Permaculture in Svalbard | Ethical Arctic Farming
As the northern-most town in the world, Longyearbyen is the home to a little over 2000 inhabitants. To feed the transient workers that come and go with the seasons, as well as the more long-term locals, most of its food is imported and waste exported. Known for its harsh temperatures and strong winds, it’s nearly impossible to grow food locally in Svalbard—let alone sustainably.
But, it’s definitely possible. I traveled to the arctic to speak with Ben, the co-founder of Polar Permacultures, who incorporates sustainable practices and permaculture values when growing his microgreens and other vegetables in his Longyearbyen greenhouse dome.
Here’s what he had to say:
Jane (me): Hey Benjamin! Would you mind sharing a bit about yourself and Polar Permaculture Solutions?
Benjamin: My name is Benjamin L. Vidmar, and I am a chef/foodie from Florida, USA. I grew up in Cleveland, OH, a foodie city and was inspired by my two greatest foodie heroes: my grandmother and my mom. I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Pittsburgh, PA in 2001.
I traveled the world, and then moved to Longyearbyen, Svalbard in 2008. I started Polar Permaculture Solutions in 2015, which focuses on growing local food here in town and composting organic waste.
Courtesy of Polar Permacultures
Jane: That must have been quite the change! How do you manage to grow food in the arctic? I imagine there’s a handful of challenges, especially with the harsh temperatures.
Benjamin: Protected climates are the only way around it. Even in nature, plants find microclimates that are protected from wind and then they grow there. And in permaculture, we observe and learn from nature. It is possible to create microclimates and grow food in conditions that many of us do not believe is possible.
In Longyearbyen, we sprout all our seeds in our indoor lab facilities using systems like LED lighting and aquaponics. Once they’ve sprouted, we move the plants to our greenhouse dome outside, where they can grow in the warmer seasons. In the winter, we keep all our greens (like microgreens) growing in the Lab.
Jane: So which of permaculture’s values inspire your work? values?
Benjamin: Permaculture is a design system that was inspired by how indigenous people were able to live on and with the earth for so long without causing damage like we do today. It is based on ethics and principles used to make the world a better place.
Permaculture is an umbrella term to describe the many principles and techniques that people use in order to be more sustainable. I must use different ways to grow here in Longyearbyen compared to how someone would grow in London, but it does not make it any less permaculture. It is more about a way of thinking and approaching problems.
I really appreciate the permaculture ethics: Earth care, People care, and Fair share of resources. People live in the arctic and permaculture is possible because of people.
Photo by Jane Alice Liu
Jane: Then what agricultural systems and innovations have you included that aligns with the mentality of permaculture?
Benjamin: We have bought many different growing systems, like LED lights, and products to help us grow as much food as possible. We also compost with red worms and have grown mushrooms in coffee grounds as well.
We also create some of our own fertilizer with composting worms. In the summer, we grow in our dome outside and there we try to use our worm castings that we create from composting organic waste we collect back from hotels and restaurants. We grow hydroponically indoors, and we use fertilizers that are designed for hydroponic systems. We don’t usually have problems with pest and if we do, we try to use non-chemical solutions.
We really work to be as zero waste as possible, but there are some things that we cannot avoid completely. Many of our trays and growing containers are made of plastic. I really don’t like single use plastics, but we get many uses out of our items. When it is finally not able to be used anymore, we send it to the garbage, and it is burned for energy. Our dome is also covered in a plastic film, and this came with the kit when we bought it. We are in the process of changing this cover out to a different material, but the challenge is that we only have temporary permission to be at our location, and there is not point in replacing the cover until we have a permanent home.
Jane: Wow! So then, what veg/fruit have you grown and can you grow?
Benjamin: I have grown tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, lettuce, herbs, leafy greens, microgreens, edible flowers, and mushrooms. I have not measured the nutrient content and cannot speak about the difference between conventionally grown crops, but I can say the items we grow taste great and they are not imported by plane or boat.
Photo by Jane Alice Liu
Jane: Is it possible to farm the whole year in the arctic?
Benjamin: Yes, because we grow indoors and also outside. We grow outside from around May until end of September.
Jane: But how does the presence or lack of sun affect your crops?
Benjamin: It is definitely important to provide a rest period for crops, and they can be stressed out by too much light. They also will not grow properly if there is too little light, so it is important to provide the right balance.
Jane: So, I guess that’s where the artificial lighting comes in. What powers your artificial lighting then?
Benjamin: At the moment, our energy is sourced from the local energy grid, which is currently fueled by coal mined here in Svalbard and supplementary diesel, but they are looking into other more renewable sources. As for our operations, in the future we’re looking into wind energy to power our facility.
Jane: That might be extremely helpful, given the strong winds that pass through Svalbard. What are some other challenges you face farming in the arctic (besides the lack of sun and freezing temperatures)?
Benjamin: The greatest challenge we face is lace of money and the extra cost of doing business here in Longyearbyen. Shipping cost are around 40% of the cost, so it is extremely expensive to do business here.
Jane: With climbing climate temperatures, we see glaciers melting and sea-level rising in the arctic. So, I’m wondering how has global warming affected how you farm in the arctic?
Benjamin: It is really hard to say, but the temperatures have been above expected averages for over 100 months here in Svalbard, and they say the temperature is warming faster than anywhere else on earth. It makes the city unstable and we need to evacuate certain areas of the town from potential avalanches. I can say it makes things unpredictable.
Hear more from Benjamin about how he grows his arctic vegetables in the FoodUnfolded podcast:
Courtesy of Polar Permacultures
Jane: This one is a bit more personal, but how do you define sustainability?
Benjamin: I think it is important for companies to take responsibility for their waste and to stop focusing on profits and making tax payers clean up the company’s waste and environmental damage.
Jane: Are there any learnings we can apply from Polar Permaculture into agriculture in general? Do you think that permaculture can also be adopted by large-scale agriculture?
Benjamin: We work very small scale and we do all work by hand, but. our goal is to scale up production so that we can grow 10% of the needed leafy green vegetables here in town, but remember we have a population of around 2300 people.
In terms of large-scale agriculture, I think it’s important to mainly take responsibility and to have ethics. Money is only paper, and there are more important things to worry about than just earning as much paper as possible.
Jane: Can you give any tips to anyone who wants to start incorporating permaculture in their own gardens or farms at home or in their neighborhood?
Benjamin: Believe in yourself and follow your dreams. No matter how impossible it may seem.
Banner image courtesy of Polar Permacultures