Art Nash

Many people are thinking ahead as vegetables mature in the garden and hunters get ready for the fall hunting season. For some, September is about getting large amounts of food all at once.

Yet once the food is procured, often we go right into hard frosts. If you choose not to preserve your food through modern canning or freezing methods, you can use an alternate approach used by longtime Alaskans for preserving fresh produce.

It is not practical to just put all the produce into the arctic entry or under the house with homes on post-on-pad designs. Besides, it may be that you will possibly be combatting pests such as mice and voles for your food.

Certainly, the old-style trapper food caches 6 feet above the ground can keep the food from pests, yet for perishables the storage needs to often be in the ground to prevent freezing but maintain adequate cooling. Reading stories and hearing oral histories from various Alaskans who lived during territory days (and often off the road system) has always interested me. I wondered how they stored local foods to reduce spoilage, often with local materials and in many cases without electrical refrigeration

In the Copper River Valley, where temperatures can range 140 degrees, some residents have dug earthen holes with sawdust in the summer to keep perishables cold. There has always been the option of other food preservation methods such as canning with pressure cookers, but in the days before statehood there often was not easy access to electricity and easy temperature regulation from appliances. 

Smoking meats was often relied upon due to the lack of electricity and freezers. North Slope villages would dig shafts, reminiscent of drift mining pits in the Interior, to store marine mammal meats. Yet now things are warming up and while winters are for many parts of the state becoming more forgiving, it is, in some ways, destabilizing structures and holes in discontinuous permafrost and frozen tundra areas.

Even in Whitehorse, Yukon, where food security concerns have led a strong effort to raise local food, people ask about food storage for produce. One good place to look for an Interior example is on the Cooperative Extension YouTube channel. See Heidi Rader’s interview with Terry Reichardt about her unheated root cellar. You can see it at bit.ly/Alaskacellar. This video shows a cellar adjacent to a log home, and it has a ladder, cement block walls to contain dirt and an outer ventilation pipe.

There are certainly other designs and in each it is important to consider the following factors: 

• Building timbers that can prevent moisture rot without adding copper, creosote or arsenic compounds exposure to the food.

• Entrances large enough to get baskets into the holding area.

• Racks and shelving that won’t rot.

• Lighting with LEDs that will not require wired electricity.

• Doors that are insulated, light enough to open with full hands, and seal well to keep pests at bay.

• A ventilation system that can be active (utilizing fans) if the humidity gets too high so as to stave off mold.

• Available floorspace to put sand in containers to keep produce from freezing.

One last thing. It may be tempting to use metal surplus buildings for food storage, but realize that they may not have their original tensile strength. Be cautious about burying such metal buildings with earthen material for insulation and using them for storage. You don’t want the possibility of collapsing a roof.

Give me a ring if you have a trick or design idea you may have used in keeping food fresh. I always like to hear from homesteaders, farmers and folks who have kept their food safe and fresh! 

Art Nash is the Extension energy and radon specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at 907-474-6366 or by email at alnashjr@alaska.edu.

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