Despite snow on the ground and the chill in the air, Tenakee Springs residents are enjoying fresh, locally grown produce this winter — along with a side helping of community spirit and a heap of sustainability.
The New Moon Community Greenhouse, created and run by Kevin and Carlene Allred, furnished 48 large bags of greens to locals last month.
The bags included spinach, swiss chard and bok choy–all produced by local volunteers using geothermal heat in the Southeast community of about 60 people. The cafe serves as a community gathering place for community members to meet and eat together.
“The greenhouse is a community greenhouse,” Kevin Allred said in a phone interview Tuesday morning. “It’s a place where people can gather and meet and eat. Volunteers sometimes cook, and people can go in there and have a treat and make a donation.”
Carlene Allred said the town’s small population during the winter means produce from the greenhouse can be shared with anyone interested.
“Our neighbors keep coming back for more salads,” she said. “In the summer, it’s mainly the greenhouse workers. There are more people here in the summer. In the winter, we all have all the salads we want.”
Carlene Allred does most of the planting and greenhouse work, the couple said.
“It’s a good way to enjoy fresh green salads three times a week,” Carlene Allred said, adding that each large bag of greens includes enough vegetables for a few meals.
This is the second winter that the greenhouse has created fresh produce for the people nearby. During the cold, dark months, the couple focuses on growing greens. However, Carlene Allred said that some tomatoes are about ripe this week.
The couple grows bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, and even okra in the summer. Last summer, they produced one pea-sized watermelon — an outcome they attribute to starting the process late in the season.
Geothermal heat from an underground spring keeps the greenhouse warm with dry heat. Grow lights supplement the sun during the dark months of the year.
[Flakes forecasted for February]
Carlene Allred said dry heat is essential because it helps the plants thrive by reducing the mold that can occur in a greenhouse.
Driven by a dream
The greenhouse is relatively new to the town, but the idea has been floating around for a while.
Kevin Allred said that a few years ago, a neighbor told him about a dream she had in which there was a greenhouse behind the local cafe.
Intrigued by the idea, Kevin Allred asked the owner of the cafe if he could build a greenhouse in the space. The owner rebuffed his offer.
However, a few years later, the cafe’s owner decided to leave town.
Based on an “odd set of circumstances,” the Allreds had just toured greenhouses on Prince of Wales Island and were full of excitement around the idea. They agreed to purchase the cafe with the plan to remodel it and build the greenhouse.
Kevin Allred said he found an opening to a warm spring on the beach near the cafe that allowed him to pipe geothermal heat into a greenhouse that he built using a kit he ordered from Alabama.
With the help of a Georgia-based nuclear engineer who happens to be an old friend of the couple, Kevin Allred created a system that captures the heat from the bedrock, circulates it into the building, and warms the soil.
Kevin Allred said the system creates enough excess heat to warm a nearby phone booth — giving Tenakee Springs what’s likely the world’s only geothermal-heated phone booth.
“The greenhouse is designed so that you eat fresh salads from the greenhouse in the greenhouse. That was my vision,” Kevin Allred said, noting that the temperature in the greenhouse is about 30 degrees warmer than the outside air, even on cold, winter days.
The couple hopes to eventually turn the enterprise into a nonprofit corporation so the work of the cafe and greenhouse can continue long into the future. They also hope to inspire others to look for ways to grow local produce.
“Alaska’s remoteness means we will have more and more need for an alternative way to get more fresh vegetables,” Kevin Allred said.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-308-4891.