One summer day in 2020, staff from the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition towed a colorful greenhouse of wood and plexiglass through the streets of Juneau and loaded it onto a ferry bound for Hoonah. Moby the Mobile Greenhouse was on the move once again. A traveling classroom on wheels, this project of SAWC and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership has been catalyzing learning opportunities and discussions about food growing in Southeast Alaska’s rural communities since 2016. Since its launch, the greenhouse travelled to Kake, Hoonah, Yakutat and Sitka.
In 2020, Moby returned to Hoonah during the COVID-19 pandemic and increased concerns about transportation disruptions and food shortages. Yet the pandemic also highlighted the power of community to address uncertainty by cultivating knowledge and skills around growing, harvesting, and stewarding local food systems. Since its arrival in Hoonah this second time, the greenhouse has been taken care of by staff at the Environmental Department at Hoonah Indian Association and also the staff and students at Hoonah City Schools.
Moby continues to be a catalyst for learning opportunities and conversations around local foods. During the school year, Moby is parked outside the school where fourth-grade teacher Mark Browning has been leading the charge in getting students and staff involved. “I had been hearing from community members that they wanted a greenhouse where kids can learn to grow their own foods,” he said. “This was the perfect opportunity to get that started.”
Prior to coming to Hoonah three years ago, Browning managed greenhouse operations in schools in the lower 48 that enabled students to grow their own vegetables to be served in their school cafeterias. With full support from the then-current school administration in 2020, Browning worked together with Ralph Watkins, the former principal and superintendent, on a solid plan for Moby to be an outdoors classroom for all kinds of hands-on learning
They coordinated with the middle school construction shop class to build and install additional grow boxes under the supervision of Michael Akes. This improvement nearly doubled the growing capacity of the greenhouse. Browning also led his fourth-grade class in studying the different kinds of soil profiles to produce excellent vegetables. “We dug soils from various places across Hoonah and mixed it with wood ash and worm compost,” recalled Browning. “Can you imagine how much ten kids enjoyed picking thousands of worms out of the rich dirt made by red wigglers? Yes, they enjoyed it very much!” Browning also partnered up with Ben McLuckie, the robotics teacher at HCS, to create an automated watering system using rainwater collected from the roof.
When spring 2021 came around, Browning and the other teachers coordinated with the kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms to plant the first round of vegetables: a variety of greens, radishes, and beans along with some herbs.
Community members purchased these vegetable starts as a fundraiser for the program, raising around $340 to go towards growing supplies. To the delight of the students, community members also donated items to help improve and expand the greenhouse project, including a fishing net as a roof cover to control the temperature, 55-gallon food grade drums to collect water in for an automatic watering system, gutter supplies, car batteries, and other materials. The school also received a $2000 Dreamstarter Grant from the Running Strong for American Indian Youth Organization. The grant will be used to install LED lights and electrify the greenhouse so that vegetables can be grown all year-round.
During Moby’s time in Hoonah, the students grew and harvested arugula, collard greens, Swiss chard, kale, a variety of mixed lettuces, chives, parsley, and snow peas. These homegrown veggies were shared with the students’ families and served in salads prepared by Kathy Harris for the school cafeteria.
Sowing a crop of new gardeners year after year
While Moby moves around the region on wheels and by ferry, the traveling classroom plants the seeds of inspiration for community conversations and action around food security and food sovereignty. It is a catalyst that creates the space for people to weave together existing strengths, resources, and skills. Because Moby will eventually move on to another community, Browning and other staff are working with the school district to set up additional LED- lit vegetable growing spaces at the school. “We hope this will make it possible for students to continue learning to grow vegetables, experiment with food growing ideas, learn science, eat great homegrown food and enjoy the warmth of a winter greenhouse.”
In Moby’s previous host communities, enthusiasm around local foods continues. In Sitka, Pacific High School continues to expand its gardens and serve locally grown vegetables in its lunches. The school currently hosts Andrea Fraga, the farmer from Middle Island Gardens hired by Sitka Conservation Society to teach students about farming and market gardening. In Yakutat, Moby inspired teacher Carol Pate to bring students to the Southeast Alaska farmer summit, enroll in a master gardener course, and run a hydroponic herb and vegetable system in her classroom at the Yakutat High School. “Moby helped spark the idea to keep gardening and do the indoor gardening project,” she said. “And now, the 11th and 12th graders run the show.” Beyond the school, leaders in Yakutat have also expanded the community garden and is in the process of building a commercial greenhouse and a community composting system. Hoonah Indian Association is also looking at investing in a commercial greenhouse for the community. What all these projects have in common is the hard work and dedication of community champions that prioritize food security and make it part of their job duties to create infrastructure and training opportunities for the next generation of food growers. Support from supervisors, school administrators, and the greater community also makes a world of difference.
As the 2021-2022 school year ends, a new crop of gardeners in Browning’s fourth grade classroom had a chance to work with Moby for the first time this spring. The students were eager to share their accomplishments. “This year, we planted 1876 plants,” said Chloe Brown. “We planted beets, cauliflower, carrots, radishes, peas, green beans, broccoli, and squash,” added Savannah Marvin. The students shared that they planted so many seeds that they ran out of space. Like last year, the students are growing vegetable starters to sell to community members and raise money for supplies and more gardening activities. Before even planting anything, the students described the important work of preparing the soil. “We mixed the soil with peat, soil from Icy Strait Point, bagged soil from the store, and mixed it with our old soil,” explained Declynn Byers. “We wanted very good soil because it allows the plants to grow and also get used to the soil we have here.” The students plan on adding seaweed later to add nutrients to the soil.
