Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Village Chickens and Community Gardens Thriving in Igiugig

Truly Inspiring!
Village Chickens and Community Gardens Thriving in Igiugig
27th September
2011

(With thanks to Alan Austerman's blog http://www.alanausterman.com/?p=1838)

For the last few years we have been learning about some really amazing projects in Igiugig, one of the westernmost villages in District 36. The 64 residents of the village on the southwest tip of Iliamna Lake have been developing a community food system bit by bit… beginning with community chickens nearly a decade ago. At this point, they have a community greenhouse with power and heat to extend the growing season; a wonderful egg program; and access to significant quantities of delicious vegetables and fruit that were impossibly expensive just a few years ago. Some of the ideas and lessons from their projects are absolutely inspiring, and may be instructive for villages all around District 36 and the rest of Alaska.

Staff in our office had a good chat with AlexAnna Salmon, president of the Igiugig Village Council, and learned more about the projects.

The Egg Program

Like most fresh food items in Igiugig, eggs used to arrive via plane from Anchorage, and would often arrive broken. In 2002, when AlexAnna’s father Dan was the administrator for the Igiugig Village Council, they initiated an egg program. Eggs were expensive, says AlexAnna, “but keeping chickens themselves are not.” In the beginning, friends of some of the residents sent chickens to the village. They were kept in a private coop, and people could go by and grab eggs as they wanted. As demand grew, they took the next step to grow the operation. With a mini grant from the Alaska Food Coalition and a considerable local match they were able to procure freezers, a fridge, and an egg incubator. This allowed them to “produce” new chickens when they needed them, and to freeze excess food scraps for the chickens for future use. They also built a larger coop.

Today the coop and its 30 chicken residents are located at the landfill, and is incorporated into the town’s solid waste program. Residents and seasonal lodges in the area separate food scraps from their regular waste. Some of that food scrap is used to feed the chickens. (More on other food scrap uses in just a minute.) The chicken area is located within the gated landfill area, where they’re safe from the region’s bears.

Eggs were initially free, but with growing demand from the lodges in the region an honor-system fee was implemented–a $3.50 donation for a dozen fresh, local eggs! Elders in Igiugig still get their eggs free of charge.

The program is very popular, and provides a nutritious food source for the residents. With a decade in operation, it’s still going strong!

Growing Food

With the chicken program in place and popular, the community started looking to other food items. The next step was a community potato garden. With seed potato obtained from the long-running farm at the community of Port Alsworth on Lake Clark, they were able to plant the first potato plants. The potato garden also took off. The community embraced the project, and responded to the gardening successes by creating a potato festival and potluck at harvest time.

Igiugig's community greenhouse complex.

As often happens, more ideas grew from there. During the community’s planning process residents identified a community greenhouse as something that would be valued in Igiugig. The village council picked up the project and ran with it. They developed a business plan for the concept, envisioning the operation as a profit generator with potential sales to the 24 nearby lodge operations. They applied to the Alaska Federation of Natives’ Alaska Marketplace competition, which provides seed funding for innovative business ideas. The Kvichak Organic Produce plan won one of the top prizes, taking away just under $40,000 to initiate the project. With that money in hand, Igiugig was able to leverage additional funding support, including $60,000 from the Pebble Fund for three wind generators, a USDA grant related to farmer’s markets, and smaller grants from the Alaska Food Coalition (for starter seeds) and the Division of Agriculture (for innovative equipment).

A Labor of Love

Keilan Wassillie (left) and Kaleb Hill enjoy the tropical jungle of the Iliamna community greenhouse.

Today the Igiugig community greenhouse is largely supported by the volunteer labor of community residents. In addition, AlexAnna has been able to bring in volunteers from out of state who work in the greenhouse in exchange for an amazing summer experience in Alaska. By starting small and taking small steps, the project has been able to grow, to the point where today the community has:

* A 24′x48′ indoor polycarbonate green house
* A 10′x20′ outdoor cold house
* Space in the greenhouse for all the families in the community to have plots
* Space for growing food for local lodges that generates revenues for the project
* A wood boiler that will be used for the first time this year to extend the growing season.
* Locals saving seeds so that seeds won’t have to be purchased from outside the community.
* A community food scrap program that takes scraps from residents and lodges and transforms them into either chicken food or compost for the garden projects.

In addition, they’ve been able to offer a greenhouse growing class through UAF, with instruction right in the community. Participants earned college credit.

AlexAnna estimates that the total costs in the greenhouse project, including the wind generators, is about $300,000. Much of that came from community match, she said, but it also went together bit by bit. With the increased focus on community agriculture and sustainability, a number of funding options have been available along the way.

Challenges

AlexAnna reports that the volunteer labor in Igiugig is tremendous, but people’s seasonal obligations mean that having a full time greenhouse coordinator makes a big difference. With so much going on, she says it’s really needed! The village council has had luck bringing in people from outside for a summer adventure.

They’re also hoping to improve the watering system. Gutters currently collect some of the rainwater that fall on the building, but AlexAnna says the system could be expanded, and she hopes that a misting system can be built in the greenhouse to make the watering more efficient and less labor intensive.

Sustainable?

Today, the inputs that keep the community greenhouse going are minimal. In the beginning, soil was flown in from outside the community as they worked to get their composting system going, but that should not be a need in the future. In addition to using food scraps to feed the chickens, as described above, the community landfill now includes composting of other food scraps and compostable items. Specialty items such as blueberry bushes or other plants could be brought in, but the only significant remaining input from outside the community is organic fertilizer. AlexAnna notes that the community could produce its own fertilizer from fish scraps and other items, but they’re not there yet.

For the chickens, the community continues to order chicken feed via barge. Though chickens are happy on scrap food, they also need nutrients that the feed provides.

An Inspiration for Other Communities

All in all, Igiugig’s accomplishments are admirable, and show what is possible with some passion and a dream. And the benefits–greater self-reliance, healthful food, and a sense of participation and volunteerism–far exceed their costs.

AlexAnna said that potlucks in Igiugig now feature big salads and vegetables grown in their own earth. These never would have been on the menu before–the cost and the lack of availability meant they just weren’t part of the community fare. Nowadays, a big bowl of salad can be the feature dish!

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