Farming in Southeast Alaska

May and June bring out all the new faces. The smaller the town the more noticeable you are; people can be curious about who you are, what you’re doing, what you’re up to next. In my quest to get to know some of the folks who are helping make the summer happen, I thought I’d start with who’s new at The Market in Petersburg, our summer community food and art market happening on a monthly basis in 2017. (Disclosure, I’m a board member of The Market and was the manager 2015-2016). Our market revolves around our local organic farm, and life out there gets an extra pair of hands around this time of year.

 

This year’s intern at Farragut Farm is Kassie Springhoff from Stevens Point, Wisconsin. She went on a river trip in the boundary waters and met someone who thought she’d really like Alaska. His cousin worked on an organic farm in Southeast Alaska, he said, and had an amazing time. Would Kassie be interested in giving that a shot? His cousin was Matt Kern, Juneau resident who spent 2015 interning with Farragut Farm, located in Farragut Bay. Springhoff got in touch with the owners of the farm, Bo Varsano and Marja Smets, and before she knew it was on her way to Southeast Alaska.

It takes Varsano and Smets approximately four hours to travel to Farragut Bay from Petersburg, primarily because they use a fuel-efficient catamaran that takes its time crossing Thomas Bay. Chartering a boat or plane can take less than an hour, though it goes without saying the trip is always weather dependent. From the landing in the Bay (which has to occur at the right tide), there’s a hike in to the farm itself. Once there, there are greenhouses on wheels, water catchment systems for the farm and people alike, and a solar-powered energy system that keeps the business running.

Bo Varsano bought the land over 20 years ago and has been farming it with Marja Smets for about eight years. They’ve been bringing people out to intern with them the last few summers. It’s a way to teach others important farming skills while having an extra hand in the busy season. The day-to-day life of an intern isn’t glamorous. It involves lots of seeding, mulching, weeding, and working with the compost. People interested in the work have to be able to work hard, be okay with long stretches of solitude, and know that nature has a funny sense of humor sometimes. (See: weeding with No See Ums.)

Springhoff said she knew she was signing up for an adventure. This is her first experience farming; before this she worked in a garden center and a co-op. When she told people she was heading to a remote farm in Southeast Alaska the common response was, “There’s lots of farms here, why not stay in Wisconsin?”

Her response said it all. “But, I really wanted to go to Alaska.”

Because along with the hard work there are moments of majesty. When we talked Springhoff described spending time exploring the fields and forests around the bay, looking up while she worked and seeing a bear in the not-quite-distance. (Don’t worry, Varsano’s rigged up a bear bell for her. Safety first!)

Kassie said she feels spoiled. She’s staying in a cabin that belongs to a friend of Bo and Marja. That means a ten-minute walk along the wooden boardwalk every morning to start a full day at the farm.

There are a few quirks that come with living in a quiet place for the first time. Springhoff told me about a few friends she’d met out in the Bay. (The ermine’s name is Frank, and the porcupine is Susan. There’s lots of gossip sometimes.) But she’s able to socialize when they travel to Petersburg to sell produce every two weeks, and plugging into satellite internet every once in awhile lets her keep up with what’s going on. (Even when she’d rather not know.)

This too shall pass. Springhoff will spend a month and a half at Farragut Farm. Then she’ll go to Haines to spend a month on a farm there. After that Springhoff will head back to Farragut Bay to finish out the season.

It’s anyone’s guess what happens after that. Before her trip to Alaska, Springhoff had been considering a doctorate in social psychology. Her research interest as an undergrad included how to effectively communicate the science and impact of climate change. But the thought of returning to school and pursuing a standard career gave her mixed feelings. And now that she’s seen the way people can make a living through sustainable and small-scale work opportunities, she’s not sure she’ll be able to find a way back.

She made a joke that when she goes to buy a ticket it just might be a round-trip so she ca pick up her cat. No cats out at the farm, so she’d have to figure something else out. Smets has been telling her about other opportunities to build a life out of seasonal and sustainable work opportunities in the lower 48, so those options are on the table too.

But, then again, she did really want to go to Alaska.

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