Alaskans love their pioneers, those who push into new frontiers like Tim Meyers.
Meyers is the first and only farmer in Bethel, a town on the tundra of southwest Alaska, about 500 miles west of Anchorage, where he cultivates about 17 acres of land in some unorthodox ways.
Here at KTUU, we’ve followed Meyers over the years, from growing crops on the tundra that people said would never grow in such an unforgiving land – to his experiments in building underground (Check out some of our links to past stories about Meyers.).
Underground construction is problematic in the permafrost. That’s why almost all of the houses in southwest Alaska are built on stilts, to keep the ground underneath from melting – and the buildings from shifting off their foundations and sinking.
But don’t tell Tim Meyers that something can’t be done, because he’s apt to try. And succeed.
Meyers has figured out how to deal with the permafrost by digging out the ground, drying the soil and then creating a hill. His structures are burrowed into the mound and are partially underground, where the temperature remains a steady 32 degrees all year round, perfect for storing vegetables.
After years of experimenting with small underground chambers, to see if buckets of water would freeze, Meyers has built a root cellar, big enough to store 200,000 pounds of produce.
“It’s 98% humidity right now, perfect for storing produce,” says Meyers as he showed us his cellar back in February.
Under piles of snow above ground, his root crops of potatoes, cabbages, turnips and rutabagas had survived long stretches of weather at 30 below.
“It’s probably the coldest winter we’ve had since I’ve been here,” says Meyers, who has lived in Bethel for about 40 years.
“Last fall we put 22,000 pounds of produce in here and have managed to keep it all winter from freezing,” said Meyers, who continues to sell the vegetables harvested last September to people in Bethel and expects to do so through the end of this summer.
Meyers says he will grow more food this summer, because now he has a place to store his produce safely.
His hens, which spent the winter underground, also survived the extreme cold and produce about four dozen eggs a day.
Meyers hope to feed the town of Bethel and beyond. Last summer, he sent some of his surplus to the Natural Pantry store in Anchorage.
Owner Rick Solberg, a longtime supporter of Alaska grown food, aid the Bethel cabbages were very popular, but the only problem was that demand outstripped what Meyers could supply. But the two are working to bring more vegetables to his store this summer.
Normally produce is shipped from Anchorage to Bush communities like Bethel by air – which means people pay at least one-and-a-half times more for food, sometimes twice as much due to the added freight costs.
Until Meyers, it was unheard of to have produce going from the Bush to Anchorage, and the airfreight rates make it challenging. But Solberg believes there’s a market for Bethel produce, which has a reputation for being sweet and tasty, because the cool nights stimulate sugar production. The long days of arctic light, sometimes as much as 20 hours, are also enhance the flavor of the vegetables.
Meyers says, with the cold, he doesn’t have to use pesticides – and fish wastes, which are plentiful after the salmon run up the Kuskokwim, are an almost perfect fertilizer.
With so many people in the region struggling with the high cost of fuel and food, which is well over six dollars a gallon, Meyers would like to not only export the food he grows but also his ideas to villages across the state.
“I think a village could survive with this. And I think a village could not survive without this.”
Meyers would like to invite villages to send people to his farm, to work and learn from him.
This summer he continues to experiment with high tunnels, a low cost type of greenhouse, fashioned out of plastic and pipe.
In April, while the Kuskokwim River was still solid ice, Meyers began planting crops in the high tunnels. This week he harvested strawberries from beds inside one of his tunnels, as well as cucumbers, zucchinis, lettuce and other spicy greens. He also has some fat green tomatoes ripening on the vine.
“If we built five or six farms out here and showed people how to do it, we’d change this whole region,” said Meyers. “Deep down, people like the idea of taking care of themselves.”