***Warning: this post features graphic images of blood and bones and guts and stuff***
A few years ago, several farsighted leaders in Port Heiden decided to start a farm. When your town is off the beaten track – or off every track, let alone a beaten one – having a source of food close at hand makes a lot of sense. Roughly 450 miles from Anchorage as the raven flies, no roads lead to Port Heiden. So, this village on the Alaska Peninsula set about acquiring livestock: pigs, chickens, rabbits, and of course, reindeer.
To date, only the chickens are consistently making the village any money. The eggs these chickens lay are tasty, huge, and can be had for $6 per dozen, or $9 for eighteen. Seriously, farm-fresh eggs are tough to beat, especially when the birds that created them are just outside your office window.
The farm’s development was aided by hard-won grants. The Native Village of Port Heiden, as it is officially called, has several experienced grant writers on staff and they try to make use of all available funding options. Additionally, they capitalize on outside expertise. One key program that’s helped their farm immeasurably is called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).
WWOOF connects willing workers, known as WWOOFers, to farms across the globe in need of able hands. The deal is this: farms provide WWOOFer with lodging and meals in exchange for a few hours of work on weekdays, sometimes more. One such WWOOFer, an Ohioan named Randy, found his way to Port Heiden over a year and a half ago.
Prior to heading north, Randy WWOOF’d in Colorado and Hawaii. Upon arrival to Alaska, despite having never worked on a farm with animals, the reindeer took an instant shine to him. Randy came to Port Heiden with a wealth of experiences growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers. He was brought aboard to help the village build its greenhouse capacity and never expected to bond with a ragtag herd of tundra beasts.
Currently, the reindeer number 30, but when Randy arrived it was half that. One shipment of new reindeer and two successful birthing cycles have boosted the population in quick order. As have continual upgrades to the reindeer enclosure and increased grazing time outside their pen.
Watching Randy herd the playful quadrupeds is a sight. He has a calm demeanor and uses a voice that carries deeper harmonic resonance than his conversational tones. Which stands in stark contrast to the voice he breaks out for Port Heiden’s pigs: a brusque and booming bellow. Randy doesn’t really talk to the rabbits or chickens, as they’re not very conversational creatures.
Reindeer are not new to the Alaskan Peninsula. In the early 1900s, Inupiat herders came from Alaska’s northern coast with stunningly large stocks and eventually had multiple groups of 200 to 300 reindeer! Unfortunately, the influenza epidemic that soon followed knocked out most of the human population, including the herders. The animals were then either sold, butchered haphazardly for food, or wandered off to join local free-roaming caribou herds.
These “Herders of Olde” eschewed pens or enclosures, they grazed their flocks across the Peninsula nonstop. Much like biblical shepherds, someone was with the herd at all times as the reindeer ranged in search of sustenance. Historical documentation from the National Park Service tells us that dogs were a big help in keeping wayward animals in check and protecting their number from predators. Which is amazing, as some of the local canines have also taken a liking to Randy and enjoy helping him work.
Along with Shane, a 21-year old local fellow who is learning the ropes, Randy and his pack of helpful pups tend to take the reindeer out every day to forage and stretch their legs. The dogs are instrumental in corralling stragglers and getting the herd to move as a single unit. Little nips and sharp yips get the reindeer trotting without fail.
Each day, as Randy and Shane approach the pen, the reindeer get visibly excited. They shake their heads enthusiastically and any reclining beasts slowly unwrap themselves from the ground and line up toward the gate in rows of two.
The way these animals move is incredible. A few are totally goofy and laughably clumsy. But on the whole they’re a majestic bunch, flush with graceful fluidity and delicate footwork.
When exhilarated, the reindeer will buck or hop into the air. The casual grace of their jumping is extraordinary – they seem to hang for a split second at each leap’s apex – it honestly looks like they’re about to take flight. It’s easy to see how Santa’s legendary reindeer were bestowed with this fantastical quality. To see these reindeer move is to witness tiny miracles of movement.
Suffice to say, Randy’s smitten with the reindeer and life in Port Heiden. Originally, his stay was supposed to last three months. A year and a half later, Randy is still here. Herding has taught him a lot and led to plenty of gratifying moments, particularly in the springtime when the reindeer give birth. This year, the herd welcomed twelve new additions. Sadly, five of the dozen passed away. Though according to some experts, this would be considered a good calving season.
Last week, when one of the baby reindeer died, Randy and Shane were visibly saddened. Life with their charges is not without challenges, and even tragedies. Before the recent births, the herd lost three reindeer in a single week as winter came to a close. To make matters worse, the village lost a pig that week as well. It was a rough time for the farm.
Luckily, that fateful week saw another WWOOFer briefly visit Port Heiden, a Wisconsinite veterinary student named Emily. With an extensive background in husbandry, Emily most recently came from a sheep farm in Ireland and conducted commercial bovine and chicken research in the midwestern United States before that. She arrived to help prepare for the reindeer calving and was thrilled to visit Alaska for the first time. But when she heard that three reindeer had dropped dead due to unknown causes, Emily was keen to figure out why.
