No wind. No critters. No rain. Just the whir of machines and the smell of basil greet Kyle Belleque as he inspects his hydroponic garden. This Dillingham resident and lifelong rural Alaskan has been gardening for years, but this year is the first time he’s grown a garden in a containerized box. Rows of succulent lettuce, kale, and chard fill floor to ceiling shelves on either side of this shipping container that has been converted into a hydroponic farm.
“Well lettuce is the main thing,” Belleque explained as he pointed to large head of lettuce. “You can see there’s green leaf. Here’s some young green leaf. There’s some green leaf, some red leaf. The butterhead stuff’s pretty popular. Got some romaine growing and then different greens.”
He’s also starting to grow some herbs. The basil and arugula, in particular, are really taking off. Year-round access to fresh local produce has long been nearly impossible for rural Alaska. And for Belleque, that’s the draw to hydroponic gardening.
“Well you can grow all year. It’ll look like this in January. It’ll look like this in February. It’ll look like this next June,” Belleque said. “You can keep growing. You can just keep growing and keep growing and keep growing.”
Hydroponics gives Belleque the chance to grow year round, but it also makes his farming operation more efficient.
“One of the things that makes it more economical than trying to garden out in the field–because it doesn’t take much time,” Belleque said. “I spend, now that it’s up and running well, I don’t know–10 hours a week. Plus a few more hours to harvest and deliver stuff, so it’s really not that much of a time commitment.”
And that frees him up for marketing. Last week, Belleque Family Farms began selling its produce at the AC Value Center in Dillingham. Belleque is part of a larger movement to grow fresh food in Rural Alaska.
Rene Perez manages the produce division for AC Value Centers said that his stores are partnering with two other hydroponic farms, one in Kotzebue and one in the Southeastern islands.
“That is one of our top priorities as far as the produce division is concerned is to support locally grown and the local industry,” says Perez.
Vicky MacDonald is the branch manager of the AC store in Dillingham. She has been impressed by the quality of Belleque’s produce.
“He picked it the same day he brings it, which you can taste the difference compared to what we were getting before, which was getting shipped from Washington,” MacDonald said.
And MacDonald said that customers have been glad to see Belleque farms’ produce on their shelves.
Belleque’s other customer is the Dillingham City School District. Danny Frazier is the superintendent. He says that when the district ships produce from other parts of the state or country sometimes as much as half of it comes wilted or frozen.
“We get fresher produce of course, and it’s something that the kids seem really happy to get and they’re eating it. It’s something we want to do,” Frazier said.
Belleque Family Farms is starting out with two shipments a week to the AC store plus one or two shipments a week to the school. Belleque said that others are also interested.