Arctic vegetables: growing lettuce above the Arctic Circle
Modern solutions for vitamin deficiency7 april 2023
In mid-spring, the crew of the nuclear-powered icebreaker Yamal harvested their first crop of cucumbers and fresh herbs. This is a great feast for the team—in the polar regions, people have a special need for fruit and vegetables, which are a source of vitamins essential for a healthy life. As recently as 30 years ago, access to fresh herbs in the Arctic was limited even for the elite of the civilian fleet, the icebreaker crew. Today, on Arctic ships, growing greenery has become more of a useful hobby for the crew than a vital necessity, but on the 'mainland,' the situation is not so clear-cut.
The modern infrastructure and organisation of production provide far more opportunities than they did a couple of decades ago but still do not fully meet the demand for fruit and vegetables. Due to the enormous distances and complex logistics involved, delivering fresh, perishable products, even to major cities in the AZRF, is a costly undertaking. For example, the price of fresh cucumbers in Salekhard can be three times higher than in the capital, and in spring, during the ice drift, and in winter during the ice drift, there may be none at all. It is often impossible to reach the city by truck or ship during these months, and vegetables delivered by plane can safely be covered in gold, and this will not greatly increase their cost. Moreover, it is difficult to supply even the region's capital with enough fresh produce, which is why the Soviet leadership began experimenting with the creation of Arctic agricultural organisations as early as the first third of the last century.
One of them is the Polyarny state farm in Igarka, Krasnoyarsk. Research has been carried out there since the 1930s to develop vegetables and livestock breeds that are resistant to the cold and sunny conditions of the Polar regions. Scientists and collective farmers worked together to supply fresh produce to hospitals, kindergartens and schools, with the remainder going to Gostorg and other distribution centres. The experimental farm proved to be very successful in terms of scientific work, but by now, it has fallen into disrepair. Under the conditions of the market economy, agricultural work proved unprofitable for the local population, and the unique state farm virtually disappeared, writes Maria Mishechkina, director of the Igarsky Permafrost Museum. All the more so because most of the Arctic Circle has not even a hint of the scarce soils of the northern Krasnoyarsk Territory—you can't grow anything on the permafrost. In terms of production localisation, the project has not yielded the desired results. Instead of trying to cope with northern soils or breeding frost-free potatoes, greenhouses have become the main trend of the day.
The first thing that comes to mind when talking about polar greenhouses is huge facilities that produce mountains of healthy and tasty food. A successful case study is the Sayuri agro-complex in Yakutia, which reported in April 2023 that it had reached its design capacity. It produced 704 tons of fresh vegetables and herbs in three months. This is 16.3% more than planned, says the Municipal Unitary Enterprise 'Gorsnab.' It has attracted substantial investment, support through the AZRF Resident Privilege Programme, and pilot technologies have been introduced. For example, for arctic greenhouses, an important design feature is the increased resistance to a higher temperature, wind and snow loads, as well as high energy consumption.
Yes, heating and lighting, watering and maintaining optimum humidity are quite costly in the polar regions. Moreover, there are other risks that often deter investors. However, Sayuri's management is optimistic, especially in the absence of competitors. Even when the higher costs are taken into account, the planned payback period of the project is about 6–7 years, which is quite comparable to 4–5 years for a greenhouse farm in other regions of the country.
However, the Arctic regions are not only hoping for the arrival of a great and brave investor, but they are also encouraging the development of small businesses. In Salekhard, for example, a trend towards city farming is developing—locals grow herbs, mushrooms and vegetables on small plots of land within the city limits, the Krasny Sever newspaper reported. Thanks to modern technology, this is now possible without tens of millions being invested. To set up your vegetable garden, you will need racks, a nutrient solution and lamps. The leadership of the YNAA encourages such initiatives, especially as they organically occupy a vacant niche in the market. For example, Leonid Matyushenko bought the necessary equipment with the help of a governor's grant, and today his enterprise has become a stable family business. He grows lettuces and microgreens not only for the town's inhabitants but also sends the production to surrounding communities and supplies two restaurants. In total, his company is capable of growing up to 2,000 plants at a time.
In Yakutia today, the Yakutia Investment and Export Promotion Agency, federal experts and Lyudmila Nikolaeva, a member of Yakutia's Presidential Council for Welfare and Sustainable Development, are considering a project to support the creation of small agribusiness projects. One of the most promising technologies for farming in the Far North under the programme appears to be phytopyramids. This vertical method of placing pots with plants (or filling the pyramid with mineral substrate) saves space and optimises light and watering. Moreover, it is more affordable than a number of high-tech equivalents and, importantly, the project is aimed at the general population, including individual entrepreneurship in Yakut settlements. According to the members of the working group, the population of a typical Arctic settlement is about 500–600 people, which is not a sufficient basis for the establishment of a large farm, but a small farm would be quite suitable. Moreover, localisation of production will minimise logistics costs.Read more Investing in food security Fresh vegetable projects in the Arctic