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Harvesting food and power in remote Alaska

Posted: April 19, 2011 - 9:48pm

The regular 90-day legislative session ended without the passage of two big energy proposals initiated by Gov. Sean Parnell. His $2 billion a year tax break to big oil stalled in the Senate. And the Legislature didn’t approve his request to spend $65 million on permitting costs for the proposed $4 billion hydroelectric dam on the Susitna River. Meanwhile, below the Governor’s radar, the Marble Creek Farm has acquired all its permits for the construction of a privately owned and operated hydroelectric plant.

The Marble Creek Farm isn’t the typical energy project though. Located 17 miles south of Ketchikan, it’s surrounded by National Forest land and is not accessible from the city’s road system. More significantly, the 98- acre site isn’t connected to any public power supply grid. Its main objective is agriculture. Owner Ed Schofield purchased the property in 2004 with hopes of delivering organic vegetables to markets across Southeast Alaska.

Schofield isn’t new to farming. He was raised on a farm in northern Missouri. In 1990 he and his wife Renee bought 320 acres in southeast Iowa where they farmed for six years. They also owned and operated a farm equipment business and published a monthly farmer educational newspaper. Today they have a modest vegetable garden at their home on Pennock Island.

The project will be similar to Chena Fresh, a hydroponic greenhouse that offers Fairbanks area residents a year-round supply of fresh produce. However, greenhouses in Alaska are much more energy intensive than farming down south. Chena Fresh is powered and heated by geothermal energy. The energy for the Marble Creek greenhouses will come from a series of natural waterfalls which collectively tumble 150 feet down the mountainside.

Schofield isn’t a stranger to electrical power generation either. He spent six years during the past decade as the Operations Manager for Ketchikan Public Utilities. That’s where he was working when he first became aware of the renewable energy potential of the Marble Creek site. A stream flow analysis completed in 2009 confirmed the creek could produce as much as 750 kilowatts of electricity. The design for the Marble Creek Farm is to eventually tap 575 kilowatts of that, or the equivalent of a diesel powered generator burning about 350,000 gallons per year.

The initial business plan is to produce lettuce and tomatoes, with cucumbers and peppers being added later. These make up a significant share of the imported vegetables purchased by Southeast Alaska consumers. After it’s up and running, Marble Creek will also offer on-site training seminars to introduce prospective new farmers to controlled environment farming practices. And beyond that are plans to construct rental cabins for people seeking self guided recreational experiences in SE Alaska’s unique wilderness.

It’s an ambitious undertaking that followed the motto “know your farmer, know your food.” By bringing the market closer to the farmer, Schofield is reducing the fuel needed to get his products to consumers. And he’s harvesting the philosophies from the conservationist classic “A Sand County Almanac.” Published 60 years ago, Aldo Leopold wrote the “two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm” are “supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery” and “heat comes from the furnace.”

Today our society is even more removed from the farm and the true sources of heat and electrical power. We’ve become so dependent on big agribusiness and big power plants to sustain our way of life that we rarely consider the all the energy consumed to bring food and electricity into our homes.

Schofield’s vision epitomizes the last frontier’s twin legacies of self sufficiency and innovation. He’s arranged private financing to cover 60 percent of the million dollar start up costs. He’s turned to the feds in hopes of attaining a small USDA energy grant. The rest will come out of pocket because there aren’t any state incentives for projects like his that aren’t connected to the grid.

And Schofield doesn’t have a supporter in the Governor’s Mansion like the North Slope oil companies and the Susitna Dam project do. But if Parnell is really interested in small business and energy independence, then he needs to let go of his infatuation with big projects and become involved with promoting ideas like the Marble Creek Farm.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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