This Chef Built an Urban Farm in the Arctic

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Vidmar's lonely greenhouse is rich with produce all year-long thanks to seasonal crop swaps that take advantages of conditions. NBC News/YouTube

If you build it, tomatoes, onions, maybe even some chillies will come. Even when the weather outside is downright, well, chilly.

At least that’s the idea behind Benjamin Vidmar's domed ambition — a lone greenhouse in the heart of one of the coldest and northerliest towns on Earth.

Of course, those chillies don’t quite prosper in winter, when the town of Longyearbyen, on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago shivers to the tune of minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 F).

So Vidmar temporarily downsizes his dream — and plants microgreens.

It all adds up to an unlikely oasis. Vidmar, a transplant from Florida who came to the area as a chef, provides the town with its only locally grown produce. Until he founded Polar Permaculture Urban Farm, everything from vegetables to eggs, had to be flown into the region. The situation left the Longyearbyen dwellers paying exorbitant prices for basic food, which was often exposed to the vagaries of flight conditions.

Vidmar and his son are working to change that precarious paradigm by tailoring their harvest according to the rhythm of the North. So, for example, the Svalbard summer and the 24 hours of sunlight it brings is ideal for tomatoes and onions. But the ever-dark winter calls for a change-up to tiny plants, like sprouts, that don’t need to bask in all that summer sun.

When tapping into the ebb and flow of that challenging climate — the greenhouse is just 650 miles from the North Pole — Vidmar may have had a little help from the downright meditative silence of his surroundings.

"The sad part (in America) is you work so hard and you still have to worry about money," he tells the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Then you come here and you have all this nature. No distraction, no huge shopping centers, no billboards saying, 'buy, buy, buy.'"

The Svalbard peninsula, on the other hand, chills to a more practical mantra: brrr, brrr, brrr....

In fact, the town of Longyearbyen — with is another 650 miles from mainland Norway — stares into Nature’s frozen face every day. Along with that of the occasional polar bear. The peninsula is home to nearly 3,000 types of the animals, compared to some 2,000 people who inhabit the town.

But in that frozen ground, an even bigger idea may be taking root. If Vidmar can feed much of a community from this citadel of sustainability, what’s stopping the rest of us?

"We're on a mission ... to make this town very sustainable,” he tells the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Because if we can do it here, then what's everybody else's excuse?"

While there is a burgeoning movement to build community gardens in U.S. cities, many parts of the country remain woefully dependent on produce that’s trucked or flown in from other parts.

The situation is still a sight better than countries like Nepal, Kenya and Sudan — consistently ranked among the most vulnerable to food security issues.

We may never get a chance to sample the chillies from Vidmar’s unlikely garden. But his greenhouse, high atop the world, offers a shining beacon of what's possible when we nurture a little earth, even if it’s in the ice cold heart of the Arctic.