UAF alumna finds balance between farming and art

Iris Sutton sells her veggies at the downtown farmers market. (Photo courtesy Ice Wedge Farm)

Iris Sutton sells her veggies at the downtown farmers market.
Nancy Tarnai

Finding balance in life is always challenging, but Iris Sutton of Ice Wedge Farm is taking a nice stab at it. The artist in her enjoys painting when it’s cold, but she lets her inner farmer emerge at this time of year.

“It would be a dream come true to paint all winter and grow vegetables all summer,” she said.

Her number one job is being a mother. And it’s due to that fact that she and her husband A.J. decided to start a farm. “The children can be part of the farm,” Sutton said. “We’ll have them involved.” Her 4-year-old daughter is already crazy about planting seeds.

She also established the farm because people kept asking her to start a CSA (community-supported agriculture) business, where members pay a fee and receive shares of produce throughout the growing season.

Sutton, who spent the first four years of her life on the Tozitna River, then Manley Hot Springs and Nome before settling in Fairbanks, grew up helping her mother in the garden. She liked it so much that she went to work for John and Jo Papp of Papps Produce for a summer while still in high school. “That was the first commercial farm I worked at,” Sutton said. “I loved it and they taught me a lot.”

She began working for Gretchen Kerndt at Basically Basil in 2008 and continues to work there part time. She praised Kerndt with teaching her about growing crops in Interior Alaska.

“She taught me about how to start plants and what does well here,” Sutton said. “There are so many details it’s mind boggling. Plus she’s the one who taught me about the CSA model.”

When members arrive to pick up their vegetables at Basically Basil, Sutton loves seeing their excitement. “That’s why I wanted to do a CSA,” she said.

The Suttons bought 10 acres in the Goldstream Valley, cleared and fenced one acre, leaving the rest in beautiful birches. While clearing the land they found several ice wedges, cracks in the ground caused by permafrost. “I wanted a name that nobody else had used,” Sutton said, so she dubbed the place Ice Wedge.

She produces a variety of vegetables but, since her greenhouse is so small, the cucumbers and tomatoes are set aside for her family. “I have a lot to learn,” she said. “Some people are growing things I have only dreamed of so far.”

Besides what she grew last year for her CSA members, Sutton made the trek occasionally to the downtown Monday night farmers market. “It takes the whole day,” she said. “But I learned what I should be growing and what not to grow. Visitors to Fairbanks wanted things that they could easily snack on, like carrots and peas.” Her favorite things to grow are winter squash, carrots and Swiss chard.

The best thing about farming is getting to be outdoors all summer and eating fresh vegetables, Sutton said. “I love watching everything grow. You plant the seed and see it become broccoli.”

The greatest challenges are the weather and figuring out how to market the CSA. “I ask myself if I should be selling at the market. I have to figure out my place in the whole thing.”

“My goal is to make this work,” Sutton said. “It doesn’t have to be financially profitable but it has to be worth it. And it’s a family thing that we can do if it’s financially sustainable.”

Farming takes dedication, a willingness to learn and collaborate with others, she said.

Sutton’s art coincides with farming because her studio is above her root cellar. The cellar makes it possible for her to store root crops all winter. “That storage thing is tough in Fairbanks,” she said.

While earning a degree in elementary education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Sutton took a painting class and discovered a hidden talent. She started with oil paints but during her pregnancy switched to acrylics.

Her paintings explore Alaska’s wildlife and landscapes with vibrant, bold colors and contrast. “I choose an animal’s color to give them personality and emotion or sometimes to show family connections through color connections and others just to see what a specific color would look like,” Sutton states on her website.

Sutton participates in art shows and one piece is on permanent display — a heating pipe at Second  Avenue and Lacey Street in downtown Fairbanks, where she painted a muskox. When not painting or planting, Sutton enjoys time with her family and dog mushing.

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