Local perspective on Tyonek
Students from the Tebughna School display carrots freshly harvested from the community garden. Courtesy of Tyonek Tribal Conservation District.
Before the plane even lands, a small group has gathered. As soon as the small aircraft rolls over to the parked trucks, families from Tyonek begin unloading boxes and bags of frozen food, canned goods and other necessities.
“We go to Costco, Carrs, Fred Meyer, Walmart,” says one Tyonek resident. “We’ll fly in and do it ourselves, or we’ll give a list to someone and pay them to get it, and we’ll pay freight. If you buy a lot of food in one month, it’ll easily cost $500 to get it back.”
Getting food from Anchorage is a problem nearly everyone in Tyonek faces — which is part of the reason why, in 2008, the village made it a priority to start growing fresh local vegetables.
“Elders in the community had been gardening for a long time, and some community members still have their own personal gardens,” explains Christy Cincotta, executive director of Tyonek Tribal Conservation District (TTCD), which was formed through a partnership between the Native Village of Tyonek, Tyonek Native Corporation (TNC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enable the community to meet its natural resource and conservation goals. “But a lot of knowledge had been lost. The community wanted to bring back gardening.”
Early on, progress was slow. Village residents cleared a piece of ground and purchased fencing, but without funding, the project stalled until TTCD became involved in 2012.
An early priority of the community garden was to involve youth. Students, as well as community members, determined what would be planted, and seeds were started in the Tebughna School’s classrooms. That first year, the garden was simple: some tilled soil, a few raised beds. “We had no irrigation system,” Cincotta recalls. “We were just hauling water with buckets. We had lines of kids watering the plants. An irrigation system became a priority very early on!”
Today, a solar-powered irrigation system keeps the community garden thriving. Funding from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service enabled Tyonek to build two high-tunnels — similar to rudimentary greenhouses — that allow for growth of some vegetables that wouldn’t otherwise survive in Alaska. A ventilation system for the high tunnels also works on solar power, resulting in a project that relies entirely on renewable energy.
The village hopes the project will also become self-sustaining. In 2014, TNC and the USDA provided funding for four youth workers who spent ten weeks planting, pollinating, harvesting, running farmers markets and delivering food to local Elders.
“Food to support the Elders was the main priority of this project,” Cincotta says. “Seeing the youth workers bring the first produce directly to the Elders’ homes, seeing that connection between youth and Elders — that was really rewarding.”
Once the Elders receive their produce, the remainder is sold locally; surplus vegetables, like potatoes, are sent to Anchorage to be sold, and proceeds are used to keep the garden going.
Back at the airstrip, a Tyonek resident explains that the cost of freight is about 56 cents per pound. “I was thinking of switching to frozen vegetables because cans are so heavy. But now that we’ve got the garden, it’s better. In summer, you don’t have to get canned stuff shipped in. You can buy good, fresh vegetables right here in Tyonek.”
Is your community interested in gardening? This winter, TTCD will host a 10-week distance learning class for those interested in learning how to start a community garden in their own Alaska Native village. For more information, visit www.ttcd.org.