Organic vegetables growing at PIlgrim
By the end of July Nome’s locavores should be seeing top quality organically grown vegetables for sale on Front Street. Pilgrim Hot Springs is a great place to grow things and the gardens this year are bigger and more varied than in the past. According to Rob Bensin, who overseas the gardening program, spinach, arugula, and salad greens should be ready soon.
The gardeners began in mid-June by preparing the ground. “You’ve got all the spring growth and that had to be moed down,” said Bensin. “And then we had to do a small amount of tilling, mostly in the potato field, and then make or prepare our beds. And transport all our starts from Nome out to here.” The crew constructed a large hoop house for getting seedlings ready to transplant and created a secondary field for direct seeding.
The growing of vegetables in the volcanic soil of Pilgrim Hot Springs is managed 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.
This year the farmers are growing more vegetables than last year. “About 30,” said Bensin. “We’re trying out some new things we didn’t do last year like salad mixes, small leafy green stuff. And we’re growing melons. We’re going to try melons in the hoop house this year.” The hoop house is a shelter constructed by covering half-hoops with translucent plastic. It’s warmer than the outside and the seedlings are protected from birds.
Also new this year is a drip irrigation system. The crew built an irrigation shack and constructed a reservoir from which water is pumped into tanks by pumps running off solar powered batteries. “As soon as we get done planting we’ll concentrate on making the irrigation a fully automated system where all we’ll need is for people to come out here is every couple of days to check on things and do harvest,” said Bensin.
The labor force this year is good, according to Bensin. They have the crew from BSDC and volunteers come out on weekends. Arctic Access has a youth labor program with nine kids who work in the garden on weekdays.
However, travel to the site is not easy. The trip is 51 miles to the turnoff to Pilgrim Hot Springs, and a further seven miles over a very rough road, which slows travel down to ten miles an hour. The end result is three hours of driving daily for the commute. When the workload is heavy, members of the BSDC crew will overnight at a cabin on the site.
After a good soak in the hot pool, with water coming out of the hose at 175 degrees, the garden crew started back to town. But first they stopped to check on veggies planted as seeds last fall. “This was an experiment,” said Bensin. He’d gone to a conference last fall and people suggested that he try overwinter cropping. “We planted all these seeds in October,” he said. “No starts, just planted direct seeds, and it appears that by April, when there was enough daylight, that everything started sprouting up. Not everything came up but as you can see we’ve got Swiss chard and turnips, carrots, radishes, and lettuce. It’s beautiful looking! These are like two-pound turnips here. This shows the potential of this property is endless.”