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Growing fresh produce in a mostly frozen state

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska » Across much of Alaska at this time of the year, as winter tightens its grip with darkness and cold, finding a nice crisp head of lettuce at an affordable price can be like prospecting for gold. Where the farm-to-table distance is measured in thousands of miles, the odds get long.

“Most of our produce looks like a truck ran over it,” said Susie Linford, managing partner at Alaska Coastal Catering, a company here in the state’s largest city.

But now there is hope; the salad wars are on. Two small startups, each with a starkly different vision for how to grow produce year round, under uniquely Alaskan conditions, have opened their doors.

“This town wants lettuce,” Jason Smith, founder of Alaska Natural Organics, said as he showed a visitor through his garden inside a former dairy warehouse 2 miles from downtown on a recent blustery day when 5 1/2 hours of natural sunlight was all that residents in this part of the state could hope for.

Smith, a 34-year-old Marine infantry veteran, raises greens hydroponically — in water, without soil or pesticides, under blue-and-red LED lights — and sold his first crop this fall.

Vertical Harvest Hydroponics, another new company, has ideas of growing green where climate might otherwise frown by aiming for portability. The company’s three partners, all also in their 30s, are refitting boxcar-size ship cargo containers into indoor grow spaces that can be installed in restaurant basements, parking lots or remote, off-the-road-grid villages where the only access — for people or produce — is by air or sea.

Each container can nurture 1,800 heads of leafy greens and herbs at a time and is designed for harsh conditions, or what Cameron Willingham, one of the company’s founders, called, “Arctic-capable growing.”

“Our target market is the northern communities where you can pay $6 or $7 or $8 for a head of lettuce,” he said.

“It’s hard to ship stuff out there,” he added. “It freezes on the tarmac.”

Urban indoor farming is blossoming in many seemingly unlikely places around the world. A company in Newark, New Jersey, is building a huge urban farm inside a former steel plant. Growers from Japan to Vancouver, British Columbia, to the suburbs of Chicago have found that cultivating compact indoor spaces as close as possible to the consumer — even if costs are higher than at dirt farms farther from town — can pay off.

What makes Alaska different, perhaps especially with food, are the big distances and the knotty logistics. With short growing seasons here, and no roads in many places, fresh produce for much of the year comes from California or Mexico. Because of the lag time in reaching consumers, the produce starts its journey having been picked long before ripening, to reduce spoilage on the way, chefs and agricultural experts here said. That hurts the quality.

Alaska imports about 90 to 95 percent of its food, state officials said, putting about $2 billion a year into out-of-state farmers’ pockets.

While locally grown produce has become more common in recent years, farmers and food distributors tend to focus on the state’s biggest cities, especially Anchorage, leaving rural residents out in the cold. Obesity rates rose faster in rural Alaska than in the urban areas from 1991 to 2012, a state report said, though health experts cautioned that other factors, from access to doctors to high smoking rates, could also have contributed.

“I talk to store owners who said they have just stopped even trying to order fresh fruits and vegetables because the transportation systems just don’t work,” said Danny Consenstein, executive director of the Agriculture Department’s Alaska Farm Service Agency. Even in many of the stores that try to stock fresh produce, Consenstein added, the fruits and vegetables that are offered “look terrible.”

“Second of all. they’re priced so high,” he said. “I can understand why somebody would walk down that aisle and say, ‘You know. I’d rather buy a bag of chips.’”

Stories like that, investors and growers say, spell opportunity.

“If you want to start up something like this, say down in California, you’ve got to compete with San Joaquin Valley and all of the dirt farms,” said Forrest A. Nabors, a founder of Alyeska Venture Management, a 2-year-old venture capital firm that backs local entrepreneurs through its Alaska Accelerator Fund.

But in Alaska, added Nabors, who is also an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alaska, the inefficiency of the market for produce means that new ideas have room to run or, as he put it, “a comfortable margin to play with, to produce a better product at a competitive price.” The Accelerator Fund made Smith’s organic produce company one of its first investments, and was the largest contributor to his initial startup, which cost just under $1 million.

There is also a clear demand, in rural Alaska especially, for small-scale businesses and jobs.

“Local food production is something we enjoy and are passionate about,” said Kyle Belleque, 40, who lives in Dillingham, which has about 5,000 people in a spread-out district 350 miles southwest of Anchorage. “The problem is that with such a small growing season, we just focus on growing for ourselves.”

Belleque (pronounced ba-LECK) and his wife, Johanna, 39, are buying a Vertical Harvest growing unit scheduled for delivery this spring and are in preliminary talks, he said, with local stores and restaurants that might want to buy the greens. “With these containers, all of a sudden you’re producing 12 months a year,” Belleque said.

A Vertical Harvest garden costs just under $100,000, more if a buyer wants add-ons like solar power ability.

Smith, of Alaska Natural Organics, envisions creating jobs in villages through scaled-down versions of his Anchorage operation. He said he was in preliminary talks with an Alaskan Native group about where such farms might go and how local residents might be trained and employed to run them.

Linford, the caterer, who has bought Smith’s produce, said part of the appeal was the beauty of the items. Unlike some dirt-raised organic vegetables she has tried, which can be blemished, or wilted by the duress of shipment, Smith’s vegetables are raised in dirt-free, atmospherically controlled conditions. And for a catered winter party on a dark Alaska night, she said, you can’t beat the just-in-time taste.

“He harvests an hour before our events,” she said.

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