Featured Farmer: Ginger Duncan
from Mystic Mountain Eco-Village in Alaska
Editor’s Note: Ginger Duncan was also on our podcast! Listen Here.
I’m Ginger Duncan, a 48 year old, life-long Alaskan. Although I’d lived on the island of Kodiak since I was 2, it wasn’t until I met & married my husband in 1992 that I really had the epiphany about how lucky I was to live in such an amazing place. Stan owned a 40-acre property in the “bush” that he’d formerly operated as a Sitka Blacktail deer hunting lodge. Mystic Mountain captured my heart as quickly as Stan had & I’ve been pouring my heart & soul into our homestead ever since.
We used our home as a wilderness sportfishing & eco-tourism lodge for quite a few years & during that time I learned a lot about foraging as I guided folks on hikes through the woods & along the beaches. I found it fascinating how much there is to eat in the wild, if we just know where to look! Kodiak Island is incredibly bountiful in its supply of wild edibles & I gather either greens, berries, blossoms, mushrooms, roots, kelp, & sometimes even seagull eggs from May through late October! I picked up a lot of skills for preserving these free foods through vacuum packing, dehydrating, smoking, pickling & canning. To me there are few things as rewarding as opening your cupboards & freezers & seeing all the beautiful colors & textures of food you’ve either gathered from the wild or raised yourself! With the toxicity of America’s food supply it is reassuring to know that what I’ve “put up” is clean & nutritious, picked at the peak of ripeness & preserved while it is virtually still alive. This means we are able to eat seasonally, AND it also minimizes the carbon footprint we leave on the planet, as a large percentage of what we eat is harvested within a 1-mile radius of our house!
Because we make our living fishing commercially for salmon & cod it is a simple matter for us to vacuum-pack or smoke or can all the fish we need to get through the year. We realize this is NOT so easy for people in the Lower 48, especially when you start reading about testing that has proven that a large percentage of what is labeled as wild Alaskan salmon is in actuality FARMED fish which has been intentionally mislabeled! Our commitment to knowing where our food comes from has led us to the decision to begin direct-marketing our seafood to the consumers so that others may enjoy the high-quality protein that makes our world-famous Kodiak bears grow so big & healthy!
Since Kodiak is an island, it is particularly vulnerable to interruptions in the food supply, whether from terrorism or natural disaster or an accident…if the store shelves were empty I’m not sure how many people would know how to feed their families, even here where the knowledge of subsistence USED to be passed down generation to generation. I find the subsistence lifestyle very rewarding & love sharing what I’ve learned with our volunteers & guests! We are hopeful that in the near future we will meet some hardy souls who’d like to join us in forming a micro-intentional community committed to the practices of sustainability & self-sufficiency. There’s always more work to do than there are hours in the day, so we could use some extra hands around the homestead, especially in the organic gardens!
During the years of being in the tourist industry I’d dabbled with gardening, primarily growing salad greens in beds a short distance from the kitchen. Then in 2013, through the blessing of an NRCS grant program, we constructed & fully planted two hoophouses & also developed several outdoor beds in the area between them. It is absolutely incredible to have discovered what a wide variety of plants will grow in these structures & they’ve extended what was an extremely short growing season to being virtually year-round!
One of the most gratifying milestones in my life was during our very first year of growing when the gardens produced SO prolifically that I was able to make the hour-long run by skiff (a small boat with no cabin) to a “nearby” Native village that no longer had a grocery store. Residents clamored over the numerous coolers full of organic veggies & home-canned & baked goods I brought! My hopes of inspiring the villagers to build their OWN hoophouses seems to be coming to fruition, as they applied for & have been awarded a grant & will begin construction this spring!
Another majorly satisfying moment came just this past summer…A girlfriend from the Lower 48 brought her two small children up in May for a lengthy visit in order to learn homesteading skills. She was ready to pack up and leave by day two, but stuck it out for three full weeks, during which time her 4 & 6 year olds helped me patrol the gardens for slugs, make carrot seed tapes & plant potatoes, among many other chores. I received an exciting email in late summer informing me that upon their return home they’d broken ground & planted their first garden! YAY!! Those munchkins will be healthier because of the time they’ll spend outdoors in the fresh air & they’ll enjoy eating veggies they previously avoided because they grew them from start to finish themselves. They also caught & ate their very first fish while visiting us, which was really fun to witness!
I get really excited when I feed someone vegetables & grains in a way that makes them go “Mmmmmm!” I think a lot of people believe that if they try to adopt a more plant-based diet they’re gonna get nothing but carrot sticks for the rest of their life. Of course that has little appeal, AND little sense! There are SO many fabulous recipes & methods available on-line & through books that if people just experimented a little I’m certain they’d find vegan/vegetarian/ & paleo diets to be quite satisfying. Among our other seminars this coming summer I am planning to offer culinary classes that focus on foraging & garden-to-table meals in order to introduce the adventurous eater to low-fat, high-fiber, extremely nutritious foods.
