There are large farms that feed people all across the country, and then there are little farms that feed a community of families who all know each other.
That second kind of farm is what you’ll find in the Native Village of Port Heiden, a small community hundreds of miles southwest of Anchorage on the Alaska Peninsula. This community-run farm raises animals and grows vegetables to help address scarce food sources in the wild and high food prices in the store, as well as the need to help a remote area build a more reliable storage of food in the case of emergencies, said Adrianne Christensen, the village’s director of business development.
Christensen calls the Aleut and Yup’ik community where she was born and raised a “meeting place in between villages.” It once had an Army base and thousands of residents, but now the population has fallen to just over 100 people. Though far from the rest of Alaska’s population, these residents remain close to each other and committed to their home, Christensen said. They’ve moved inland to try to escape the erosion along the coastline. They’ve relied on small airplanes to fly in everything they need and wait weeks to months for packages to arrive.
“So shipping fresh things is basically impossible,” Christensen said.
To feed their families, they rely on subsistence foods like berries and fish and one store with limited — and expensive — food options, she said. Christensen, a mother of two young boys, visited the store recently and the available produce consisted of about 10 pounds of potatoes and another 10 pounds of onions. There was nothing green or leafy on the shelves.
“A gallon of milk costs over $20,” she said.
Then there’s also the decline in traditional food options. The caribou population around Port Heiden had dwindled to the point that the residents were no longer allowed to hunt them.
“That’s what inspired us to start the reindeer farm,” Christensen said. Reindeer, she said, are domesticated caribou.
Christensen said Port Heiden residents spend entire summers hunting and gathering food for their winters, including meat from the reindeer, salmon, moose, ptarmigan, wild greens, and berries. With options becoming scarcer in the wild, residents came together and created the Meshik Farm, which stems from the original village name for Port Heiden. The village is located at the mouth of the Meshik River.
In 2015, the residents flew in 30 reindeer from the Nome area, Christensen said. Over time, they added other animals, including rabbits and chickens for their meat and eggs. They built a barn and an electric fence to keep the bears out. They used recycled items when they could, constructing a chicken house out of a reclaimed fuel drum.
“We lost a bunch of chickens to a fox this morning,” Christensen said in the middle of July, leaving their current chicken count at 15.
Like the caribou population, the rabbit population in the wild had been declining. Port Heiden residents now raise them on the farm for their meat. They also raise four pigs, one of which is pregnant. Pigs are not native to the area, but Port Heiden residents raise them because “we like bacon,” Christensen said. The residents also harvest vegetables and herbs, including squash, celery, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, kale, basil and dill.
Christensen said the Meshik Farm has two paid farmers, but everyone gets involved in some way. The farm is a community effort. The elders watch the animals and make sure they aren’t in danger. Adults build and clean pens, collect eggs, and care for the animals when they are sick. The children help feed and water, even slaughter, the animals. The tribe in Port Heiden sells the meat and produce to community members, and then the profit goes back into managing the farm, Christensen said. The farm website lists a dozen eggs at $12, a chicken for $25, and a rabbit for $20.
“We had people here who didn’t realize an egg tastes good because they had never eaten a fresh egg,” Christensen said.
At this point, the farm isn’t raising enough money to make it profitable, but it has brought positive changes for the community’s lifestyle. Christensen said the farming program has helped residents stop abusing drugs and kept them sober. It has helped children stay active, chasing reindeer and catching chickens. It’s inspired families to start their own personal gardens and raise animals.
“The farm really brings people together, especially when animals arrive,” Christensen said. “People are really proud of our community and what we’re doing.”
The photograph is of Adrianne Christensen, Port Heiden's director of business development, and her son. The image is courtesy of Christensen.