It’s an uncharacteristically clear day in Sitka when Andrea Fraga picks me up in her skiff, her corgi, Olive, in tow.
The local gardener and self-proclaimed homesteader has agreed to give me a tour of the commercial garden she runs with her partner, Kaleb Aldred, a few nautical miles from downtown Sitka. As we near Middle Island Gardens, Fraga spots a bear grazing in the inlet, a foreshadowing of the majestic and wild beauty of this place.
Even the root cellar, a solid wood door nestled into the moss covered earth, seems somehow ethereal. I joke that we could be in Middle Earth.
“Middle Island anyway,” she replies.
As we walk the roughly 4000-square-feet of garden, bear spray in hand, Fraga points out the array of vegetables and ornamental flowers she’s painstakingly cultivated over the years. Gooseberry bushes give way to potatoes and lemon sorrel. A sea of garlic blends into towering kale plants. It’s from this bounty that Fraga is able to feed anywhere from 10 to 16 families a week, depending on the season. This may seem insignificant to some, but in Southeast Alaska, Middle Island is somewhat of an anomaly. Initially growing food only for Aldred and herself, the couple eventually bought the neighboring land and started a larger operation. While the towering spruce and moss-covered understory make it easy to forget, Sitka’s climate is incredibly inhospitable.
“It doesn’t seem like we have any appropriate agricultural land in Sitka for the most part. And then land is really expensive. The season is short and cool and wet. So you have to pick your crops appropriately, according to that,” says Fraga. “And I think especially if you don’t start out with crops that are going to be more successful, you could get discouraged really easily”
Living and growing on Middle Island has been a practice in patience. Once they fend off the slugs and harvest their bounty, they have to bring it into Sitka on their skiff. It’s a lot of work, but despite countless roadblocks Fraga and Aldred have stayed optimistic. From using seaweed and herring eggs as fertilizer to mixing sand and shells in the soil, Fraga has gained a wealth of knowledge through a small network of gardeners throughout the region.
“I feel like the growing community, the gardening and farming community in Southeast Alaska is really generous with knowledge not competitive so much. And that’s really great. We’re all kind of experiencing the same struggles,” says Fraga.
Even as she advocates for self-sufficient gardening, Fraga acknowledges her lifestyle is not accessible to everyone — another reason why operations like Middle Island Gardens are few and far between. With Sitka being as expensive as it is, she says she feels lucky to have the time and space to devote to such an undertaking.
However, in an island community that relies heavily on goods barged in from out of state, the reality of a food shortage is just one missed shipment away. It’s for this reason that local farmers like Fraga are so vital to the community.
“Well, I think, you know, you see, when the barge gets delayed, when we have bad weather in the winter, and then the grocery store shelves are emptying out, I think it’s just a good reminder that if at all possible, it’s best to be as self reliant as you can,” says Fraga.
With acidic, low nutrient soil already an obstacle, Fraga is being careful not to overwork the land. She hopes to find longevity and protect the vitality of the soil by planting more perennial flowers in the coming seasons.
“I feel like as I get older, I kind of like the plants that just like perennials, they just reliably come back like old friends and they don’t need all this pampering.”
Just like an old friend, Fraga hopes to be around for many years to come, her skiff brimming with brassicas as she pulls into Sitka’s harbor, a harbinger of full bellies to come.