farmers and gardeners.
As for soil characteristics, there are enhanced risks from ice-rich permafrost, which is vulnerable to sudden thaw collapses that create sometimes water-filled areas of depression known as thermokarst.
That was the experience for Polar Peonies, a small Fairbanks operation that got started two decades ago but had to move to a new, higher-elevation, drier and warmer site at least 10 miles away.
The original growing site, though sloped, was at first a smooth surface, said Carolyn Chapin, one of the owners. That changed as below-ground ice wedges melted away, creating holes 4 or 5 feet deep, she said.
“Now it’s pockmarked and there’s three ponds at the bottom, and it looks like a BMX track,” she said.
The partners had to relocate all their plants, one by one, to the new site, Chapin said. The peonies are now growing there, though it will take some more time to produce a sizeable crop, she said.
Like Polar Peonies, which Chapin said is less than an acre in size, most high-latitude Alaska farms are small. That is another factor that policymakers should consider, according to Jones’ newly published paper. With typical farms being under 13 acres in size, the commonly dispensed advice about leaving fields alone to thaw for extended periods is not very useful, the paper notes.
Along with climate change, a major factor behind Alaska’s modern farming boom is the need for food security, Jones said.
In some ways, the food-security issue is related to climate change, as some loss of traditional food sources is attributed to the change.
At the mouth of the Yukon River, where salmon runs have failed, the local fish processor is now raising and selling vegetables, radio station KYUK reported.
In other ways, the modern Alaska farming boom is a revival of historical experience, when Alaska was much more isolated from Lower 48 food supplies.
At Pilgrim Hot Springs outside of Nome, Kawerak Inc., a Native nonprofit, has a program to cultivate crops on soils that have been used intermittently for farming and gardening for more than a century. Thanks to the geothermal characteristics, the area is something of a far-north oasis, with about 5 acres of soil that stands apart from the surrounding permafrost, said Amanda Toerdal, general manager at Pilgrim Hot Springs.
After a small test garden was cultivated last year, the program is now producing potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips and other cold-climate crops, Toerdal said. Customer response has been positive, she said. At an Aug. 24 pop-up produce market, the vegetables sold out completely, she said. A second market is possible or, in the alternative, harvested crops could go to the local food bank, she said.
“I think the vision and the ultimate goal is for Pilgrim Hot Springs to help out with food security in the region,” she said.