Gardening project continues to enrich nutrition for Alaskan communities




Penny Gay with girls from the community in a vegetable garden in Alaska
Photo courtesy of Bill and Penny Gay

By Bill and Penny Gay

This was our tenth summer of traveling to Alaska to encourage, teach, and promote vegetable gardening. Bill went to Circle at the beginning of April, six weeks earlier than the usual mid-May arrival, hoping to make this year the most beneficial and successful yet.

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Bill experimented with different seed varieties early on, then started several thousand plants. Several folks were on the fence as to whether to have a home garden, which presented a challenge of just how many plants to start. Many desired to have a home garden, but some could not because of employment or medical needs that would keep them out of the village. However, more homes had gardens, small and large, than ever before. Entire groups of plants changed ownership from us to the residents as more vegetables would be grown than last year--an answer to prayer!

When new and existing gardens were prepared, we used the council’s tiller. This opened the door for use to use the tiller purchased by the Global Food Initiative (formerly the Global Food Crisis Fund) on both maintenance instruction and gardening in 2017. We plan to include the youth in gardening principals and proper maintenance of not only the tiller but of any other tools or supplies.

The May weather allowed for some earlier than usual planting. This allowed us to show that proper planning could result in two or more plantings of various vegetables. One such benefit was the use of the greens from turnips, beets, and carrots being boiled as part of the food for sled dogs. We even had a third planting just for the greens, even though the vegetables would not mature. Circle resident Albert Carroll won the yearly dog sled race at the Spring Carnival because his dogs “ate their veggies”! Other mushers are planning to have gardens next year.

A meeting was hosted in Circle regarding fish and wildlife regulations. Although not the topic of discussion, the flourishing gardens were noticed and talked about by many in attendance including Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. He and his wife are Native Alaskans and were amazed that we would come so far, and amazed at how God has called us to this service. He offered support and will be a great connection to help further our work.

Garden produce enhances lunches in Alaska
Photo courtesy of Bill and Penny Gay

Early harvested vegetables were used for the Elder’s Lunch Program, which continued until the full harvest was completed. The elders were grateful and very pleased to have fresh vegetables for lunch several times a week. The Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) plans to use this as a model for other villages.

A blessing this summer was the use of Facebook. Penny attended a Going to the Garden gathering in May in Wisconsin meeting with other Church of the Brethren members who are involved with different levels of gardening throughout the country. The group agreed that Facebook would be used for communication and sharing. Penny reluctantly signed up that next week as she was trying to hold out using any form of social media. Facebook became a great means to share with our family and friends around the world in almost real time, something we had been able to do before with limited access to technology.

In 2009, Bill coined the phrase, “The seeds we were sent there to plant are far more important than the planting of the seeds for the gardens.” A product of such planting is being involved with Circle community life each summer. Potlatches, the 4th of July community celebration, birthday parties, community work projects, beading lessons, or simply visiting have been cherished and we feel beneficial to all involved.

On a larger scale, the 2020 Gwich’in Gathering is scheduled to be in Circle. This coming together of the villages takes place every two years and is a week-long time to celebrate, discuss, remember, and support each other. Environmental issues bring world-wide concern and coverage. We will be helping to prepare this 2020 meeting beginning next summer in 2017. For many thousand years the Gwich’in have lived in such a remote part of Alaska and Canada that no one really cared much about them, or their lands. But the world is now taking notice of the importance of this land and those living here.

We will have the opportunity next summer to visit and help restore a house, barn, and yard, and  to even plant a garden on an island location related to the history of the three Gwich’in brothers who controlled the Circle portion of the Yukon River in the 1800s. Bill had the opportunity to travel down river to that location, where one of those brothers lived, which is now owned by his great grandchildren.

Being somewhat centrally located on the Yukon River, Circle is a place where people “float” into your life, from around the globe. Canoers and other adventurers have become friends, and stories have been shared of adventure and far-off places. Many have expressed how beautiful the gardens are, not believing the sight of apple trees. Thanks to two professors from Fairbanks, Circle has apple trees growing.

Things are truly growing in Circle, including the presence of the Church of the Brethren!        

-- Bill and Penny Gay work in Alaska each summer, creating and encourage community gardening. They are members of Pleasant Dale Church of the Brethren in Decatur, Ind., which is a sponsor of their work, and over the years they have received funding support from the Global Food Initiative (formerly the Global Food Crisis Fund). Read more about this unique gardening effort at www.brethren.org/news/2015/unique-alaska-gardening-project.html .

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