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Pilgrim’s (Produce) Progress

Landscape of grasses, trees, and a pond at Pilgrim Hot Springs
Pilgrim Hot Springs, a site that may soon yield sub-Arctic-grown produce. Photo: Madison Winchester, KNOM.

Nome and area residents could soon be able to buy locally-grown vegetables at a farmer’s market stand in town. The Pilgrim Produce Program is being developed by Bering Straits Development Company, a consortium of Native corporations and other organizations, to grow produce despite permafrost and a fleeting growing season.

The farming site, Pilgrim Hot Springs, is 65 miles of bumpy road north of Nome, and it’s one of Alaska’s most remarkable places. An oasis created by geothermal springs, Pilgrim is transformed by its naturally-warmer soil. The 320-acre plot is a stark contrast to the rolling, scrubby tundra wilderness surrounding it. Instead of bare rock or dense brush, Pilgrim’s deciduous trees stand tall astride marshy ponds and grasses, making it easy to spot from an airplane.

Aerial view of Pilgrim Hot Springs
An aerial view of the recent farming efforts at Pilgrim Hot Springs. Photo courtesy of BSDC/Kawerak.

The site, named “Unaataq,” the Inupiaq word for “hot spring,” has been used by Native people for centuries. It was settled during the early 1900s Gold Rush as a roadhouse. Later, it was converted to the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic orphanage and mission school for two decades after the influenza outbreak of 1918. Now, the site is being reclaimed and redeveloped for agriculture — and eventually for ecotourism.

BSDC construction manager Robert Bensin says Pilgrim’s potatoes and onions will be its staple crops; it’s still too soon to say if their celery, squash, and pumpkins can yield a harvest before snowfall makes the Pilgrim road impassable.

For residents of the region, the prospect of farm-to-table produce, once thought unthinkable, may soon be a mouth-watering reality. And throughout Western Alaska, listeners have learned about Pilgrim’s farming accomplishments — and will keep tabs on their progress — through stories on KNOM Radio.

Image at top: Pilgrim Hot Springs, a site that may soon yield sub-Arctic-grown produce. Photo: Madison Winchester, KNOM.

Two men crouch near sprouting crops in the farming fields at Pilgrim Hot Springs
Keeping tabs on young crops at Pilgrim Hot Springs. Photo courtesy of BSDC/Kawerak.
Workers plant seeds in the farming fields at Pilgrim Hot Springs.
Planting at Pilgrim Hot Springs. Photo courtesy of BSDC/Kawerak.

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