Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Passion for growing, winter community drew Douthit

 

Spencer Douthit

"New Arrivals" is a series of articles profiling residents who have moved to Haines in recent years and are making contributions to the community.

As an undergraduate at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Spencer Douthit realized he wanted to start his own farm. So he asked himself: Where?

He had spent the previous two summers working on a farm outside of Fairbanks, but was drawn to the maritime environment of Southeast.

Correspondence with a cooperative extension agent in Juneau helped narrow his choice to Gustavus, Haines or Skagway. He ruled out Gustavus because it wasn't on the road system and was unlikely to have a good market for vegetables. Factors favoring Haines included the possibility of using fish waste from Haines Packing Company for compost, less cruise ship traffic and a sizable winter community.

"Haines is the only one that seemed to have a solid, year-round community, and that was really important to me," Douthit said.

Now 26 and in his second year in town, Douthit is helping grow the community he wants to live in by delivering fresh produce, calling square dances and hosting radio shows. He's recognizable for a big smile and, often, bare feet.

"I have a basic aversion to lifestyles that aren't enjoyable," he said.

Born in Kirkland, Wash. to a hydrographic surveyor father and a NOAA dive officer mother, Douthit grew up around the water and in the woods. His passion for adventure and the outdoors continued after moving to Connecticut at age 11.

His first trips to Alaska were fishing and canoe excursions with his father. At 18, Douthit moved to Anchorage, where he thrived in the academic, social and natural environments.

"I quickly learned that culturally, I matched a lot of other kids of pipeline-era families. I felt kind of at home. I felt like all those things I loved doing related to the outdoors, (and) those things were more accessible in Alaska," Douthit said.

Douthit found stimulation in the university natural science program. Courses in chemistry, biology and geology provided a strong platform to launch him into an unexpected field of work.

Seeking a summer job after sophomore year, a friend pointed him to Calypso Farm and Ecology Center in Ester, just south of Fairbanks. The nonprofit educational farm sells shares of vegetables and flowers, hosts field trips and operates a school garden.

Douthit not only enjoyed the physical work and delicious payoff of farming, but was enthused by the practical application of his scientific knowledge.

Biogeochemistry was his favorite college class, he said, and farming is a perfect example of why it pays to know how chemicals cycle through an ecosystem.

"You don't need a background in that to be good at farming, but it helps," he said.

Armed with a science degree, a full year at Calypso and money saved from a commercial fishing job, Douthit felt ready to start his own farm. He arrived in Haines in spring of 2013 to start working Bob Henderson's farm, now owned by the American Bald Eagle Foundation.

Foundation founder Dave Olerud also allowed him to grow in a rich plot on his property up the hill, bringing Douthit's production area to just over half an acre.

"To me what Spencer represents is a proper utilization of our space," Olerud said. "We could use his innate abilities to the maximum to try to utilize all this space we have around Haines to get back to some of the glory days of the agricultural productivity of this valley."

Douthit calls his business Columbine Farm. Moderate temperatures and a longer growing season make farming in Haines less risky than in the Interior. With freight prices added to the cost of imported produce, a small farm like his is more likely to be viable here than in the Lower 48.

So far, demand has exceeded Douthit's growing capacity. His 17 shareholders receive most of his crop, and what remains goes to the Haines Farmer's Market or Olerud's grocery department.

Douthit expects to net less than $10,000 the next few seasons, but figures that with increased acreage and efficiency he'll make a livable summer income in five to ten years. "It's not like a real rich lifestyle financially, but it's a pretty rich lifestyle in the quality of life," he said.

Douthit supplemented his income last year by spending midwinter catching Pacific cod in western Alaska. This year he has been working part-time as a bike mechanic and hopes to stay working this winter as a substitute teacher and carpenter. He also plans to offer workshops on topics such as practical soil science for gardeners.

Douthit was set to begin a master's program in environmental engineering in Fairbanks this fall, but passed up the three-year commitment to focus on growing in Haines.

"I've spent so much time making this a goal in my life, and now I'm here and it has its challenges but I'm doing what I set out to do," Douthit said.

Douthit embraces most of the challenges associated with organic farming – figuring out irrigation, reclaiming land from thimbleberry brambles and keeping bears from eating his carrots.

He's looking forward to one day living on the land he cultivates and envisions starting an orchard to supplement his income and offering programs in conjunction with the American Bald Eagle Foundation and the Sheldon Museum.

"I feel like this is a community I want to settle into and be a part of and I'm going to make it happen," he said.

Douthit's a regular part of local radio broadcasts. KHNS program director Amelia Nash said his enthusiasm for discovering music is just one asset he brings to the station. "He's a great volunteer in that he shows up for every event and every fundraiser."

Douthit has also become a fixture at the increasingly-popular monthly barn dances, where he learned to be a caller. "It's really kind of exciting. He just picked it up and gets progressively better each time," said Sweet Sunny North band member Tom Heywood. "It makes it fun for us musicians when he has everyone happy and dancing."

With half of the Sweet Sunny North musicians leaving town, Douthit is trying to coordinate another band so barn dance fun can continue through the winter. "In my mind square dancing is not a real rigid activity. It's not about doing the dance just right, it's about having a hell of a time," he said.

Douthit is looking forward to this winter as a time to do more of some other things he enjoys, like playing banjo, bicycling, eating the mountain goat he harvested this fall and enjoying the company of his new community.

"It seems like winter's the time you really get to know people a little better. I'm excited about that," Douthit said. "There are lots of diverse, talented people who are sticking around."

 
 

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