Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 5, Issue 1 - May, 2012


Gardening Extension in Rural Alaska

Rader, H. B., Tribes Extension Educator, UAF Cooperative Extension Service and Tanana Chiefs Conference
Brown, S.C., District Agriculture Agent, University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service
van Delden, K. L., Health, Home and Family Development Agent, University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service


Conducting Extension programming in rural Alaska presents challenges unseen anywhere else in the country.  Most communities are inaccessible by road, which makes travel by air, boat or snowmobile expensive and time consuming. Adequate preparation, flexibility, creativity, building relationships, and cross-cultural awareness are essential for delivering successful workshops. This article examines these issues and provides insights for successful Extension programming in rural Alaska. Although this article is presented in the context of providing gardening programs, the concepts presented apply to virtually any type of Extension programming.

Wild Alaska

Offering Extension programming in rural Alaska poses unique challenges and opportunities not seen in any other part of the United States. Many are tribal communities and have no road access. This means that getting to many sites can be an adventure. Although small aircraft is the most frequent means of transportation to access off-road communities; snowmobiles, ATVs, and boats are also used. Sometimes it takes three flights to visit a community. Not only is this expensive and time consuming, it also makes planning and preparedness all the more important before you even step foot in a village.

Alaska Natives have traditionally obtained food and fiber from uncultivated land. Subsistence activities include hunting, fishing, and gathering an abundance of wild food including: salmon, freshwater fish, moose, marine mammals, caribou, sheep, black bear, waterfowl, ptarmigan, porcupine, berries, and wild plants, as well as some subsistence gardening. Trapping, gathering firewood, and making and selling handicrafts provide some income for village residents. Year round employment is primarily found at schools, city, state, and federal agencies, Native corporations, clinics, village councils, stores, and airlines. A report found that 80% of indigenous households in Northern Alaska participated in traditional subsistence activities in addition to jobs (Leask, 2007). Each village is unique while sharing similarities with other remote communities.

Alaska Natives don’t necessarily aspire to be “farmers” in the sense that it implies selling produce for a profit. Small-scale community and subsistence agriculture is preferred over farming as evidenced by more than 500 tribal gardeners in Interior Alaskan villages interested in receiving vegetable and flower seeds last year (Rader, 2011). Compare this with only 41 documented American Indian or Alaska Native Farmers in the entire State (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2007).

Community and subsistence agriculture is consistent with the cultural values of most Alaska Native groups. For example, Athabascan cultural values include “Self-sufficiency and Hard Work, Care and Provision for the Family, Village Cooperation and Responsibility to Village, Sharing and Caring, Respect for Knowledge & Wisdom from Life Experiences, and Respect for the Land and Nature” (Alaska Native Knowledge Network, 1985).

Today, Alaska Natives face many challenges as a culture and as individuals.  Poverty, obesity, unemployment, loss of culture, high rates of suicide, and migration from villages to urban areas are just some of the challenges that many Alaskan villages face. The cost of living in most villages is high while wage employment is low. Although subsistence foods are still common, less healthy foods are eaten in greater quantities. Results from a diet survey in the Tanana Chiefs Conference region showed that Hi-C™ and Tang™ was consumed in greater quantities, per year, than any other food at 1,005 gallons (8,044 lbs.) (Alaska Native Health Board, 2004). Extension offers educational programs that can help individuals and communities meet these challenges.

Communicating Across Cultures

It is important to remember that it takes time to build relationships with people from another place and culture.  It also requires skills.  Everyone can improve their capacity to work with people from diverse backgrounds. Miscommunications and misunderstandings happen, but often when they do  it is not the Extension Agent who suffers the consequences.  It is usually our clients because they may no longer be comfortable approaching us for services. As professionals, it’s our responsibility to develop our cross-cultural communication skills and work respectfully with a diverse public.  It can also make our jobs more rewarding.

 Fortunately, there are a variety of trainings on cross-cultural communication.  One program we highly recommend is called “Navigating Difference” (Deen, Huskey & Parker, 2009). The intended outcomes of Navigating Difference is that culturally competent professionals are able to:

  • Engage in culturally diverse settings, initiatives, and programs;
  • Integrate cultural competencies in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of programming; and
  • Practice strategies for successful intercultural communication in professional settings.


