In the middle of a gravel lot, surrounded by rusty equipment and old storage containers, one brand-new connex is making history. Inside, it’s filled with hydroponically grown, leafy green vegetables — the inaugural crop from Arctic Greens.
The company is the first organization above the Arctic Circle to get certified as Alaska Grown, and soon its produce will be available at Kotzebue’s local grocery store.
Past the control room and through the nursery, Jeff Hicks stood in the growing room of the standard 40-foot connex. Hicks is the Chief Operating Officer of Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation (KIC), which owns Arctic Greens. While spinning exhaust fans and glowing purple lights regulate the temperature of the container, he took inventory of its 600 seedlings.
“Mizuna, mustard, and watercress,” Hicks said. “We have spinach, kale, red lettuce, green lettuce, and butter head lettuce. We have basil, cilantro, and several other different kinds of herbs.”
Right now, Arctic Greens can grow 45 different plant varieties from hydroponic seeds. Once the operation is fully up and running, the connex will deliver 450 heads of local produce each week — even in the middle of winter.
KIC started the subsidiary last fall after discussions with Vertical Harvest, an Anchorage company that designs and builds hydroponic containers. Hicks said the deal was sealed when they sent him back to Kotzebue with a special souvenir.
“I actually brought four heads of lettuce from one of their hydroponic units, and I talked to the manager over at the AC store,” Hicks explained. “I said, ‘Hey, if we brought you this, would you buy it?’”
Rob Boudreau is the manager of Kotzebue’s AC, owned by the Alaska Commercial Company and one of the few grocery options in town.
“I said, ‘Yeah. If you could grow them in town, it’d be a great thing for Kotzebue,’” Boudreau said.
Boudreau said the store will have a special section for Arctic Greens produce, which will come from just a few blocks away as opposed to hundreds or thousands of miles.
“It’s a good deal for the citizens of Kotzebue,” Boudreau said. “Better produce, no travel time, no sit-and-wait in different locations. It’ll just be fresher by the time it gets to the store.”
Hicks said the corporation is still talking with AC about how to price the vegetables, and he declined to share the cost of the custom-built connex, which was specially outfitted for the Arctic and flown into town on a C-130.
But Hicks said growing the produce locally will save on shipping and therefore save customers money. Not to mention the other big advantage of Arctic produce.
“No pesticides,” Hicks said. “They’re not genetically modified. It’s not organic, but it’s really as close as you can get.”
If the pilot phase goes well this summer, Hicks said KIC plans to purchase three more connexes and expand the operation in Kotzebue. After that, he said the corporation hopes to start hydroponic projects in other communities, including Nome. KIC has already signed a memorandum of understanding with the Alaska Commercial Company, which would sell the locally grown produce at stores statewide.
In Kotzebue, Arctic Greens will harvest its first crop on June 21. The produce will go on sale at AC soon after.