Living in the wilderness has naturally led me to be very passionate about evaluating the effect of our actions on the environment. The creek that meanders through camp is an important & necessary resource for the survival of various fish, birds, foxes & deer in our area, so it is imperative that we not contaminate it in any way. Since our greywater goes directly into the stream we choose to use only eco-friendly home cleaning & personal care products, or we make them ourselves. The water that we capture through our micro-hydropower system is channeled right back into the stream after it has generated MORE electricity than we can possibly use, even with eight buildings, 3 freezers & power tools all running at once!! The wilderness around us is so beautiful that we give serious thought to each item before we dispose of it…1) Can it be used as feed for the chickens or go into the compost pile? 2) Can it be recycled back in town? 3) Can it be turned into something creative & unique? I think many people are more wasteful than they realize they are being & if they tuned in just a little bit there is room for improvement somewhere, even if it just means washing out your ziplock baggies several times before sending them to the landfill. Just check out the keywords “repurposed” or “upcycled” on Pinterest for arts-n-crafts or home decor ideas made from items you may have previously thought to be “Trash!”
Old wine bottles become spoon rests or wind chimes, defunct fishing buoys can be used to make garden markers, old tires & retired fishing web helped create my obstacle course and so on…I just really don’t want to contribute to the municipal landfill unless absolutely necessary. In nature there is NO waste…everything can serve multiple purposes depending on the stage of its existence. I believe that thinking creatively to find new uses for things is great exercise for the brain!
We used to burn brush piles just to get rid of the “useless” twigs and branches inherent to felling the trees that we buck up for firewood or cut into lumber. In the near future, though, I hope to construct both a wood-burning cob oven from locally gathered materials AND a rocket stove which, with any luck, will allow me burn less propane when canning.
Last summer my husband arrived home from a trip to town & announced that we had secured positions running a boat for the Bristol Bay Sockeye season. I had JUST finished planting over 3000 square feet of garden beds with heirloom, non-GMO seeds & there was NO time to find someone to caretake in our absence. It was heartbreaking to return home two months later to find that most plants had been parched from lack of watering, baked by high temperatures in hoophouses that never got opened, or choked out by weeds! I briefly lamented the waste of time/energy I’d invested in planting, but there is no point in agonizing over what’s past, so this spring we will be working towards installing an irrigation system on timers powered by solar panels & will concentrate on incorporating much more organic matter into the soil of the beds & topping them with a nice layer of mulch to retain moisture. Time never flows backwards, so it’s important to find the lesson in each experience & move forward! Planning ahead of time for conditions or scenarios one may encounter would certainly be worth the effort!
Because we are SO far off-grid (there are NO roads to our homestead, it is reachable only by air or sea) I have very limited access to advice/guidance. There’s no cell service, no television & no internet access. So, I get most of my information the “old-fashioned” way…through BOOKS! I have found great inspiration in Living the Good Life by Scott & Helen Nearing, a couple who decided they wanted to be more connected with the earth. They left the big city & jumped into the homesteading life with both feet & an extremely strong commitment to do the “right” thing, even when it was difficult to do so. I’ve always believed that what one man (or Woman!) can do, another can do, so I have been plugging away at off-grid living for over fifteen years now.
I have found it incredibly gratifying to grow a great deal of the food we eat. In this way I am assured that our food is clean & highly nutritious. There is also a tremendous level of empowerment that comes from finding out what you’re capable of & that you CAN make a difference by making more ecologically responsible choices. I would encourage readers to choose what ONE “Green Living” practice they can incorporate into their regular routines, whether it’s beginning to recycle for the first time or participating in a community garden or taking gardening classes on-line or at a local nursery. Once you experience success in one area you’ll have developed a new healthy habit that truly affects the world around you AND have gained the confidence to tackle the next environmentally responsible skillset. It is a highly worthy endeavor with virtually NO downside! Let’s GROW together!!
Ginger Duncan is the Owner/Director of Mystic Mountain Sustainability Learning Center. She loves her wilderness lifestyle & hopes to develop an Eco-Village on the couple’s 40-acre homestead on Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. Each year there are several positions available for volunteering at the property, & when Stan & Ginger are not commercial fishing in the summer they love opening their home to guests & potential future residents. To learn more about the opportunity to visit Mystic Mountain or to purchase Wild Alaskan Seafood directly from the fishermen, check out their website, www.MysticMountain.org , or call Ginger at 480-550-1077.
She is indeed a rad woman! What an inspiration! Although I don’t exactly consider homesteading on 40 acres in the Alaskan wilderness to be “urban farming’. 😉
Emily, indeed it’s quite the opposite of “urban” farming! but can teach us a lot nonetheless 🙂
One important lesson is the hoop house for urban farmers. A Portable garage frame that has lost its fabric can be covered with greenhouse fabric and make an ideal greenhouse for an urban lot. I use 5 of them connected together for my berry farm to extend the harvest season and protect my peaches from leaf curl.