Pilgrim Hot Springs brings in bountiful 2017 harvest
Fresh organic produce from Pilgrim Hot Springs is a reality.
Lined up on the sidewalk in front of the BSNC Building on Friday were vegetable hungry locavores clutching their shopping bags and hungrily eyeing the produce being set out on the tables in what is destined to become Nome’s farmers’ market.
“Best celery on Earth by far,” said Amee Gloe, one of the first to arrive for the noon opening of the produce stand. “Everything else is beautiful and it’s delicious and it’s from here. It’s amazing to support local agriculture.”
The local agriculture she speaks of is a program organized and operated by Bering Straits Development Company, a subsidiary of Bering Straits Native Corporation. The program is under the umbrella of Unaatuq LLC, a consortium of seven Native corporations that own Pilgrim Hot Springs.
By the time the market was set up and open for business the line included more than twenty. An hour later there was still a long line as more people arrived to get their fresh veggies.
“The effort is really the revitalization of historic agriculture at Pilgrim Hot Springs,” said Rob Bensin, construction manager at BSDC and the overseer of the Pilgrim Hot Springs project. “We know what they grew out there from the early 1900s through the 1950s.” Over the past 50 years several attempts have been made to grow produce but never was anything done to establish a market. “The property is very unique. It’s its own little biosphere. And there’s the medicinal value of the waters,” Bensin explained.
The Alaska Center for Energy and Power identified Pilgrim Hot Springs as having sufficient geothermal resources for a number of uses, including on-site power generation. It’s the largest such resource on the Seward Peninsula. The soil is warmed by the thermal energy and that means a longer growing season as well as the potential to grow crops, which would otherwise not be suited to the region.
Unaatuq purchased the property in 2010, which marked the first step that enabled the farming project to begin eventually.
“It’s always been a passion of mine,” said Rob Bensin. “I watched that place sit there since I’ve been here for 15 years. When the property was purchased by Unaataq in 2010 I started getting excited but we couldn’t do anything because there were still squatters out there. It was only last year that all those legal issues went away and they said ‘Have at it!’”
The Jesuit Province of California operated an orphanage on the property from 1917 until the late 1930s. Children orphaned by the devastating flu epidemic, which hit Alaska in 1918, found a home there. By 1941 the mission of the church had ended. Unaatuq LLC purchased the property from the Catholic Bishop of Northern Alaska in 2010. Unaatuq is a consortium of seven regional organizations: BSNC, Kawerak, Inc., Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, Teller Native Corporation, White Mountain Native Corporation, Mary’s Igloo Native Corporation and Sitnasuak Native Corporation. Council Native Corporation recently purchased Teller Native Corporation’s interest, and BSNC serves as the managing member for Unaatuq, LLC.
“Capital was put up to start doing something and a grant was acquired to develop a business plan,” said Rob Bensin. “A team was put together with Calypso Farms in Fairbanks, Alaska Center for Energy and Power, University of Alaska and Bering Straits Development Company and Kawerak.”
A cleanup of the site and construction of infrastructure was the first step. They added an outhouse, parking lot, bathhouse, improvements to the pool, and trash receptacles. Also, they collected “tons” of garbage and transported it to Nome.
“The very first step in revitalizing the farmland was to turn over one acre and put down a cover crop,” said Rob Bensin. “Everything that was harvested last year other than a few things that went into the soup for the workers was donated to the Nome Community Center, Nome Eskimo Community and to the Senior Center.”
“That was last year. The whole time we were working on irrigation plans with NRCS, National Resource Conservation Society, to look at their programs and how they’re going to benefit from the operations out there,” said Bensin.
“After the first year it was decided that we needed to take a different approach now that we had some land re-established. If we were really going to know what the potential of agriculture out there is, we need to invest in it and go big. We wish we’d gone a lot bigger because the market is there. It’s remarkable that the consumers in Nome just came out of the woodwork to support us and buy produce. We know that the potential for a farmers’ market type business is there. It is expensive to grow produce out there but we’re looking at other ways to support the project there with agricultural projects here in Nome,” said Bensin.
The project has benefitted from volunteer labor.
“There has been a lot of volunteers,” said Bensin. “This year we were able to put their labor to use with seeding, weeding, watering and harvesting. That has great potential for reducing the operating costs. We had other programs run through Arctic Access, which were youth education and training camps. So we had a lot of young kids who were out there for a good portion of their summer. We had a couple of field trips for students from Nome-Beltz.” Volunteers from the Seaside Center contributed labor in the gardens.
“It’s amazing,” said Tasha Lee, a laborer with Bering Straits Development Company. “People are ready and waiting and almost fighting over vegetables some days.”
Cyril Lyon is from Nome but has been living in California.
“Organic definitely tastes a lot better,” he said. “It’s better than going to the store and wondering about the providence of the food. I know where this stuff comes from because I see it growing.”