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

Mosquito Lake community garden wraps up first year


September 24, 2020

Ceri Godinez

Volunteers Deb Standford, Lydia Andriesen, Haley Boron, Hannah Boron and Rayshal Spalding help put the Mosquito Lake Community Center garden to bed. This year, the newly created community garden supplied produce to roughly 75 families in the Chilkat Valley, and organizers have plans to expand the garden next year.

The Mosquito Lake Community Center's Victory Garden has provided food to roughly 75 families in the Chilkat Valley this year, according to organizer Erika Merklin's estimates. Merklin has been tracking garden use and said she will have finalized numbers once the harvest wraps up, likely around the end of September.

Since June, Merklin and other volunteers have been meeting weekly on Saturdays to work the 6,000 square foot garden. Attendance at these events has ranged as high as 60, with an average closer to 10, Merklin said.

Last Saturday, volunteers gathered on a sunny autumn day to pull out peas and broccoli, and prepare beds to plant garlic.

The garden, spearheaded by Merklin, came together through a patchwork of volunteer and fundraising efforts.

Some volunteers donated seeds and starts, Merklin said. Farmer Sally Boisvert donated a drip line for the garden's irrigation system. Jim Stanford brush-cut the area to create space for the garden. The garden received a $1,000 anonymous donation and several other smaller ones. Another $800 came from a farm-to-table fundraiser dinner held this summer.

Merklin used the funds for purchases including tools from Lutak Lumber, which Chip Lende offered at a 50% discount, and an electric fence to keep out bears.

Like the garden itself, distributing produce has been a piecemeal effort.

"It would really help if we could hire someone to coordinate distribution," but the project lacks the funding, Merklin said. Instead, produce has been distributed by weekly volunteers bringing food home to neighbors. The Salvation Army distributes to the Mosquito Lake community and a group of high school students, led by dietician Rayshal Spalding, delivers produce weekly to Chilkat Valley senior citizens.

As a dietician, Spalding said one of her main goals is to increase people's fiber intake.

"Alaska has one of the highest rates of colon cancer. There's a correlation between colon cancer and low fiber intake," Spalding said. Plants are a great source of fiber, so she tries to encourage her patients to eat more fruits and vegetables, she said.

Spalding was invited to a garden volunteer event by Mardell Gunn. After attending, "I thought, why don't I knock on doors and deliver produce?" she said.

Spalding said her deliveries were well received, and she recruited high schoolers Lydia Andriesen, and twins Haley and Hannah Boron to join her. Together, they make weekly deliveries to residents at the Haines Senior Village and Dusty Trails Apartments, delivering 20-24 bags of produce in an average week.

For many volunteers, the garden has served not only as a source of food but also as a safe community gathering space during the pandemic.

"I saw the advertisement about weeding the garden, and I thought, this is a community thing, I should get involved," said Judy San, who moved to the Chilkat Valley a few years ago. She said she's met a lot of new people through volunteering at the garden.

For others, the garden has offered the opportunity to exchange knowledge about cultivation techniques.

"I've been growing food in Southeast for thirty years. I want to spare people the mistakes I've made," Laurie Mastrella said.

Andriesen said her family always has a garden, but since she started volunteering at the Victory Garden, she's benefited from the knowledge of those around her and the hands-on experience of growing a wider variety of vegetables.

"I've learned a lot, like how you're supposed to mound potatoes. I never knew that," Andriesen said. "I didn't know brussels sprouts grew like that. It's cool to see how produce grows."

Although selling the Mosquito Lake Community Center is a perennial topic of discussion for the Haines Borough Assembly, Merklin said she's beginning to plan for next year's garden. She said she'd like to double the Victory Garden's size, creating enough space so people can rent rows for personal use.

Spalding also has ideas for next year. She went to culinary school and said she'd like to put that experience to use preparing recipes involving garden produce to inspire residents to do the same at home.

Funding for the Mosquito Lake Community Center is scrutinized by the assembly every year during the budgeting process. This year, funding for the community center was left out of the budget until a last-minute amendment allocated $10,000 of CARES Act funds and $10,000 of borough funds for the facility to serve as a food security center in the Chilkat Valley.

The assembly rejected a subsequent request for $78,000 CARES Act funds to support a project titled "Breaking Bread: Creating a Foodshed," which would have funded the purchase of equipment and staff time to preserve food harvested at the Victory Garden.


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