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Pandemic pauses the growing season for this Arctic gardening guru

North of the Arctic Circle, in the tiny Alaskan village of Anaktuvuk, one woman is trying to expand agriculture in a climate largely hostile to it. Nasaġraq Rainey Hopson has successfully grown fresh produce for her community for several years, using special structures that protect plants. But now, the pandemic has brought her efforts to a halt. Alaska Public Media’s Erin McKinstry reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Gardening can be a challenge anywhere, but few places are more challenging than in the Arctic.

    In the tiny Alaskan village of Anaktuvuk Pass, one woman has taken on that challenge. After a few years of growing fresh produce, COVID-19 has brought her efforts to a halt for now.

    From Alaska Public Radio — Public Media, Erin McKinstry reports. And a note: Parts of this story were filmed prior to the pandemic.

  • Erin McKinstry:

    Across Alaska's North Slope, agriculture is practically nonexistent, thanks to harsh growing conditions and little historical precedent.

    But Nasugraq Rainey Hopson is breaking new ground, literally. In 2016, she started the project Gardens in the Arctic, and installed a high tunnel for growing fresh produce. Similar to greenhouses, these domed, plastic-covered structures extend the growing season by keeping in heat and providing additional protection to plants.

    Hopson typically sells about 150 pounds of produce a year, and grows nearly 100 different varieties of plants, keeping detailed notes on what works and what doesn't.

    She's become something of an Arctic gardening guru. On this day last summer, she showed off her garden to participants in an agribusiness workshop.

  • Nasugraq Rainey Hopson:

    Like, I grow tomatoes. They don't always ripen, but I'll grow them anyways, just because it's a — you can grow tomatoes in here.

  • Erin McKinstry:

    2019 was a hot, dry summer in the Arctic, which means cold-hardy plants like kale suffered, but heat-lovers like melons and squash flourished.

    Whether a changing climate will open doors to more agriculture in the Arctic is an open question, Hopson says.

  • Nasugraq Rainey Hopson:

    There was a stableness the first few years, and then everything kind of just went haywire into the extremes.

  • Erin McKinstry:

    This year, she's facing even more challenges. For one, she had to move her garden to a new lot. And due to the pandemic, there was an increased nationwide interest in gardening.

  • Nasugraq Rainey Hopson:

    It was just like a crazy time where we're trying to move the high tunnel, and I couldn't get seeds where I usually get seeds, the kind of seeds I get. And so I was like, well, it's probably going to be pretty crazy this summer.

  • Erin McKinstry:

    She decided to put the project on hold, despite increased food security concerns brought on by the pandemic.

    But those concerns aren't new to her community. Anaktuvuk Pass residents rely heavily on hunting caribou for food, but a changing climate is impacting them too.

    In the past, caribou migrated through the pass in great numbers, but a warming Arctic means that migration is no longer reliable. That makes projects to improve local food security like Hopson's all the more important.

    A search for a healthier lifestyle inspired Hopson's project initially. According to the last census, over half of Anaktuvuk Pass residents reported having difficulty accessing healthy food. Vegetables in the fly-in-only community are hard to come by, and what is available is expensive.

  • Nasugraq Rainey Hopson:

    My goal is to provide service for my community and to make my people better, health-wise, mentally, and just give them an option that they didn't have before.

  • Erin McKinstry:

    In past years, Hopson has given half of what she grows away to elders and has made all-inclusive kits for families to grow gardens in their own backyards.

    Her model focuses on community and cultural values, instead of turning a profit. But this year has proven the most difficult. Because of social distancing, she can't work closely with other gardeners, and the need is greater than ever.

  • Nasugraq Rainey Hopson:

    This last year, we have been having issues with our store. So, there's very little food available. It's very empty over there, very little available in the village.

  • Erin McKinstry:

    But she still has plenty of ambitions for the project, like a second high tunnel. She's told everyone to sit tight until next year, when she hopes to have plants back in the ground.

  • Nasugraq Rainey Hopson:

    Little cucumbers.

  • Erin McKinstry:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Erin McKinstry in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska.

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