Mon, July 01, 2013

Rhubarb Patches and Beach Peat: Kodiak’s Agricultural Heritage

By Anjuli Grantham
Hoop houses have replaced Quonset huts as the most commonly sighted semi-circular structures in Kodiak these days, as gardeners have taken full advantage of USDA tax credits to promote food self-sufficiency. Now, one can eat fresh salad greens throughout the winter that were not shipped in a container van from Seattle. And although Kodiak gardeners are vaguely aware of the fact that people have been gardening in Kodiak for awhile, people are generally surprised to learn that Kodiak has what is likely the longest agricultural history in the state.

Gardens surround the homes at Afognak Village in this
turn-of-the-century photograph. Image courtesy Kodiak
Historical Society, P-503-10.

Ok- admittedly it was at the Three Saint Bay settlement on Kodiak Island that the first garden was planted, which was also the first Russian settlement in Alaska. These early fur traders attempted to plant barley, rye, and other crops that solidly failed. Yet, from this inauspicious beginning, Russian Orthodox missionaries carried seeds with them as they travelled and other Russians established gardens in the villages or forts where they were stationed. Further research is required to discover who it was that started using seaweed as a fertilizer in their garden beds, but to this day “beach peat” is the preferred locally available fertilizer in many parts of coastal Alaska. It was likely one of these early Orthodox missionaries.
In 1835, agriculture received an injection in the Russian colonies, and particularly in the Kodiak region, when the czar sanctioned the establishment of the colonial settler class. These were Russian-American Company employees that had started families in Alaska and had no desire, or little financial ability, to return to Russia at the end of their contracts. These individuals were given food, tools, and agricultural implements and sent to retiree villages that had been established on Spruce Island and Afognak Island within the Kodiak Archipelago and Ninilchik. It was hoped that these retirees would establish prosperous farming villages and that they would sell their produce to the RAC, mitigating some of the provisioning problems that forever haunted the colony. It worked to a small degree- families from Afognak Village sold potatoes, turnips, and rutabagas to the neighboring St. Paul (present day Kodiak) and even exported their produce to Sitka. By the end of the Russian era, the Kodiak district supplied more produce to feed the colonies than any other Alaskan district.
In the earliest years of American ownership of Alaska, Afognak was regarded as the agricultural hub of the territory. In 1886, Henry Elliott claimed that Afognak Village had more acreage under cultivation than all the rest of Alaska, noting that potatoes, turnips, cabbages and radishes were under cultivation. He also noted the cows, chickens, and domesticated ducks that roamed the village. Outside visitors to Afognak nearly always commented upon the gardens, noting the use of seaweed as fertilizer. Recently I feasted on a Kodiak specialty, a salmon pie known as pirok, with a family who has roots in Afognak. It is no wonder that their family’s version of the dish includes grated rutabaga, carrots, and cabbage.

Local gardeners dig their patches out from underneath Novarupta’s
volcanic ash in 1912. Image courtesy Kodiak Historical Society, P-386-41.

Kodiak continued to be known for its agricultural prowess prior to the 1912 eruption at Katmai, which buried the island with several feet of ash. After the three days of ash fall, residents quickly got out their shovels and spades and excavated their garden plots, attempting to salvage the new potato shoots and rhubarb plants. To this day, gardeners who plant directly in the dirt instead of a raised bed will have plenty of Katmai ash to contend with.
Heirloom varietals of rhubarb, raspberries, and strawberries still take root in Kodiak today, although potatoes and other root crops have proven more elusive to locate for this novice gardener. Yet, I am more than content with my pirok and rhubarb crisp, feasting on locally grown produce and locally grown history at the same time.