With longer days and warmer temperatures, Southeast Alaska is energized to launch a new season of cultivating and harvesting a bounty of fresh local food from the land and sea. Food security in Southeast Alaska is unique. Our contemporary commercial food system relies heavily on imported foods shipped long distances by barge and air. Yet this globally dependent system exists alongside resilient local food systems based on generations of traditionally harvesting wild foods from land and ocean ecosystems.
These systems are powered by the strengths of local peoples with detailed knowledge and experience and relationship with each other and the environment that has continued to nourish communities since time immemorial. Southeast Alaska’s local food system also includes the contributions of many small-scale commercial farmers and home gardeners who are constantly innovating while cultivating domesticated fruits, herbs, vegetables and fungi. Bringing people together to exchange skills, knowledge and enthusiasm for local harvested and cultivated foods is a critical (and fun) component of a healthy Southeast Alaskan food future.
Two recent gatherings held this spring, represent the breadth and power of our regional food system — the Southeast Alaska Farmer’s Summit and the Keex’ Kwaan Traditional Food Fair.
Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit
In Petersburg, the 2023 Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit brought together over 100 people from around Southeast Alaska and beyond for three packed days of presentations, panel discussions, small group dialogue and networking. The summit took place in-person and online, and was organized by Marja Smets and Bo Varsano of Farragut Farm and a farmers summit advisory committee. Partnering entities included Spruce Root, Ecotrust and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. The event was funded by the USDA Specialty Block Crop grant, and numerous generous sponsors acknowledged on their website: HOME | SOUTHEAST ALASKA FARMERS SUMMIT. Attendees ranged from commercial farmers, home gardeners, homesteaders, hydroponic and fungi farmers, food preservationists, farmer’s market managers and other local food enthusiasts. Many of the resources and presentations shared during this event are also available online at seakfarmerssummit.com.
Prior to the summit, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation offered a free Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training Course that covered a variety of important topics such as training, hygiene, water, land use and planning. Participants found the course useful for assisting them in preventing and addressing safety issues in their businesses and on their farms. Also new this year, a day-long Farmer’s Marketing Workshop was organized by Ecotrust’s Juneau-based staff and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.
The three-day summit opened with a land acknowledgement to recognize the Séet Ká Kwáan as the original and continued caretakers of the land that includes Petersburg. The summit organizers also affirmed the role of farmers in respecting the original stewards of the lands and waters of where they live while also stewarding the lands that come under their care and cultivation.
Highlights of the gathering included presentations on fruit trees, mushroom cultivation, raising livestock, growing carrots, rhubarb trials, and cultivating perennial herbs and berries. A lively panel of farmers discussed the shared economic realities of farming in Southeast Alaska. Individual farmers shared photo-rich presentations during the “Farmer Snapshot” presentations. Casey Richart, a gastropod expert, shared research findings on effective slug deterrents, one of which included a mixture of thyme and spearmint essential oils. Semi-retired agricultural consultant and University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Bob Van Veldhuizen gave a presentation on soil amendments, and former Petersburg resident Sarah Wagstaff presented a traditional German method of building raised beds with rotten logs and plant debris by mimicking natural forest ecosystems using a technique called Hugelkultur. Emily Garrity of Twitter Creek Farm in Homer, presented on the “30-inch bed system,” for intensive vegetable production in small spaces. She elaborated on the tools and methods for determining efficiency so farmers could make educated decisions on whether investing in those tools made sense for them.
The last evening of the summit, Darren Snyder from the UAF Cooperative Extension Service in Juneau moderated a light-hearted laughter-filled evening of storytelling with attendees discussing their “biggest mistakes and lessons learned.” A constant theme running through all the presentations and discussions highlighted that the magnanimous efforts of small-scale farming in Southeast Alaska are powered by human energy and ingenuity. Efficiency is also balanced by values of land stewardship which prioritize respect for the health of land, water and people.
Keex’ Kwaan Traditional Food Fair
With generous support from the First Nations Development Institute and Sealaska Corp., Ecotrust’s Kake-based staff joined forces with staff of the Organized Village of Kake to host the Keex’ Kwaan Traditional Food Fair in early March. This event brought together more than 130 community members and the Keex’ Kwaan Dancers (a Tlingit traditional song and dance group) for an evening of celebration and good food. Continuing the legacy of seasonal community harvest events organized by local leaders for many decades, this event was also inspired by Huna Traditional Food Fair, an annual event that began in 2017. In Kake, the Traditional Food Fair was supported by volunteers and generous food and prize donations from community members including the help of Kake’s all-star basketball teams.
“Traditional foods are our lifeblood and joy as Native peoples. The People of Keex’ Kwaan have fought for and continue to work hard, every day, to carry on this way of life,” shared Miakah Nix. Nix and her partner Carson Viles are community members and Ecotrust employees who helped organize the food fair. “Our event brings the community together to celebrate for ‘no good reason’, except that who we are and the traditions we carry forward are every bit good reasons to celebrate. The people of Kake take special care of their homelands and there is a lot of pride in that! So, I thought, ‘Let’s party… Native style!’”
