The Chilkat Valley near Haines in Southeast is known as the Valley of the Eagles. But some residents are trying to bring the valley back to its roots, literally. Agriculture is making a comeback in the where longtime resident George Campbell believes he has the largest crop of garlic in the state this year.
George Campbell and Ed Byarski are farming partners. From their potato and garlic fields you can see towering peaks on both sides, with a grand river just a few hundred yards away, winding its way to the ocean.
This is the Chilkat Valley. And it’s harvest day for 2,700 head of garlic at 18 Meadows Farm.
“This is our second year of garlic harvest on 18 Meadows Farm,” Byarski said. “We’ve been digging, washing, sorting garlic all day with the help of a bunch of friends; and enjoying the smell of fresh garlic.”
Each bulb of aromatic garlic gets washed twice by hand, then put on drying racks.
Some motorists heeded the plywood sign on the road announcing a garlic festival and stopped by to purchase some.
Campbell: “How much are we selling garlic for?”
Ed: “What’s he got? He wants $10 worth. That’s a lot of garlic. But garlic is good for you. You can mix it in with mosse, salmon, halibut. It goes good with all that stuff.”
Eighteen meadows farm is just one of at least two dozen small farming operations popping up near Haines. Some families are growing more of their own food, some are growing for the weekly Haines Farmer’s Market and some like Campbell and Byarski are thinking bigger. They hope to sell at farmers markets in Juneau and, to local restaurants.
In Haines, fresh produce mostly comes by barge once a week. But stores are starting to stock locally grown produce. Christy Wright is the produce manager for the local Oleruds Marketplace on Main Street. She stocks local chard, carrots, lettuce, kale, garlic and snap peas.
“The produce we get here sits on a barge for a week before it even gets to the store,” Wright said. “So, if you can buy locally, it’s just picked yesterday and it’s much better quality.”
This isn’t the first time the Chilkat Valley has produced food for its inhabitants beyond the usual salmon, moose, and berries. The local army installation, Fort Seward, relied on locally grown hay and foods during the early and mid-1900s. And the Anway Strawberry was first bred here the early 1900s by pioneering geneticist, Charlie Anway.
Before that, local Natives grew crops, like the Tlingit potato. Perhaps some of those spuds grew on a plot of land now belonging to a Chilkoot Indian Association tribal member who is sharing her land with the tribe’s new agricultural program. Heading up that program is Scott Hanson. He recently went to check on the first crop of potatoes at the property, a swath of two acres that looks out over the Chilkat River and Cathedral Peaks.
As he walks across the clearing on this warm and windy day, Hanson says the tribe’s program is working to extend the values of subsistence
“Subsistence is working with the land,” Hanson said. “Yes, the land provides almost exclusively the salmon and the berries and yet how we manage that has a great effect on whether that will be here again.”
“So this is an extension of land management.”
Local farmers say the climate here is ripe for growing. Haines gets less rain than other parts of southeast, but less heat than northern regions. Cabbages aren’t going to grow to Fairbanks size. But they are going to get more sun than Petersburg. Even Hanson says he was surprised when he discovered Haines has a favorable growing climate.
“And it’s been document in the Alaska Crop Production Handbook from the state of Alaska it their little chart of growing seasons days, and we’re the top,” Hanson said. “It was remarkable to me as I looked through it, I thought, ‘Hey, we’ve got some potential.’”
And back at 18 Meadows Farm, Campbell and Byarski are hoping that climate brings them even more garlic and potatoes next year.
“For me, being able to grow my own food, you know, the price of food is going up as the price of freight is going up and it’s something to give a try,” Campbell said. “And what else am I going to do with this much property right now?”
Reporting from The burgeoning breadbasket of northern Southeast – near Haines, that is, I’m Margaret Friedenauer