Alaska is far from lines of supply. Within the last 10 years, however, small-scale agriculture and farming has grown significantly in this subarctic state. While fish and shellfish have always been easy to obtain, we can also get pork, elk and reindeer meat from animals raised in-state. Small farms such as Denali Organic Growers and Rosie Creek Farm supply us with lettuces, hardy greens, and, later in the summer, onions, carrots, potatoes, squash and more.
Not only does fresh food taste better, but buying from in-state sources also lowers our environmental footprint, so we purchase Alaska-grown whenever possible. Each night we serve a main entrée of meat or fish that is obtained from responsibly farmed or wild-caught sources in Alaska or the Pacific Northwest. Whenever possible and in-season, the vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs are either grown on site or purchased from organic farmers in our region.
For 20 years we have maintained an on-site greenhouse and outdoor, raised bed gardens where we grow herbs and vegetables that thrive in northern growing conditions. This provides us the freshest cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, salad greens, rhubarb, herbs and flowers possible while eliminating the need to transport such fragile produce long distances in refrigerated trucks to our Denali lodges. Though these items represent a small portion of our overall use, growing this bit of our own food keeps us connected to where our food comes from and reminds us of the effort required to supply organic produce.
One hour north of Denali National Park, amidst spruce and birch forest, Jimmie and Laura Hendrix work tirelessly on their 20-acre farm. Together with some interns, they plant seven separate plots in early May. If the Alaskan weather is kind, they start harvesting lettuces as early as mid-June.
Denali Organic Growers is a small operation; they supply Camp Denali and North Face Lodge, several restaurants at the East End of the Park, and have a 10 member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Everything is done by hand, meaning no tractors, mechanized fertilizer spreaders, or compost sifters. Jimmie and Laura make and mix their own potting soil and seedling mix. Their garden plots are irrigated with springtime run-off or collected rainwater. Each garden has its own composting area. In Laura’s words, “we strive to better feed the soil to feed the plant.”
On the receiving end of Jimmie’s and Laura’s bountiful harvest, every week is like a surprise. Denali Organic Growers sends us a CSA-style assortment of whatever they have available. Every single item of produce has been hand-picked and hand-washed with an incredible amount of care. I’ll often call the cooks out to our root cellar so they can admire the beauty of the week’s bounty!
The season starts off in mid-June with a few 20-gallon totes of meticulously packed salad greens, from soft red-speckled lettuce to crunchy romaine and heads of deep purple oak lettuce. In July, we start getting heartier greens—beautiful rainbow chard, curly and dinosaur kale, and dense green heads of broccoli. By August, we’re at the height of Alaska’s harvest, with the sweetest skinny carrots, gorgeous red and golden beets, plump kohlrabi, and even more lettuces and hearty greens. The end of August brings golf ball-sized pink Fingerling, Purple Majesty, and creamy Yukon gold potatoes, addicting sweet cherry tomatoes, as well as perfect sugar-snap peas.
Everything grown at Denali Organic Growers is organic, and it becomes our job to use the product while it’s at its peak. Carrots and kohlrabi welcome guests at our East Fork River picnic, as well as pickled beets. Salad greens present themselves with beets as a first course at dinner and on our lunch line for sandwiches. Hearty greens are sautéed with onions and garlic for a vegetable side. Potatoes are roasted with herbs and carrots for a breakfast hash, or steamed for mashed potatoes. The sugar snap peas are so good that a brief sauté is all they need to perfectly accompany grilled salmon.
Just outside Fairbanks, Rosie Creek Farm operates on fertile floodplain where Rosie Creek flows into the mighty Tanana River. On 40 acres, Mike Emers grows an incredible spread of 100% USDA certified organic produce. One of the Interior’s largest, Rosie Creek Farm supplies Fairbanks-area farmer’s markets, a 200-plus member CSA, a handful of Fairbanks restaurants, and our lodges.
Every week we track down Mike by phone, and he’ll head out into the gardens to let us know what looks good that week. Twenty-four hours of daylight in the high summer months means that vegetables grow quickly, but one cold snap can set growing back for weeks. Rosie Creek delivers to us on Tuesday morning, and on many Monday afternoons we’ll get updated messages from Mike about tomatoes that are suddenly ready after a glorious sunny weekend.
Rosie Creek Farm operates on a larger scale that Denali Organic Growers. Mike grows acres of zucchini, lettuces, potatoes, peas, and onions, to name a few. We order by the pound, and we order quite a bit! A normal week in August can include 25# zucchini, 100# yellow onions, 75# potatoes, and 15# snap peas. Starting in June we get 5# bags of spicy salad mix, a multi-hued medley including Asian mustard greens, dandelion greens, and mizuna. We also get braising greens, which we cook with lots of onions and garlic. Come July, we start receiving gorgeous heads of purple, yellow, and traditional white cauliflower, trim bunches of scallions, and several varietals of summer squash. By August, we’re getting bushels of brilliant purple and green Dragon green beans, sweet yellow onions, and deep red tomatoes the size of your palm. By September, purple Bolivian potatoes, golden-hued acorn squash, and fat roasting pumpkins are delivered just in time to for fall.
Vegetable farming is hard work in Alaska, but raising animals is no picnic either! We’re lucky to get some of our meat and sausages from Delta Meat and Sausage Company. Located 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks in the tiny town of Delta Junction, Delta Meat is truly a family business, run by Cathie McCollum and her daughter, Jeannie Pinkelman. They raise their own cattle and pigs and run a USDA certified meat-processing operation. Here they process other local livestock, including yak, reindeer, buffalo, and elk.
Not that long ago it was difficult to find locally raised meat in Alaska that could be served in a restaurant. Delta Meat was the first establishment in Alaska to embrace the raising and processing of animals all in one location, as opposed to shipping the animals to larger processing plants in other parts of the state. By keeping the entire cycle close to home, Delta Meat knows exactly where their animals come from, how they were raised and what they ate, so they are confident in the quality of their products.
We use a variety of products from Delta Meat— ground pork and ground beef (both of which make their way into our breakfast sausages), pork belly, and reindeer breakfast links, which go very well with our sourdough pancakes. In past summers, we’ve featured house made elk ravioli using cuts of a whole elk processed by Delta Meat.