Polar Permaculture: Seeking sustainability in the world’s northernmost community

Polar Permaculture looks to restructure, establish core management team

Benjamin Vidmar was first interested in permaculture nearly two decades ago, and for the last three years the former overnight baker and chef from Cleveland has looked to bring farming to Longyearbyen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago in Norway.

Vilmar researched methods for growing food in unforgiving climates and established operations for growing in a geodesic dome, along with offering classes and tours as part of Polar Permaculture’s operations in the isolated town.

In an interview with States of Life, Vidmar said Polar Permaculture will focus on scaling up production, while looking to create a circular economy in Longyearbyen.

The Arctic is special because not many people can get there,” Vidmar said. “It is very expensive and also challenging to visit these areas unless you grew up there. I started farming because of the lack of fresh food here.”

Vidmar said challenges in sustaining operations in the Arctic had been made apparent since 2015. Even with the long periods of sunlight, crops are grown aided by 18 hours of LED light.

“We need to find more natural approaches in our quest to have fresh food,” Vidmar said.

Average summer temperatures range between 3 to 7 degrees Celsius (37 to 45 F) with winter highs between -11 to -13 C (12 to 9 F). Longyearbyen gets 127 days of midnight sun, complete polar night for 121 days and civil polar night from November to January, but the sun isn’t visible in town until March 8, according to Sun Curves.

The area is one of the most quickly warming globally, having warmed over 3 degrees C (6.1 F) in winter and 1 degree C (1.8 F) in summer between 1981 and 2010, according to Temperature and Precipitation Development at Svalbard published in Advance in Meteorology.

The area was established in 1906 along with coal mining operations that continue today. In August 1943 the town was destroyed as part of World War Two.

The area has seen an increase in tourism and research, bringing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the University Center in Svalbard. The seed vault is a secure seed bank on the Norwegian island Spitsbergen to preserve a wide variety of seeds in an attempt to protect against global seed loss and crop insecurity in the event of a global food crisis.

Of the last three years, Vidmar said, “This has been one of the most challenging things I have ever done with my life.”

Vilmar hopes to produce 20 percent of all food to be provided locally in five years. Currently food is imported and there are no other Arctic settlements attempting to farm.

Vidmar could get a biodigester to create heat and fertilizer from food waste and quail droppings from the flock of over 100 birds.

“I want to reduce this and work to compost organic waste instead of dumping it into the sea,” Vidmar said.

Polar Permaculture produces farm fresh greens, sprouts and quail eggs. Basil, lettuce, sprouts and other greens are sold at local grocery stores and served daily at restaurants in Svalbard.

“The most interesting part in my opinion is connecting with people all around the world,” Vidmar said. “I have learned that structure and network are the most important things to making something like this work. I had to keep learning and working to get better everyday.”

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