What followed was one of the most intense experiences I’ve yet had in Port Heiden. Performing and recording a reindeer necropsy was the last thing I thought I’d do in an Alaskan village. I only had one regret: I wish I’d brought nose plugs.
Aside from the smell, the process was fascinating. Emily had never cut into an animal with such a thick hide, but it all went smoothly once she figured out how deep to make her incisions. Ultimately, it looked as though the animal in question ate random debris (cloth, plastics, rope, etc.), creating a stopgap in its guts, preventing real food from getting in.
Emily guessed that the other reindeer died for similar reasons. Much like humans, some animals will randomly eat inedible materials due to mental instability or to compensate for some sort of nutritional deficiency. (As it was the end of the winter and food was understandably scarce, the latter explanation seemed likely).
The dead beasts of that awful week were deposited a safe distance from the village at a remote site. Alarmingly, predators and scavengers hereabouts make quick work of carcasses…
The grisly corpses were harsh reminders of Alaska’s natural foodchain. I’d seen ravens and foxes, and heard coyotes and wolves howling in the distance, but to witness the acute effects of their collective hunger was harrowing.
Obviously, such losses are more than just emotional hardships for Randy and Shane. Each of these animals represents a significant investment by the village and their benefactors. Especially since the village leaders are trying to grow the herd to have a healthy breeding stock of 60-70 reindeer before they can sustainably butcher a few every season. Eventually, with enough success, Port Heiden hopes to export reindeer meat to nearby villages, creating locally-grown food options for the region and valuable jobs for its villagers.
During this growth cycle, Randy has proven to be pivotal, though he’s upfront about his role right now, “it’s great trying to grow the herd, but I’ll need to go by the time they start regularly slaughtering.” While Randy may love working with animals, he’s a vegetarian and won’t eat reindeer or participate in any butchering.
Actually, it seems the village had some brief issues on the slaughtering front. Port Heiden recently sold two pigs to a neighboring community, but was slow to deliver as the animals had become like pets and mascots to the town. The pigs have been troublesome from the start, prone to escapes and violence toward one another. (The previously pictured pig had been mauled to death by an aggressive male). Making matters worse is the fact that pigs eat A LOT of food and, according to Randy and a number of village leaders, they don’t make much sense from a balanced cost-benefit perspective.
Presenting a similar but different issue, the rabbit population is BOOMING, but no one wants to eat the precious bunnies. It’s understandable from a sentimental perspective, they’re fluffy and adorable. But economically, farming rabbits makes a lot of sense. The meat is low in fat and their furs are useful. Additionally, they proliferate rapidly, eat sparsely, and produce some of the highest-grade fertilizer that Randy’s ever seen. It sounds like it’d be a great way to support the village if anyone could stand to process them. Sentimentality is clearly a difficult obstacle to overcome in this era of increasing emotional intelligence – though one option exists that leaves the rabbits alive and in surprisingly good conditions: pet stores. Or, one pet store so far. A shop in Anchorage bought some young bunnies to sell as pets last year.
On the whole, Port Heiden’s farm has been a success so far. Yet, there are clearly more challenges to surmount, and not just in the logistical management of the operation. Local supporters of the farm are trying to encourage a cultural shift toward utilizing more of its local resources. As it stands, the lion’s share of Port Heiden’s food is flown in from Anchorage, usually having come from the Lower 48 before that. Alaska as a whole follows this trend at a rate of 95% food importation.
Comparing the imported food to local options is something I am neither qualified nor possessing enough data to do accurately. The village is not producing enough caloric material or nutritional variety to support the 100-person population (yet). But there does seem to be an increasing need to move away from unhealthy and costly foodstuffs, for two fundamental reasons.
First, as diabetes and other nutritional pandemics ravage rural Alaskan communities, eating healthier is a singular solution to these expensive plights. Cause treating these steadily-growing cases is ludicrously expensive, particularly when accessing healthcare requires exorbitant flights into Anchorage or other large towns with medical facilities.
Further, this all comes at a time when Alaskans are going to be hurting for funds and aid that have typically been abundant from the Federal government and a once-flourishing oil and gas industry. One program that was exceptionally helpful in offsetting costs for air travel looks like it’ll be cut under President Trump’s new budget.
Which is all to say that it’s now or never for this farm. The timing could not have been more serendipitous for Port Heiden. It now stands poised to act as a major regional employer and exporter. It’s also making an impact by providing healthy local choices for residents, but it must still significant hurdles to make this dream a long-term reality.
On the horizon, the greenhouse operation is just starting up as summer swiftly approaches. While I cannot wait to see the village’s produce come to fruition later in the season, I’m continually captivated by the reindeer and their antics.
Here’s hoping Port Heiden’s herd has a happy, healthy future.
© Chasen Cunitz and AKv2v.com, 2017
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Alaska: Village to Village