We have found that with practice, our skills have improved in working with different Alaska Native Groups; but we all still have a great deal to learn.  We have observed that two villages not thirty miles apart can be vastly different from each other.  During a conversation with a young woman who spoke Central Yupik, she stated that in one village everyone easily conversed in Yupik, in the nearby village no one talked to her in Yupik.  She had not realized that many people in the second village no longer knew how to speak their language.  So close, but so different. It’s also important to realize that Alaska has 229 Federally Recognized Tribes and thus 229 independent Tribal Governments. Emm and Singletary (2009) have produced a useful resource specifically for educating agriculture professionals who serve American Indians on reservation lands. For Extension Agents serving tribes, the handbook for Extension Indian Reservation Program Agents (now Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program Agents) is invaluable (Gill, 2006). The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI®) can be used to measure one’s level of intercultural competence (Hammer, Bennet, & Wiseman, 2003).

Cultural guides can also help you understand how to act appropriately and respectfully in a community. We have talked a great deal with elders about appropriate behavior. Here are some things we’ve learned:

  • Do not take pictures without asking permission, even if it is just someone’s garden.
  • When asking questions, give a long wait time afterward.  It is respectful in many rural communities to take your time and think about an answer to a question before responding.  Many times, especially in a class like gardening, students will wait until someone more knowledgeable about a subject answers the question.
  • Take time to meet everyone as they come in the room. This shows you respect and acknowledge the people who are attending.
  • Show respect for local knowledge by asking meaningful questions and incorporating the answers into the students learning. 


Planning Successful Workshops

Many items need to be addressed for a successful program.  It usually starts with connections you have already made long before you plan a trip to a community.  We have found it is not always easy to meet people in a remote community. Participating in conferences and meetings well attended by people from the villages is an excellent way to start making connections. Also, we’ve found that the second workshop in a community is often more successful than the first. This is likely because we got to know the people who lived there, and they got to know us. We offer programs based on the priorities identified in needs assessments, ideally specific to a particular community.

Located above the Arctic Circle, residents of Kotzebue, Alaska pose behind their newly constructed composter. Because there is no topsoil in this tundra environment, gardening "soil" must be made using washed beach sand and compost.

When giving a workshop it’s important, for several reasons, to receive an invitation, especially if it’s a tribal community. First, it’s inappropriate to go to some Alaska Native villages without the support of the tribe. Second, if you weren’t invited, you are likely to have a low turnout at your workshop. A contact in the community is also essential for helping with the logistics of a workshop. This often includes posting flyers, announcing workshops on the radio, pre-registering participants, picking you up at the airstrip (there are no rental cars in villages), arranging lodging and finding a venue for your workshop.

Travel to remote communities is very resource intensive.  To ensure a trip goes well we have found it helpful to have multiple purposes for the trip.  We often offer classes for students at the local school during the day, evening classes for the whole community at night, and may also participate in a concurrent event such as a Health Fair, Job Fair, or Agriculture Fair. We have offered classes on a wide variety of subjects to attract more community participation, for example, how to use a GPS receiver, how to cross-country ski,  how to garden, etc.  It is really satisfying to be able to say that you provided programming to a third or half of a community during a single visit!

Nome, Alaska Cooperative Extension Service Agent Kari Van Delden discusses sub-arctic tomato growing at a local school greenhouse. Gardening knowledge in rural Alaska can vary tremendously from community to community.

Successful workshops also rely on thorough research of the community before you travel.  For a trip to Unalakleet, we researched the history of gardening in the community before arriving.  During the 1920’s the village of Unalakleet in northwestern Alaska was world famous for its vegetable gardens. The driving force behind these gardens had been a popular local priest. In preparing for a gardening program some 90 years later, we discovered this historical fact and used it to foster a historical pride for gardening.

It’s also important to research the growing conditions of a particular community before a workshop as they vary significantly throughout Alaska. In Arctic Village, the permafrost lies just under the tundra and it is not unheard of for it to freeze or snow in July. Tanacross has very rocky soil. In Fort Yukon the temperature range is extreme with -50 to -60°F not uncommon in the winter and summer temperatures reaching 65 to 72°F (Alaska Community Database Online, 2012).

