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Polar Permaculture Flying north over the vast permafrost and glacial mountains of Svalbard is quite the sight. Midway between the north of Norway and the North Pole, the endless white doesn’t inspire confidence that anyone could survive here, let alone thrive. Yet people do.
Ben Vidmar transplanted himself from the USA into this incredibly remote corner of the Arctic circle. He works as a chef in Longyearbyen, the main settlement, and has his own business, . He told the of his love for the archipelago: “Svalbard is so raw and pure. It is one of the only places left where you can experience true silence. This is a place where you only find people who want to be here. People who do not love the place leave.”
Breaking the cycle of importing and waste
Longyearbyen is the world's northernmost permanently inhabited community, with a long history of polar exploration and a true frontier spirit. Almost everything that is eaten on the island has to be imported from mainland Europe by boat or plane, while a lot of the waste ends up in the ocean. When Vidmar began working as a chef in some of Svalbard’s best restaurants, he quickly found frustration. When fresh food does arrive, much of it is spoilt and has to be thrown away.
Through Polar Permaculture, he aims to solve one of the biggest headaches of life at 78 degrees north: obtaining fresh food while reducing waste. However, deciding to do something about the problem and making that happen are two very different things. The headaches are many. Average temperatures - while rising fast - are low year-round. In the winter there is no direct sunlight for four months, and no light at all for more than two of those. Even at the height of summer, mountaintops surrounding the settlement are topped with snow.
Microgreens proved popular
Not to be put off, he poured substantial time and savings into creating the first and only gardening operation on Svalbard while still working as a chef. He began by growing microgreens in an insulated room and the produce was quickly snapped up by local hotels and restaurants. The operation has since expanded to a temporary greenhouse, in which he grows all kinds of plants from May to September, and an indoor hydroponics lab running year-round.
Inside the Arctic hydroponics lab of Polar Permaculture
David Nikel He follows the principles of permaculture - developing an agricultural ecosystem designed to be sustainable.
Permaculture uses organic gardening and farming practices but it goes beyond these practices and integrates the garden and home to create a lifestyle that impacts less on the environment. Permaculture brings production of food closer to consumers and the consumer’s wastes back into the cycle. It also reduces the energy wasted in transporting the foods by producing the foods where the people are. In permaculture the people contribute in their daily life toward the production of their food and other needs. -
Vidmar isn’t doing this to be trendy. He believes that sustainability is the only option. “Everything here is imported so we want to create locally-grown food for Longyearbyen. We try to collect back the waste, which we compost. We then use the compost we produce to grow more food,” he says.
Different kinds of challenges
By researching other Arctic projects, he discovered the possibilities of using red worms to produce a natural fertilizer from food waste. Because the worms are a non-native species, he had to obtain special permission. Even cats aren’t allowed on Svalbard. Local authorities vetoed his plans to keep chickens to produce eggs, while even his greenhouse only has temporary permission as the settlement has strict zoning rules.
It’s a challenge Vidmar is meeting head on, because he believes a focus on sustainability is the only way to give the settlement a future. While he is inspired by projects like the , whose hundred or so members grow fruit, vegetables and even flowers in Alaska, it’s not so easy to replicate such a project on Svalbard. The community is a temporary one. There is a hospital but there is no welfare system. “If you want to live here, you have to be able to fend for yourself. You cannot be born on Svalbard, and you’re not allowed to die here either,” he explains.
Sustainability brings possibility
Still, his vision is to create a truly sustainable community for the few thousand people that currently call Longyearbyen their home, however long they stay for. “It can happen, but it takes everyone working together. There are over 1,000 dogs here but their organic waste is just thrown away. That manure can be used to create energy. We want to connect all the other companies and help make everything more sustainable,” he says.
He continues to work part-time as a chef while he looks for ways to raise funds for the business. He now offers tours to interested visitors, ranging from a 2-hour hands-on farm tour to a ‘Day in the life of an Arctic farmer’ experience, on which you see every part of the farm and his life.
As for the next project? He plans to open his own zero-waste restaurant called the Greenhouse. “We want to do on a small-scale what we would like to see for the city. We will provide fresh, locally-grown food, use less single-use plastic, and compost the waste,” he says.
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Achieving The Impossible: Growing Food In The High Arctic