Trying to eat local in Alaska? What do you do about protein? How do you eat in the winter? If you are trying to eat in line with your conscience, are you trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulting from food production and transport? Are you trying to preserve and improve the health of soil? Are you hoping to keep dollars in the local economy? Are you looking for healthy food without pesticide residues?
What about that local protein? Salmon and wild meat are great – but do you harvest enough? How do you preserve it for the winter and what resources are needed for that? What do you spend, in money and gas, to get it (especially us big city dwellers?) Is it worth the resources needed to keep livestock healthy in our climate? Is it a good idea to grow plants and feed them to animals anyway, when that isn’t as efficient as eating the plants directly? I don’t have answers to these questions, and sometimes they aren’t the right questions (in a permaculture system, plants and animals help take care of each other’s needs and can boost the ecological viability of the whole system, and there is a wide range of ways to gather, and impacts associated with, wild meat.) But articles abound on the internet right now about the impacts of our food choices – from the greenhouse gas emissions associated with red meat, to the fact that most of the Amazon deforestation is for cattle ranching and most big ag commodities are used to feed livestock. So I’ve been thinking a bit about peas lately. Yeah. Peas.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel really, really good about my dipnetted salmon (though scheduling conflicts meant that we were completely skunked on the day we had on the Chitina this year). And the local pig in my freezer had a great, pretty dang sustainable life…resulting in deliciousness. My family loves the eggs and meat from our backyard flock. But what plant can I grow, or what can we grow at scale (ideally organically, no-plowily, permaculturally) that provides protein and stores well? Nuts would be great from a sustainability standpoint (you get to avoid tilling, weeding, etc with a nut tree)…but we really need some research and selective breeding to have Alaskan nut trees. Realistically in the near future? Maybe field peas.
Some cursory internet searching shows that recent research shows potential in oat/pea intercropping in Alaska. UAF looked into it in the 90’s in the interior. Migratory birds ate a lot of the peas, and they fell over so they couldn’t be mechanically harvested. I’m guessing there are solutions to those issues, so hopefully our agricultural research stations (which are languishing, and you can let Governor Walker know they are important) can work on some of these things. As far as backyard success – I can tell you that field peas (call them soup peas if you want) are really easy to grow – push them in the ground and step back. They fix nitrogen, which means they don’t need much from you and feed other plants around them (pea innoculant, available from seed catalogs, can help with this). The greens are edible as is (pea shoots are an expensive gourmet treat these days) or can be dried and fed to backyard chickens in the winter as a nutritious fodder. The peas can be picked young and shelled and eaten fresh. Or you can wait till autumn, pull whole plants, hang in a dry place, then shell and save the dried peas for soup (and for replanting seed for next year). Here’s an article with details of the process. Yes, it takes a fairly large amount of plants to make enough peas for a meal. Luckily, field peas are sold in bulk as a cover crop, so you can get a lot of seed pretty cheap. Then save seed easily for the next year.
Local food, I believe, deserves its trendiness. Undeniably, when food is grown and processed and sold by individuals and small businesses located in the community, it helps the local economy. When you grow it yourself it is fun, cost effective, healthy, and empowering. By often eating lower on the food chain, and not using excessive fossil fuel energy to process, store or grow our food we can avoid some of the possible ecological harm of even local food. When we grow our own, or can visit the farm, we can also make sure that the soil and our bodies are not being harmed by toxic chemicals. A lot of us are doing pretty well on growing or buying local vegetables, including potatoes which store well as a winter staple food. Next spring I’m going to plant a bigger patch of peas too and see about having some winter protein. Maybe someday I can buy a 50 lb sack of Matsu farm peas to go with my Matsu potatoes and Delta barley. I do love me a good bowl of split pea soup in the winter!