Alaska's fruit pioneers
Warmer temperatures in recent years have enabled Alaskans to grow mainstream apple varieties as well as hardy ones.
Goodland apples at Dan Elliott's orchard, Wasilla, Alaska.
Photo by Julie Riley, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Cooperative Extension Service
Spurred by a long warming trend and a craving for fresh produce, members of the aptly named Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association are coaxing Prairie Magic, Norland, Yellow Transparent, and scores more apple varieties from the state's cold, stingy soil.
"Most people are dumbfounded to learn that apples will grow here," said Kevin Irvin, a founder of Sun-Dog Orchards and president of the association, founded in 1985.
But they do‹with the right rootstock, persistence, and a passion for experimentation.
Alaska, nicknamed Seward's Icebox after Secretary of State William Seward, who bought the vast Russian territory for $7.2 million in gold in 1867, has thawed a bit since then.
Avid amateur growers have capitalized on the more hospitable growing climate by expanding their varieties. At the association's annual fall tasting in September, association members sampled locally grown Ginger Gold, Zestar!, Simonet, and State Fair.
Bob Boyer, a commercial photographer in Anchorage, spends his spare time in a 30-foot by 84-foot greenhouse that is home to nearly three dozen varieties. He particularly favors his Prairie Magics, one of which he dubbed Rambo for its huge size. Another 15-incher netted him a blue ribbon for the biggest apple at the state fair last year in nearby Palmer. He's won prizes in both greenhouse and container fruit categories.
"I got a hell of a crop last year," Boyer said. "Fujis in particular were good, and Ambrosias. Most of them you can't buy in a store."
Boyer's greenhouse is home to more than apple trees. Boyer and Irvin, who has a smaller greenhouse, also grow sweet cherries, apricots, peaches, and more.
"My wife and I ate a peach every morning for a month," Boyer said.
Not long ago such local bounty would have been unthinkable, said Julie Riley, a horticultural extension agent with the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
"It's amazing how many apple varieties are now being grown in Alaska compared to 20 years ago," Riley wrote in an agency newsletter last fall. "About all you could find then were Chinese Golden Early, Yellow Transparent, and SummerRed."
The growers' collective research has redefined fruit farming in the state, she said.
"Those guys have extended what we thought was even possible in terms of growing tree fruit here," Riley said. "We've learned so much due to the efforts of the pioneers. They've been willing to experiment and keep records, and they have a Web site with all this information."
Longer summers, which growers attribute to global warming, have driven much of that experimentation. Last year, Riley said, the mercury climbed to at least 80°F about 15 times.
"Fifteen years ago, it was colder," agreed Boyer, a transplanted Pennsylvanian and devoted tinkerer. "Nobody had anything but the older, hardier apples."
Master gardener Dan Elliott, who teaches apple workshops, said, "With this global warming here, you get opportunities to try things that in the past just wouldn't ripen." Varieties developed in Minnesota were hardy enough but didn't mature in the short growing season.
"With the warming in recent years, you have a 5- to 10-degree difference in the growing season, and that makes a big difference," he said.
A former construction worker and backwoods guide, Elliott said Alaska is buffeted in turn by biting winter storms and by moist warm fronts that blow across the Pacific from Japan and Hawaii.
"It was 45 degrees in early February," he said. "A couple of weeks before that it was 15 to 20 degrees below zero. Usually, when you're at the edge of something, that happens‹you get extremes."
Growers are generally using the Russian rootstocks Budagovsky 9 and Antonovka, developed to survive frigid Russian winters, and Malling 26.
Like Irvin, Elliott lives in Wasilla, halfway between Wasilla Lake and Lake Lucille, 43 highway miles northeast of Anchorage. Temperatures there range from 4 degrees to 23 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, and 47 to 68 degrees in midsummer. Average rainfall is 17 inches, with 50 inches of snowfall, according to Wikipedia, an on-line encyclopedia. Even within Wasilla, Elliott said, microclimates affect what farmers can grow.
"It gets colder where I am than where Kevin is," Irvin said. "He lives on a hill, and cold air settles onto the floor."
Irvin agreed. "There're so many microclimates, what works for me might not work for the next guy," he said. "If it drops two degrees colder, you'll have winter kill from one place to another."
Elliott, who has 115 outdoor trees, uses a spindle system to resist the state's brutal winds. He doesn't use dwarfing rootstocks, he says, because cold soils tend to dwarf trees anyway.
A local tree source‹relatively speaking‹is Claire's Cultivations in Fairbanks, in the heart of Alaska's rugged interior. Horticulturist Claire Lammers has been tinkering for more than 20 years with tree fruit in the region, where winter temperatures can plunge to 60 degrees below zero and soar into the 90s in late summer.
In a interview several years ago, Lammers told a Cooperative Extension agent that he had tested about 355 varieties of apples and also was evaluating 14 apricot varieties, 20 cherry, 9 cherry plums, 27 pear, and 24 plums. Lammers noted that he got much of the planting stock from Canada, particularly the "prairie provinces."
Elliott said there's a modest but growing demand for nursery trees. "A lot of people are using apple trees as ornamentals and for the fruit themselves," he said. "I was surprised to see how many people, once they see what I have, want to buy trees. I graft the trees and sell them as one- to two-year-olds."
While growers in general are serious hobbyists, Irvin sees potential for going commercial on a small scale‹if he can overcome some obstacles. "It's more than a hobby," said Irvin, who supports his fruit habit by working for an Anchorage beer distributor. "Alaskans will pay a premium price for Alaskan-grown produce, especially apples.
"I think there is potential for a commercial orchard, but the cost of clearing the land would be the prohibitive factor. Open land is disappearing around here."
Irvin spent years clearing his own five acres in Wasilla for an orchard, not to mention fencing it in from a pest that most farmers in the lower 48 are spared. "Up here, you have to fence because of the moose," he said. "A moose will just destroy an orchard." In fact, a pair of moose destroyed 80 of Lammers's trees several years ago; he had to kill one moose that broke into the orchard and attacked him.
Some growers sell their wares on a modest scale at weekend farmers' markets and roadside stands, Irvin said.
Despite Boyer's success in branching out with his varieties, he's skeptical of the prospects for large-scale operations. "It's been a lot of fun, but I don't expect to make any money," he said. "I can't stop buying stuff."
"I don't think you're going to see large-scale commercial fruit growing up here," Riley agreed. "There is some potential for specialty markets, like for fresh cider. There's also a potential for pick-your-own, especially since the trees are small."
Boyer said the growers' families and friends, who share their bounty, are bemused with the obsession. "One of our wives saw us coming and exclaimed, 'Here come the fruit nuts!'"