Jimmie and Laura Hendricks went from guiding tourists to planting seeds, from rafting whitewater to watering plants, from mountain climbing to food production. And, happily ensconced at their farm, Denali Organic Growers, they couldn’t be more content with the transition.
“We call ourselves professional gardeners,” Jimmie said. The couple has three acres in cultivation at their off-the-grid farm, Mile 276 Parks Highway. They supply area restaurants and 22 community supported agriculture members with seasonal produce.
Jimmie grew up in Atlanta and Laura in Columbus, Ohio. He earned a horticulture degree from the University of Georgia and she a business degree at Ohio University. Their education makes the perfect match for running a farm, Jimmie said. “We make a good team,” he said. “She keeps all our ducks in a row. I’m the garden master and she’s the business master.”
The pair met while working at a wilderness school in Utah. He came to Alaska in 1987 and she in 1996. They formed Alaskan Wilderness Experience, offering rafting, backpacking, mountaineering, photography, rock climbing, ice climbing and survival skills. Even though they both grew up in suburbia they wanted to experience the wilds of Alaska. “I wanted to be a wilderness fanatic mountain man,” Jimmie said. “When I was in college I saw the system of food production and it alarmed me.”
Years ago they sat down and planned their future. “Growing slow food and becoming a part of a community were what we wanted,” Jimmie said. “It’s come full circle. It’s neat to be part of the agricultural movement in Alaska. It’s unfolded in a good way for us.” They started the farm in 2000 with baby steps.
A big portion of their business is supplying 229 Restaurant in Cantwell with fresh goods. “229 is a cutting edge, slow food restaurant,” Jimmie said. “They were the fulcrum that tipped us from a hobby farm to local growers.”
The farm supplies 229 consistently throughout the season with salad greens and other produce as available, which is then adapted to the menu. The restaurant freezes vegetables to use in soups and casseroles in the winter.
It’s quality that makes this relationship possible. The Hendricks live by the motto “24 hours out of the ground and less than 50 miles away.”
Everything is planted, picked and washed by hand. “It’s done with love,” Jimmie said. “There are no stems broken and no leaves bruised. We do it the rustic, old-fashioned way.”
Other restaurants in the Denali National Park area have bought or still buy from the farm, including Black Diamond, Panorama Pizza, The Perch, Bub’s Suds, Salmon Bake, 49th State Brewery, Prospector Pizza. Even remote places like Camp Denali and the North Face Lodge make it a point to buy from them.
While the farm is not certified organic, the Hendricks follow organic principles. They make their own compost and add micronutrients from Kodiak compost to their soil. Jimmie’s horticulture degree prepared him for the botany and agronomy aspects of farming. “I had to re-educate myself in organic principles. I had to reinvent the wheel.” The couple spent a summer working for Arctic Organics in Palmer, where they learned by osmosis.
Farming in Alaska has its challenges, such as the extreme weather and forest fires. “It’s challenging to stagger a steady flow of harvest for the restaurants,” Jimmie said. “It’s a juggling act.”
Their secrets to success are to be frugal and keep up good public relations by visiting with community members. “We love our community and interacting with people,” Jimmie said. “It’s a win-win.” They welcome field trips from schools, with children helping plant in the spring and harvest in the fall.
One way they have kept up with the labor demands was to join Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Over the years they have hosted over 50 volunteers, usually four at a time in the internship program. “They get in an education in living off the grid and understanding plants and soils,” Jimmie said.
The Hendricks hope the farm will someday become a learning center. “I hope someone eager and young and strong will come along to take over,” Jimmie said.
In the off-season, the Hendricks spend time at their homestead in the Alaska Range and sailing in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas in their 32-foot wooden sailboat, “Northern Lights.”
The Hendricks are committed to doing their part for the local foods movement. “We’re out on a limb as a culture,” Jimmie said. “It’s not good for Earth or people, eating mass produced food.
“And the taste of local food is unmatched. We enjoy it for our own selfish consumption.”
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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.