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Arctic Agriculture: Farming Opportunities on the Horizon

Longer, warmer summers in the Arctic mean some regions are growing crops unthinkable in the past. Arctic agriculture may not be booming – yet – but it’s showing potential to increase food security and boost local economies.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Sheep graze near Lake Myvatn, Iceland. Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0/Andreas Tille

REYKJAVIK, Iceland – Tomatoes in Alaska. Leeks in Greenland. Fields of barley creeping northward in Norway.

In the Arctic, where temperatures are rising at twice the rate of the rest of the world, warmer weather is allowing chefs, farmers and enterprising agricultural researchers to grow vegetables, grains, herbs and other plants that have typically been planted in more temperate fields.

At a conference devoted to the subject of Arctic agriculture in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October, researchers compared notes on the many different ways northern agriculture might change in the next few decades.

“Agriculture will be possible in many places where it is not now,” said Torfi Jóhannesson, president of the Circumpolar Agricultural Association, which hosted the meeting.

The longer and warmer growing season is partially responsible. In Fairbanks, Alaska, for example, the number of frost-free days has almost doubled since the 1900s, said Milan Shipka, director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“The ability to work the ground occurred at least two weeks earlier than what anyone would have expected,” he said.

Alaska has more than 750 farms working 830,000 acres (335,000 hectares) of farmland. It’s a small portion of the state’s 16 million acres (6.5 million hectares), but in 2014 the industry contributed more than $48 million to the economy.

Livestock production will also move north as it becomes easier to grow the animals’ grass forage. A recent study of sheep farming areas in southern Greenland found that with climate change hay production could increase by 50 percent in existing areas by the end of the century. It would be enough to increase sheep stock from 20,000 animals to 30,000–50,000, according to the researchers.

Harvesting hay in Vatnahverfi, Greenland. (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0/jtstewart)

Harvesting hay in Vatnahverfi, Greenland. (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0/jtstewart)

During a visit to an experimental farm outside of Qaqortoq, Greenland, Joan Nymand Larsen, research director at the Stefansson Arctic Institute in Akureyri, Iceland, saw leeks growing in the greenhouse and 12 different kinds of potatoes in the ground.

“There is all kinds of evidence that climate change is presenting positive impacts on agriculture in south Greenland, in terms of yield and variety,” she said.

But challenges remain: Pests and disease might also move into new northern niches they haven’t previously occupied. Some regions may experience drought, others might have unpredictable rainfall that inundates farmland at key times of the year.

“In south Greenland, there is a huge elephant in the room – mining,” said Larsen. The farmers near the proposed mines are concerned that radioactive or chemical-laden dust could contaminate the soil. “At the same time, if the mining moves ahead, it could provide jobs and revenue.”

Urani Naamik, an anti-uranium mining group, and Inuit Ataqatigiit, the social liberal political party, have suggested that chicken, duck and goose farming and egg production, honey production, lambswool and hothouse farming could all stimulate job growth without mining.

Geothermal greenhouses operate in Chena Hot Springs, Alaska. (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0/Scott McMurren)

But where these researchers saw potential for economic development within sparsely populated regions with few economic options for growth, they also saw the need for investment and direction.

Governments must invest in research that identifies productive Arctic species and new cultivars, and conduct soil surveys to select the best sites for agriculture.

“It’s up to our generation to fight and ours to create adaptations and technologies and knowledge that will assist us to adapt to those changes,” said Jóhannesson. “The future is not that far away.”

This week and next, Arctic Deeply will take a closer look at Arctic agriculture and its potential. Stay tuned.

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