“Our name is a misnomer,” explains Emily Cohn, Director of Communications and Development for Anchorage Community Land Trust. “Most land trusts are conservation based, and we’re a commercial land trust. We started to work in low income neighborhoods in Anchorage, purchasing real estate in disinvested areas where it’s been historically difficult to do business, and where there’s often highly concentrated poverty. Through real estate and targeted programs, Anchorage Community Land Trust works with residents every day to improve quality of life in their neighborhoods. And we’ve been doing it for sixteen years.”
Anchorage Community Land Trust acquired a plot of land in the heart of Anchorage’s Mountain View neighborhood several years ago, which is also where their office is located. What was once an old abandoned RV park and a neighborhood eyesore, was transformed into a local neighborhood farm plot. “We bought it because we knew the private sector wouldn’t,” Emily tells us. “It was a contaminated site that required years of work to redevelop”
“Mountain View neighborhood is the first entry point for nearly all refugee families relocated to the state of Alaska,” says Emily. “It has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in the city. We’ve worked with lots of these families for years. Many of them arrive here with all sorts of agricultural experience but have no idea how to grow in Alaska’s climate. They also have no access to land and don’t have the means to buy a big farm plot.”
Originally, Anchorage Community Land Trust set up a farmers market in the Mountain View lot for neighborhood growers to sell small quantities of crops that they were able to grow and harvest on their own. They also hosted some small business owners and prepared catered food made by local residents. They received a lot of feedback from the vendors, consistently hearing requests for more space to “grow and scale their produce business” and also be able to “vend directly where they’re growing.” The gears started turning behind the scenes about how to best activate this site year round.
It was around this time that Anchorage Community Land Trust partnered up with Catholic Social Services, who manages Alaska’s refugee relocation agency, the Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services program. “Every refugee goes through their agency, where they’re given access to housing and employment opportunities and various resources,” Emily tells us. “Through our partnership with them, we were able to identify former and current clients of theirs who wanted to start or grow their own produce businesses.”
And so Grow North Farm was born in 2018, after years of planning, from engineering infrastructure to working the soil and everything in between. With the help of Catholic Social Services, Anchorage Community Land Trust leased farm plots for nine different farm operations managed by a total of twenty different farmers. “By leasing the land, they are invested in the space and have ownership over their plots,” explains Emily.
Farmers began onsite growing in May 2019, and the first onsite vending event took place that June. “The first season was all about experimenting and learning, and it was an overwhelming success. Farmers all had a great opportunity to see what grew and sold best, and everyone made a lot of summer income. Both our independent farmers and food-based entrepreneurs had opportunities to vend (including cottage goods and hot catered/prepared food),” Emily says. “Our farmers alone collectively earned $22,000 total throughout the summer!”
The ground in Anchorage usually doesn’t thaw until about April, so this first season’s farmers started a bit later than you can typically start growing. Typically the growing season in Anchorage begins at the end of April/early May and runs through the first week of October. “With our summer sunlight, you can grow root vegetables and greens really well. With greenhouses you can grow more produce, such as tomatoes,” says Emily.
“We currently have one greenhouse on site, which we’ll use for the first time during our second season (next summer). It was a pretty bare bones first season, just to get people on the site and experiment with the land. We’re still evaluating what other sort of infrastructure we will need going forward. Grow North Farm is located on a 2-acre parcel, so we have to use our space wisely.”
Since Grow North Farm is a community space with nine different operations onsite, they can’t compromise much grow space, which is the challenge of adding more major infrastructure. “We’re doing a lot of site planning this fall for our long term goals. One thing we’re talking about is potentially building a commercial kitchen and processing facility which will allow our farmers to create more cottage goods and pickled foods: products they can then sell throughout the winter.”
According to Emily, for a lot of the farmers the first season at Grow North Farm was about “trying to figure out their unique cycle of work on their plots, how often they needed to harvest, the pattern of their sales, all of that.” For most of the farmers, this was their first time owning their own plot.
The definitive conclusion of Grow North Farm’s first season was the “overwhelming need for cold storage.”
There was no onsite refrigeration at Grow North Farm, so the farmers were having to harvest each day and often had wasted products that didn’t sell at the markets. “They’re wasting time and losing productivity — and possible revenue,” says Emily.
“Everyone early on expressed this as a need,” Emily tells us. “We needed to make sure we had funding and also infrastructure for cold storage, which took a few months to organize and coordinate.”
“We were initially pretty stumped about the cold storage problem and how to get something on site. To try to build a walk in cooler without the basic infrastructure was a lot of money and it would’ve been difficult to hire someone to do it,” Emily tells us.
Grow North Farm finally purchased a CoolBot in early September 2019, after their GoFundMe raised $5,500. This amount included the cost of building the unit plus the installation.
“Relatively speaking, it’s a super low cost compared to the rest of farm operations,” says Emily. “The CoolBot enabled all of our farmers to farm more efficiently and ensured they’re making maximum revenue from their produce. For context, most of our farmers are women. Many have barriers to traditional employment, whether it’s having kids to raise or language barriers or transportation access. They live in the neighborhood, so they can now come and work and use skills they already have. Having cold storage at the farm will increase their income in a way that makes a difference.”
Since the farm opened operations for its second season in June, Grow North Farm has just been able to use their newly-installed CoolBot over the last two weeks, but they already feel like it makes a big difference. “I think it definitely gives our farmers lots of their hours back, since they won’t have to harvest daily anymore. Cold storage will extend the life of their produce, reduce waste, increase their sales and make sure they’re earning the max amount for their labor,” predicts Emily.
The install was really easy, due largely to the farm’s fantastic volunteer support. “Once we met our fundraising goal, we pulled the trigger and put the call out for volunteers. We had lots of end of season volunteer projects, and this was the biggest one. We had about twenty volunteers on site helping out for a couple of days.”
Step one for the CoolBot install was to build the cold storage room itself. Emily says the build took place with volunteer support over the course of just two days. With so many volunteers on hand, the building of the 7x11ft wooden structure for the CoolBot to go inside of went quite quickly, then they spent the week painting and tending to details. Once that was set and done, the next step was to run electricity to the farm, which was completed this past spring. The CoolBot has been installed and running since June.
“Right off the bat, everyone was really impressed with how easy it was to purchase and install the CoolBot. We love just how worth it the investment was to create a better income for our farmers. For us — as a nonprofit — we have to really evaluate when we’re going to invest that kind of money. There has to be some sort of return, so we’re super stoked that CoolBot is there to make it affordable and to ensure operational returns. The CoolBot is so accessible, it’s a game changer. We really never thought this would all be possible, but we’ve seen an insane amount of community support.”