Chena Hot Springs Resort

FAIRBANKS — Although the greenhouses, flowers and gardens at Chena Hot Springs Resort are breathtaking, there is more to the plants than just a pretty showcase.

For owner Bernie Karl, it’s a way to demonstrate what Alaskans could and should be doing. “Alaska is a train wreck,” he said. “We only grow 2 percent of what we eat. One hundred years ago we were further along in agriculture than today.”

Touting the old adage “you are what you eat,” Karl said it’s important for businesses to pave the way and show that Alaska Grown is more than a T-shirt slogan or bumper sticker, that growing food and flowers is possible in the state. The resort produces enough lettuce, tomatoes and herbs to feed 150,000 people per year — resort guests and staff. Sometimes there is enough left over to sell to institutions in Fairbanks. Also grown on the property are cucumbers, squash, green beans, herbs and much more.

Based on the research of University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor Meriam Karlsson, Karl and his staff follow protocols for raising plants in hoop houses and greenhouses. The horticulture professor’s work is specific to Alaska and helps the resort select and grow to the greatest possible extent. She advised Karl’s staff when they put up a high tunnel and when that was successful, it was deemed feasible to construct a greenhouse.

“It’s even more extreme out here than in town,” Karlsson said. “This is one of the few greenhouses that goes throughout the winter. That’s a challenge, even with the geothermal heat. There are still a lot of unknowns.”

“We are blessed with the work of Dr. Karlsson,” Karl said. “She is always willing to share her knowledge. She tells me what I need to do and I react instantly. Dr. Karlsson and Chena Hot Springs put in the extra effort to make this work.”

Natural geothermal energy is one of the keys to success. “I’m taking a hug from the earth and am putting it back,” Karl said. Geothermal water passes through a heat exchanger, causing the secondary fluid to flash to vapor which drives a turbine. Because of the closed loop system, nothing is emitted into the atmosphere.

Since the Karl family purchased the resort over a decade ago, they have expanded the food and flower production every year. This summer Chena Hot Springs will be graced with 30,000 flowers. “We do it because it makes this place smell good,” Karl said. “And the bees love them. It’s one of God’s great gifts I get to share.”

Karl hasn’t stopped with plants; he has reindeer, goats, pigs and chickens, and intends to add yak and buffalo. “My goal is to not buy one thing, to make our own beer and cheese. I want to grow enough food and have enough resources to feed ourselves and learn for future generations,” Karl said.

Chena Hot Springs Resort Greenhouse Manager Eric Cook, assisted by Barret Goodall, takes care of the daily operations. He came north from Wyoming because he wanted to learn hydroponic growing methods. The greatest challenge he faces is training new staffers. “People don’t know intuitively how to water and care for plants,” Cook said.

What he loves is the opportunity to try a lot of different things. “I am learning how to run phosphorus tests, how much fertilizer to use, how to solve problems and grow crops from seeds,” Cook said. He especially likes planning the flower displays for the property. “I love experimenting with different plants and making beautiful baskets,” he said.

He likes the challenge of figuring out how to control pests in a safe way that is good for the health of the community. “I enjoy figuring out the best way to grow crops,” he said.

Cook gets a kick out of tourists who are excited about plants growing in the winter. “A lot of people comment on how good the lettuce is,” he said. “And lots of people want to buy our flower baskets.”

Being successful at his job takes the right knowledge, being detail oriented and staying consistent. “It takes a lot of persistence,” he said.

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at ntarnai@alaska.edu