We've heard about how holistic and nature-inspired permaculture design techniques can green a desert and transform ordinary gardens into ultra-productive "food forests." But what about practicing permaculture principles to help grow food in the cold Arctic region -- is it possible?
That's something that American-born professional chef and foodie Benjamin Vidmar is exploring with his project, Polar Permaculture. Based out of Longyearbyen, a town of 2,500 that's located on Svalbard, Norway's archipelago of islands (yes, the same place with the so-called doomsday seed vault), Vidmar is experimenting with innovative ways to grow fresh food and creating a "circular economy" in a rugged, cold place that is dark for 3 months out of the year, and where most supplies have to be shipped in. Watch him explain in this short feature on NBC:Vidmar is trained as a professional chef and has worked in hotels and cruise ships around the world. In 2007, he landed a job in one of Longyearbyen's hotels, and has stayed there since, raising his family. However, since childhood Vidmar has always been interested in sustainable agriculture, and a few years ago he got tuned into permaculture, recently getting trained in permaculture design practices.
He's since brought these skills back to Longyearbyen, setting up a geodesic greenhouse, and bringing in red worms to help with composting the locally produced organic waste, which can then be used to grow food here. This is an important point that's not to be taken for granted; on Svalbard, the soil is extremely poor and unsuited for growing food, so if it were not for the worms and compost, soil would literally have to be shipped in.
On an island where everything is transported in, and waste is either dumped into the ocean or shipped back to the mainland for disposal, Vidmar's aim is to look for ways to close the loop, reusing and recycling outputs back into inputs whenever possible:
I had initially wanted to do a permaculture project in Florida where I presently spend a month each year, but something told me to do it here in Longyearbyen. There was a huge need for it is as we presently dump all sewage directly into the sea without any treatment facility. We also mine and burn coal. All produce is shipped and flown in, so I basically believe the place chose me to complete this mission, to help make this place more sustainable.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest obstacles has been local politics: the island is socially conservative and has no agricultural zoning regulations in place. It took Vidmar a year and a half to get permission to import his worms. "So with our permaculture project we are basically rewriting all of the history books, looking to change the laws and grow food here once again." says Vidmar.
Currently, Polar Permaculture is the only supplier of fresh, locally produced food on the island, serving all the major hotels and restaurants. The greenhouse is used only when the sun is out, otherwise they grow their veggies -- mostly microgreens, chilies, tomatoes, onions, peas, herbs and so on -- inside their lab -- basically a converted room in one of the local hotels. They've also recently set up a small quail farm, and are producing eggs to eat. The future goal is to scale things up, and to increase food security and reduce waste on this remote island, says Vidmar:
Before we started this project, there was no one speaking about composting, or having locally grown food. All around the Arctic, many people are farming and growing food, but here we were only relying on shipments. After starting this, we now have much more support to expand and increase what we are able to produce. We want to install a biogas digester and also set up a system that can process most of the cities sewage and turn it into biogas that we can use to heat our greenhouses.
Growing food in one of the planet's harshest regions seems like an impossible task, but it appears that through the principles of permaculture, and a lot of dedication, it can be done. Besides growing food, Polar Permaculture offers courses, tours, and gourmet cooking classes. For more information visit Polar Permaculture.