Stewardship and mentorship
Back in Hoonah, another group that worked with Moby is the Hoonah Indian Association (HIA). When school recessed in summer, Moby migrated over to the HIA offices where their summer youth crew helped by building more shelving and working on improving a rainwater catchment system. The youth crew is part of a SSP program formerly called Training Rural Alaskan Youth Leaders and Students (TRAYLS) and currently called Alaska Youth Stewards (AYS). The program provides youth from Southeast Alaska with paid, hands-on experience in natural resource management and monitoring, scientific data collection, community service, and cultural stewardship in their home communities.
Returning to the AYS crew for the third summer is Ted Elliott, a 17-year-old in 11th grade at Hoonah City Schools and a thoughtful, hardworking young man who loves the outdoors. Summers working for AYS have provided countless opportunities to be around wildlife, harvest traditional plants to share at the annual traditional food fair and maintain and monitor recreational sites around the community. “What makes the work even more fun is the people you get to work with,” he shared. “Stewardship is about helping and assisting anyone with anything. It could be a grocery run for an elder, or removing invasive species,” he said. As a small engine mechanic, he is eager to use his knowledge and skills to help people with their small appliances.
Working alongside his crewmates, Elliott also helped make improvements to a familiar space. As a middle schooler in 2017, he and HIA’s environmental coordinator and SSP community catalyst Ian Johnson spent much of the summer tending to and growing vegetables in Moby and then sharing those vegetables with the community. Reflecting on what he learned from Moby, Elliott said that he gained a sense of confidence around plants and in learning a new skill. “Ian taught me the majority of what I know today, about gardening,” he said of his mentor. “It’s always nice to have someone around who knows what they’re doing. I feel lucky to have him share knowledge with me.” Reflecting on how Moby impacted his life, Elliott said that he is thankful that Moby kept him occupied when he was younger. “You know how kids sometimes are doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing. Gardening is what kept me out of that. It kept me out of trouble.”
Today, Elliott especially enjoys harvesting traditional plants for food and medicine, but when he has free time, he visits community garden to water, weed and help out. “I like gardening because it’s a really calming process,” he said. “And gardening can be for any age group, not just for
kids.” He is glad to see Moby back in the community to provide opportunities for others to engage in gardening activities. “And it doesn’t just have to be the kids. Anyone can do it,” he pointed out. “Anyone who is in the need of a fresh start, or personal rehabilitation, if they might have gone through something or are starting to get through something. Gardening is a calming process. It’s something that will help you out nonetheless.” After several years of the pandemic, climate disruptions, economic uncertainty, and a nation and world in political turmoil, Elliott’s observation of the healing benefits of gardening is a timely one for anyone navigating these challenging times.
This year’s fourth-grade students in Mr. Browning’s class are anticipating the vegetables that they are helping grow. “Our vegetables don’t have chemicals, they will last longer, and they’ll taste more fresh,” explained Silas Sharclane. Classmate Devlyn Smith agrees. “It tastes so much better, and you’re proud that you grew your own food.” He adds, “It’s so cool that you grow your own food and make your own dishes to with the vegetables.”
In addition to learning about soils and plants, Browning and Moby have also been cultivating experiences and life skills that they can use in other aspects of life, such as working together and helping each other. Chloe Brown observed, “When you have teamwork, it’s easier.” Tasks like watering and planting over a thousand seedlings are better accomplished with many people. Alex Mord added, “Also, lifting up the dirt buckets. They were heavy, so you needed a lot of us to carry the soil.” Declynn summed it up. “It’s easier to work together because there’s less work to be done yourself and you get help.”
The fourth-grade class also took on the role of mentoring the kindergarten class by teaching what they knew to the younger kids. “I felt good about teaching them,” said Chloe Brown. “We teased them, too, and they learned how not to press down too hard on the seeds,” laughed Declynn.
The students share some final thoughts on their experiences with Moby. “At first, I didn’t want to grow but now I want to,” shared Devlyn. He and the other students are excited to take home starts to plant in their own back yards or in the community garden. Undoubtedly, the students have learned about the teamwork and hard work it takes to grow food and maintain a growing space like a greenhouse. Savannah Marvin sees the big picture. “It’s worth all the work. We keep adding on to it, so the next place it goes, Moby will keep on growing.” Indeed, the project will continue to grow new gardeners, new local food leaders, and new opportunities for strengthening food systems and building community.
Author’s note: Moby began as a collaboration between the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP). It is now being stewarded by Ecotrust, a non-profit that creates and accelerates triple-bottom-line innovations to benefit our region and inspire the world. The organization is an SSP partner dedicated to supporting food security and food sovereignty in Southeast Alaska.
• Jennifer Nu is the Regional Food Systems Catalyst with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, formerly, the Local Foods Program director at the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition and currently hosted by Ecotrust. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. We envision self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly. SSP can also be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net.