Skagway garden group partners with Municipality for better food security

By Krizelle Solidum

Higher Ground, The Skagway Organic Gardening Society and the Fruit & Nut Tree Planting Initiative are providing Skagway with access to fresh, local produce. These three programs also give the community opportunities to grow fruits and vegetables at a low cost. 

The Higher Ground project was founded in 2017 by Kim Burnham. Burnham also heads the organic gardening society and the fruit tree reimbursement, which is issued by the Municipality.

The municipal budget provides up to $1,500 per budget cycle for the Higher Ground program and $1,000 for The Fruit & Nut Tree Planting Initiative.

Higher Ground has brought senior citizens and the special-needs community a chance to grow their produce at a minimal cost. The Municipality provides a garden bed, with soil, that meets Americans with Disability Act guidelines for accessibility.

One of the main reasons for Higher Ground is, “to reach an underserved population (seniors or permanently or temporarily disabled) in the area of gardening, to expand interest in gardening and growing food locally,” said Burnham. 

Applicants must be over the age of 55. If a participant is younger, a medical statement is needed from their provider.

Ginny Cochran tends to her Higher Ground garden bed. The crib frame on the end acts as a trellis. Photo by Melinda Munson

There are two height designs available to accommodate gardeners either sitting or standing. Greg Kollasch, who is the lead groundskeeper for Public Works, is the current builder of the beds. The first three beds were built by Howard Smith, who volunteered his time. 

Aside from providing produce, the Municipality wanted to “raise public awareness of therapeutic and nutritional benefits of gardening and growing food locally,” according to the application on the municipal website, under the forms section.

“It’s helped the community strive for self-sufficiency, especially fresh produce,” said Virginia Long, a participant since 2017 who lives four miles out of town. She said participating in the program has helped her feel tied to the community by sharing plants, stories, successes and failures. 

The Skagway Organic Gardening Society provides help with overseeing application requests for garden beds, bed placement and upkeep as well as checking in with participants. The beds, considered property of the Municipality, are on loan for life as long as the gardener remains in Skagway.

“Food security and creating resilient communities are issues that local governments should be addressing, especially in Alaska where 95% percent of food is imported,” said Vivian Mork Yéilk’, in a Juneau Empire 2020 article. 

In the past, the Skagway Organic Gardening Society organized garden-related classes (taught by Alaska Cooperative Extension agents) like lacto-fermentation, which is a type of fermentation that uses beneficial bacteria and yeasts to preserve food and beverages. The garden society teaches canning skills, along with overseeing the Seed Swap, a small seed library founded in 2014.

Another project that’s been piloted by Burnham is the Fruit & Nut Tree Planting Initiative which provides local planters with reimbursements. Founded in 2011, it was created to strengthen the local food system.

Fruit trees “can benefit wild and domestic pollinators, fruit trees can provide pollution mitigation and CO2 absorption,” said Burnham. 

The fruit tree initiative has closed for new participants this summer. It distributes up to $50 per tree for new plantings.

All three programs have survived since the outbreak of COVID-19. Part of the Skagway Deal, which is a plan by the Municipality to keep local workers employed as a result of the cruise ship season being cancelled, is to increase the number of garden beds built this year.  

“We just placed our 14th garden bed and we hope to be delivering one more this week. There’s been a total of 18 participants since the start of the program,” said Burnham. 

Unfortunately, the Fruit & Nut Tree Planting Initiative has seen a decrease in participants. This is likely due to nurseries that have ceased operations due to the pandemic, as well as higher demand for trees earlier in the season. 

In total, 177 fruit and nut trees have been planted in the nine years since the initiative has existed. 

“We are grateful that the ideas were embraced by the city and they continue to fund the programs,” said Burnham.