Skagway brewery harnesses beer gas to grow food

Amy Erfling peeks into the interior of an aeroponic garden panel.

Skagway Brewing Co. gardner Amy Erfling peeks into the interior of an aeroponic garden panel. The garden uses carbon dioxide, a byproduct of making beer, to help the plants grow. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

Skagway Brewing Co. harnesses the carbon dioxide it produces making beer to fuel their aeroponic garden. That’s adding a layer of food security to the Southeast Alaska community.
Not many brewing companies employ a full-time gardener, but not many brewing companies have a full indoor aeroponic garden above their brew room.

To meet gardner Amy Erfling, I have to slip soft, blue booties over my shoes first so I don’t contaminate the produce.

Erfling gardens in a 1,200-square-foot room full of organic herbs and lettuce. She gestures toward one of the beds.

“So there is a green oak leaf, and a red oak leaf … and then we have a couple of summer crisps in there,” she said. “So it’s kind of a beautiful array of colors of red and green lettuces!”

Root plugs rest inside an aeroponic panel at Skagway Brewing Co.

Root plugs rest inside an aeroponic panel at Skagway Brewing Co. Water laced with a nutrient mixture sprays down plant roots every eight minutes. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

If you’ve never seen an aeroponic garden before, picture a warm, humid space full of what look like twin mattresses hanging from the ceiling. But where the mattress would have a cushion, these have plants.

It’s snowing outside, but it’s about 75 degrees in the garden. There’s a soft hum from the fans that keep air circulating in the garden.

The fresh air is augmented by carbon dioxide, which is known to boost plant growth. It’s also conveniently a natural waste product from the brewing process. So a little pipe in the wall takes that gas from the brew room up to the garden where it speeds photosynthesis. Water laced with a nutrient mixture sprays down plant roots every eight minutes.

The garden produced over 100 pounds of lettuce a week this summer, when tourists poured off of cruise ships and into the brewery’s restaurant.

This winter they’re producing about half that. But that’s still about about 60 pounds of lettuce herbs and kale a week that would otherwise have to be imported.

“We really can’t grow this in the winter up here. So it’s such a short growing season outdoors that this is something that you can actually do year-round,” said Erfling.

It’s enough for the salads on the brewery’s menu, with a lot of leftovers. They sell those to community members. Any extras are donated to the school cafeteria or the Elks Lodge.

“Your food security is only as strong as your weakest link,” explained Liz Hodges Snyder, an associate professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. She’s also worked for the state’s Food Policy Council.

“Most of our state does rely on the vast majority of our food to come in from outside or from a community outside of our own community. You are vulnerable to disruptions,” she said.

Locally produced food improves food security because there’s no supply chain to break down. And she said it’s not just nutrients that stay local.

“There’s countless studies to show that for every dollar that goes into the local food economy, it has an amplifying effect, or a ripple effect throughout that local food economy. So then the individual who spends that dollar in the community on that local food, that dollar stays in the community,” Hodges said.

That’s part of the plan for Skagway Brewing Co. In their first year gardening they produced 100% of the greens for their restaurant.

And that’s starting small. The garden can easily double what it produced this summer. So now they are working on a deal to stock their produce in local stores next year.

Alaska has a lot going on right now.

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