Haines farmers asked to vacate land at start of growing season

Leah Wagner and Nick Schlosstein, owners of Foundroot. (courtesy of Jillian Rogers)

Leah Wagner and her husband Nick Schlosstein, who sell seeds as Foundroot, work a half-acre farm plot they rent from the American Bald Eagle Foundation. But in late April, the foundation contacted them with concerns that floodwaters from December’s weather disaster may have contaminated the farm.

The couple have been working the farm plot for the last five seasons, but the foundation told them that’s not an option this year.

Their communication was that nobody would be allowed on the field, and they weren’t sure when people would be allowed back out there,” Schlosstein said.

Runoff from the December rains cut large ruts into the main crop field at what’s called the Henderson Farm. Sand, gravel and debris flowed into the field, which sits directly below a petroleum pipeline that ran from Haines to Fairbanks and was decommissioned in 1973. In the past, the pipeline suffered many leaks as well as a major spill at the tank farm near Lutak Road.

Multiple studies have been done on the soil around the pipeline in the past, but none showed unsafe contamination levels, according to state officials.

For 2021, the couple had planned a series of infrastructure upgrades, including building an additional hoop house on their own property and expanding their farm plot on the Henderson Farm from a half-acre to a full-acre. Instead, the couple was forced to find storage for all of their farm equipment, lay off an employee and radically change their projected business model for this year.

The American Bald Eagle Foundation has declined to comment on the situation.

Schlosstein says they are poised to lose all of their summer farm sales, which they projected to be half of their annual income.

“We’re going to be able to keep offering seed, but what we were unable to do this year is to continue our seed breeding efforts and also to continue building our farm for local produce,” he said.

Foundroot wasn’t the only business facing removal. The Henderson Community Garden, which sells produce to local customers through farmer’s markets, has also been shut down.

Sue Waterhouse runs the project. She says she was all set to plant this spring.

“Last fall, you know, we tilled the land. We put seaweed on it, we put it to bed and we paid rent for this season,” she said.

But the American Bald Eagle Foundation was clear: because of possible contamination to the field, all renters would be refunded their 2021 rent payments. Like Foundroot, members of the gardening group were instructed to have all possessions removed by the end of May.

Waterhouse says she moved her operation to a small plot at the Southeast Alaska Fair Grounds and will continue to grow as much produce as she can from there.

The Foundation tasked the Takshanuk Watershed Council with the job of collecting samples and sending them out to a lab in Anchorage. Those samples came back late last week and did show the presence of some contaminants, but the level of contamination has not been established. Neither has a plan for cleanup or future business operations on the land.

The Department of Environmental Conservation and the Takshanuk Watershed Council say they’ll provide more details as they become available.

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