Tribes Extension Educator Heidi Rader transports Red Wrigglers to Takotna by snow machine for a vermicomposting workshop. Takotna is a remote community of about 30 people and the worms had to take three flights and a snowmobile ride to get there.

Learning by Walking Around

One of the most important things you can do after arriving in a rural village is “learning by walking around.” If possible, get the person who invited you to give a tour of the community including garden sites and visits with local gardeners. Meet as many people as possible before your program. A trip to the village store will help you see what resources are available and the store’s bulletin board will provide a valuable insight into the community.

Being knowledgeable of the community, knowing people’s names, and understanding local issues allows you to tailor the presentation to the audience.  When presenting ideas about what to use as a garden soil mixture, you can incorporate local materials into your recommendations. There have been many times when “walking around” has resulted in major, last minute program changes or revealed potential social quagmires to avoid.

What can go wrong?

Sometimes the best laid plans can go awry. We taught an entire workshop on soil fertility and composting and at the end, when we were handing out small bags of fertilizer, we were asked, “What is this for?” We had mistakenly assumed that the audience was familiar with fertilizer in the presentation. Asking more questions at the beginning of a workshop to get to know our audience may have helped us avoid this error.

At another program on potato gardening, we gave participants seed potatoes to plant at home. Unfortunately, some of the participants ate the potatoes rather than plant them. They thought they would receive “potato seeds” at a later date and the tubers we gave them were an example of what they would eventually harvest.

In another community, there was a widely held belief that the soil was too nutrient poor to support gardening. It was common knowledge in the community that even fertilized gardens would fail to thrive and would eventually die. It was discovered that the village’s hardware store was selling “weed and feed” as garden fertilizer. Because the fertilizer killed weeds, it was assumed this was a very desirable product for local gardens.

A gardening program in Nome once had to be abruptly postponed while the community celebrated a successful musk ox hunt by local youth. Nome and other villages are also on the Iditarod trail. We have learned not to offer any programs when the Iditarod Race travels along the coast.  During a class in Elim, we were interrupted as everyone went outside to cheer one of the mushers on through town.  Communities along the trail see it as their responsibility to support the mushers as they travel over 1,000 miles through isolated wilderness.  

Communities rely heavily on subsistence activities, which are seasonally dependent. We were unable to offer a class because a seasonal herring run had started and everyone was busy with the harvest.  Our plans were completely overridden. We used the time as an opportunity to build relationships and learn more about this valuable resource to the community.

In Summary

If doing Extension programming in rural Alaska could be summarized in three words it would be “do your homework.” This, of course, is true in any Extension setting. However, Alaska’s extremes magnify this necessity. Some important things we’ve learned are:

  • Know what the best times are for visiting a community.
  • Learn about the local culture. Alaska Native traditions and norms vary greatly even within tribes.
  • Research local climactic conditions and challenges for growing.
  • Be genuine in your desire to help and follow through on any promises made.
  • Be flexible. If things don’t go quite as expected, be prepared with a backup plan.



Alaska Community Database Online, Community information: Fort Yukon. (2012). Retrieved from:

Alaska Native Health Board, Alaska Native Epidemiology Center. (2004). Final report on the Alaska traditional diet survey. Retrieved from:

Alaska Native Knowledge Network. (1985). Athabascan cultural values. Denakkanaaga Elders Conference. Retrieved from:

Deen, M.K., Huskey, M., & Parker, L.  (2009). Navigating difference: Cultural competency training for Extension professionals. Pullman:  Washington State University Extension.

Emm, S. K. & Singletary, L. (2009). People of the land: Sustaining American Indian agriculture in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Service. Curriculum Materials-09-01. Retrieved from:

Gill, J. (ed.) (2006). EIRP/Tribal College New Agent Handbook. Retrieved from:

Hammer, M.R., Bennett, M.J. & Wiseman, R (2003). The Intercultural Development Inventory: A measure of intercultural sensitivity. In M. Paige (Guest Editor), Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, 421-443.

Leask, L. (Ed.), Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage. (2007). Survey of living conditions in the Arctic: What did we learn? Retrieved from:

Rader, H.B. (2011). [Tanana Chiefs Conference tribal gardener survey] Unpublished raw data.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Census of Agriculture. (2007). Alaska State profile. Retrieved from:


This project was supported in part by the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA Grant # 2009-41580-05332. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author (s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.