Eli Wray remembers the first time he ate a locally grown tomato, fresh off the vine.
“It changed my world,” he said.
“I grew up here, and I had no idea what fresh produce tasted like until I started growing it,” he explained. “I didn’t realize that tomatoes weren’t just sacs of skin and water, fleshy and disgusting.”
On Saturday, Eli and his wife, Kylie, stood behind a booth at the Second Saturday Market at the Airport Shopping Center, greeting customers and showing off fresh produce. Dozens of shiny, red homegrown vine-ripened tomatoes filled a basket. Garlic was piled high in a vegetable stand, and red potatoes spilled out of a cornucopia.
“Did you get some potatoes?” Kylie, 26, asked a little girl who crawled under the booth to grab a loose potato, as her mother paid for a bunch of vegetables. “And you’re going to carry them yourself? Alright.”
“What’s this?” another customer asked, holding up a mason jar of zucchini pickles.
“Actually, it’s my grandma’s recipe,” Eli, 28, answered. “They’re German sweet, so a lot more tart than a traditional sweet pickle.”
The Wrays are young entrepreneurs who are breaking into the farming industry in Juneau, a field has a lot of opportunities for commercial growth but also lots of challenges posed by climate. They began growing and selling food under the name of Panhandle Produce about four years ago, and it’s beginning to pick up momentum.
“I double my production every single year,” Eli said.
Eli developed a “passion for plants,” as he put it, from working as a landscaper and gardener for Glacier Gardens, where he still works full-time and where Kylie used to work as well. The owners of Glacier Gardens, Steve and Cindy Bowhay, encouraged Eli to grow tomatoes a few years ago, allowing him to use space in one of their buildings.
“They’re an extra set of parents in certain sense,” Kylie said of the Bowhays. “They’ve really supported our endeavors in us trying to branch out on our own.”
In the husband-and-wife dynamic, Eli is the one who is more likely “to have his hands in the dirt,” and Kylie handles the marketing, networking and other business matters. They both have big dreams for farming and growing organic, local produce year-round for Juneau.
“My vision is a multi-aspect farm,” Eli said. Half of the business would be growing hydroponically year-round (i.e. growing plants without soil indoors), and the other half would be growing seasonal organics in a greenhouse, both outdoors and old-frame.
“Traditional farming in Southeast Alaska will not feed our community,” he said. “The only way to feed our community is hydroponic growing or greenhouse growing, and climate controlled growing.”
He’s doing both right now on a small scale. In the summertime, he uses the Glacier Gardens Landscape Nursery greenhouse to hydroponically grow tomatoes, peppers, basil and lettuce. He grows more produce — cucumbers, cabbages, potatoes, kale, brocolli and cauliflower — in a cold-frame greenhouse on a separate property, also owned by the Bowhays.
“The list is extensive,” he said of his crops, “and I can’t even remember everything I grew this year.”
They sell their food at Glacier Gardens every Friday evening in the summertime.
“I have a small following,” he said. “I sell out of produce every Friday I sell there.”
He’s also growing hydroponically in his own garage.
“We have a little one-car garage, it’s just full of tomatoes right now,” Kylie said.
They plan of selling their produce all winter at the Second Saturday markets and other events that pop up. One day, though, Eli said he’ll have his own greenhouses, all in one location.
“I feel like it’s a pipe dream at a certain point,” he said, mentioning the capital required. “But I plan on starting out with lettuce and microgreens, and selling almost exclusively to grocery stores, as well as still doing seasonal sales.”
Another part of the Wrays’ business right now is helping other growers around Southeast Alaska sell their produce.
“I buy their product at wholesale and sell it at retail, so if they don’t have a venue to sell it, I can sell it for them,” Eli said. “Like the garlic, that came from one of my friends growing on Shelter Island. These big potatoes came from another guy I know in Gustavus.”
Ultimately, the Wrays say, they want to create a business similar to Full Circle Farms — an organic farm in Washington that works with other organic and family farms and producers, and ships organic, local produce to West Coast states. Except instead of serving the West Coast, they would work with local growers to feed Juneau fresh produce that doesn’t have to be barged in from out of town.
In the meantime, they are continuing to make connections with other gardeners who are established in Juneau, navigating a new business, and of course, growing fresh food.
“Tomatoes have flavor to them, and cucumbers are really good,” he said. “I wish that everybody that’s in my peer group that grew up here with me would understand how much of a life improvement having good produce is.”
• Contact Deputy Editor Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or email@example.com.
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