A local food hub has sprouted on Kodiak Island

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The archipelago is now home to five community and tribally owned farms – with plans for a sixth agricultural site this summer. The idea is to connect the island through locally grown food, and the island could be a model of food security for other parts of rural Alaska.

You might not realize that a full-fledged farm has popped up just outside downtown Kodiak – even if you walked right by it.

Baby lettuce heads grow hydroponically in Mal’ul Farms’ connex buildings, right outside downtown Kodiak; April, 2023. The farm is the latest in the Alutiiq Grown network. (Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)

“Right now, it’s really lettuce and various herbs,” said Max Lyons, the project and marketing coordinator for the Kodiak Archipelago Leadership Institute. 

An L-shaped set of turquoise connex buildings called Mal’uk Farms sit in a parking lot outside of the Native Village of Afognak’s administrative offices.

The buildings are small – each measuring just about 40 feet long. But 1,800 plants can grow here in hydroponic cabinets. Each baby lettuce head looks like it bloomed from a bright, white shelf filled with water. 

“The key is just feeding the local communities first and foremost year round,” said Lyons. “So, that’s why the hydroponics has been a game changer because all year you can have, you know, fresh greens at least.”

Mal’uk is co-owned by Afognak and the Native Village of Tangniraq, which is the tribe on Woody Island  – right across the channel from Kodiak. 

Right now, anyone in town can sign up for weekly, fresh bags of greens and – depending on availability – have them delivered to their front doors. Tribal Elders get first priority. Mal’uk currently serves about a hundred households a week, and it’s a lot of work.

Mal’uk Farms is constructed from two connex buildings; one has a kitchen area to process produce after harvest; April 2023. (Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)

“Monday is usually prepping for harvest, which is Tuesday,” said Becky Gomez, the hydroponic trainee at Mal’uk Farms. “Wednesday we’re prepping for deliveries and then we set out for deliveries usually for a couple hours in the afternoon. And then Thursday is the same thing again and then just planning ahead for the following week.”

Mal’uk is just the newest farm on the island; it was established in 2020 and the last connex was installed just last year. There are five farms total across the archipelago that make up the Alutiiq Grown network. And new hydroponic growing units are being built in the village of Akhiok this summer. Other farms that are already established are located in the villages of Ouzinkie, Larsen Bay, Old Harbor and Port Lions.

Almost all of the island’s food is brought in from somewhere else. Lyons said the ultimate goal of the farming network is to change that. 

“Once the villages are producing more than they can consume, they’ll send it into Kodiak,” he said. “So, that’s where we have that outlet of the food hub.”

Eventually, excess produce will be shipped out to other parts of the island as part of the Qik’rtak Food Hub. Qik’rtak means Kodiak Island in Alutiiq.

The project started back in 2015 and was seeded with federal grants, including money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Administration for Native Americans. 

Mal’uk Farms grows lettuce and herbs for community members. (Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)

The farms are all community or tribally owned – and slightly different.

Joe Kewan is the agricultural specialist for the Native Village of Port Lions – on the northeast corner of the island. He started working on Port Lions’ farm back in 2016. 

“There’s cauliflower, broccoli, we pretty much grow any type of vegetables,” he said. “This year, I’m experimenting with asparagus and artichokes.”

Kewan manages two acres in Port Lions – including hoop houses and a chicken coop with 60 hens for laying eggs. He’s even planting fruit trees this year. There’s also three connex buildings where lettuce and greens grow hydroponically – just like in Kodiak. Residents can pick up whatever’s ready to harvest from a farmers market twice a week. 

Port Lions was established as a home for people displaced when the tsunami and earthquake destroyed the Native Village of Afognak back in 1964. Kewan said those roots helped spark the idea for the farms and food hub.

“Back in the Afognak village, there used to be farms and gardens,” he said. “And so, why don’t we have farms around this island in the villages for food security purposes?” 

But Kewan – who was born and raised in Port Lions –  said the whole thing also goes beyond food security. The farm has given him a reason to stay there. He’s hoping it does the same for others. 

“We want to keep this village going as long as we can,” he said. “And I see that with this farm, I see this farm expanding. As it gets bigger, our tribe has plans to open a store again, and get a store over here for our people.” 

Back in Kodiak, Lyons said they’re still scaling up so they can feed more people each week. 

It’s going to take some time, but he’s excited to watch it grow.

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