In the kitchen, chef Tony Abbott, helper John Williams Sr., and volunteers prepared and cooked for much of the day to prepare a delicious meal of deer and moose adobo, fried halibut, herring egg salad, crab salad and Raven’s Delight (party berries). Smiles, laughter and classic rock emanated from the kitchen. According to Abbott, these are teachings from the elders. “The energy you put in the food, you want your heart and your mind to be in the right place because you are sharing it with the public. That’s why there are good vibes in the kitchen, sharing stories.”
The stories of the traditional foods cooked and distributed at the event are connected to the community members who harvested, processed, and donated the foods, including OVK’s Youth Culture Camp and the Alaskan Youth Stewards crew. Traditional foodways emphasize the transferral of practical skills related to harvesting and putting food away for winter in addition to leadership skills and emotional intelligence.
“You gotta have your heart and your mind and in the right spot, otherwise your fish will fall off the racks, your jars will crack, or you nick yourself because you’re rushing or not paying attention,” explained Abbott. “If something is going wrong, you’re not centered. You’re distracted. Take a step back and ask, ok, what’s bothering me?” Self-awareness and reflective processing are also valuable skills for thriving in today’s world. “It’s not just food,” added Abbott. “It’s everything we do. Do we help our neighbors? Do we help our children as much as we help our elders? Everything we do is with care, or we try to. How we go out and hunt, how we treat things. We are stewards of the land, sea and air- we make sure the cycles keep returning and what we do ensures that it returns.”
Part of the cycle also involves the generosity and patience of older generations who teach and mentor younger generations in becoming leaders. The evening event included a cooking competition for three categories: baked halibut, seaweed, and berry dessert dishes. Sixteen community members of all ages participated, arriving with mouthwatering dishes that spanned seaweed and salmon chop suey to cloudberry cheesecake. Experienced local event organizers Georgie and Anthony Gastelum were happy to help mentor Nix and Viles with setting up the gym and running the competition.
“The things that we learned over the course of years of hosting food competitions were new to them. That’s kind of the cycle of life – people who have been here awhile share with people whose things are newer to them,” said Georgie Davis-Gastelum. Also joining the food competition crew was volunteer Josiah Jackson, a high school student and Alaska Youth Stewards crew member, who helped with registering entries and skillfully plating the dishes for the four judges which included three elders and one youth representative.
For Davis-Gastelum and many others, traditional foods create opportunities for new connections, and also memories of those who came before. “People say that when we put up our traditional food, it connects us to our ancestors,” she said. “Whenever we smoke fish, or make jam, or put up seaweed, we remember the people who taught us. There’s always a connection between those who taught you, others who’ve gone on.”
The evening closed with the Keex’ Kwaan dancers taking the floor in Kake for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic. The dancers led several songs, inviting community members to join them in celebrating the traditional foods of Keex’ Kwaan.
“Our traditional foods are a cornerstone of who we are, a cornerstone of our culture,” said Simon Friday, who volunteered and attended the event. “It’s nice when we as a community can get together and share a meal and not only food but each other’s company. I heard some ‘auntie laughs’ and that definitely warms your heart.”
The food fair organizers would like to express appreciation and gratitude to our partners, sponsors and the following people for making this event possible: Organized Village of Kake, Sustainable Southeast Partnership, First Nations Development Institute, Sealaska, and Edgerton Foundation. Congratulations to all those who cooked dishes for the cooking competition and judges- all are winners! Many thanks to all the cooks and volunteers, and to all the community members who donated food and prizes for the event. Gunalchéesh, haw’aa to everyone who came to share food, dance, song, and be in community.
In addition to clean water, air, and shelter— the food we eat is essential to the survival and well-being of Southeast Alaskan communities. With the arrival of a new season of harvesting and putting up rich nutrition from the land and sea, the long-term resilience of Southeast Alaska’s food system ultimately relies on relationships. This includes relationships to the land and waters where food comes from, respecting it for what it provides. Respect involves mindset and action. Land stewardship involves taking care of it, whether it is privately-owned land or public lands that are shared. The health of the land affects the health of the people.
Relationships also involve connection and partnerships across generations, past present and future. This involves acknowledging the knowledge and skills of those who came before and adapting these experiences to address current challenges. By working together and honoring shared values, Southeast Alaskans continue to draw upon many knowledge systems and ways of life in order to nourish people today while also setting a foundation of abundance for generations to come.
A full listing of sponsors, supporters and more information including resources shared during the Southeast Alaska Farmer’s Summits can be found at seakfarmerssummit.com.
Gunalchéesh, haw’aa, nt’oyaxsn, thank you to all the local food leaders who strengthen food systems in their communities. Jennifer Nu is the Regional Food Systems Catalyst with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and Ecotrust. Ḵaa Yahaayí Shkalneegi Muriel Reid is an artist and student based in Áak’w (Juneau) and Sheet’ká (Sitka) Alaska.They were sponsored to photograph the Traditional Foods Fair by Ecoturst and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions 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. SSP can be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly.