A pizza shop owner just got a $25,000 grant to jump-start a new, slightly different business. Dixie Booker will start an aeroponic greenhouse to provide local, year-round produce to the community of Wrangell.
Booker received the grant from Path to Prosperity, which is part of Sealaska Corp.’s regional development efforts. For the past four years, the program has awarded grants to Southeast business startups based on their proposed economic, social and environmental benefits.
“Our local produce, and it’s not any of the stores’ fault, it’s what they’re shipped. But we get subpar produce most of the time or produce that doesn’t last very long,” Booker says. “And you can only in good conscience feed your organic produce to your chickens so many times without getting frustrated.”
She’s been experimenting with aeroponic farming. It’s a process that suspends plants’ roots in air, rather than soil, for high density growing.
“I like using dirt and getting my hands dirty, but I knew I had to do something different around here to grow year-round,” she says.
While gardening is popular in Southeast, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“Sometimes we get a really hard rain, and if you don’t get out there and cover it fast enough it turns into mush,” Booker says.
She got an aeroponic tower to test out. It can hold a couple dozen plants and has a timed watering and aerating system. She’s grown strawberries, pumpkins and tomatoes.
“The season was really cruddy, it got fairly cold quickly. So, I pulled the tomatoes off and even though they weren’t ripe, they were absolutely delicious,” Booker says.
Based on those results, she decided this was the right technology to pursue for her startup, Mighty Bear Roots.
Booker will start growing lettuce and herbs on her insulated porch this summer. Once that gets going she plans to buy a dozen aeroponic towers. Eventually she hopes to build a 2,000-square-foot greenhouse with more than 100 towers.
But the grant is not meant for buying the towers or building the greenhouse. Instead, it funds training and business development opportunities. Booker plans to go to a large-scale greenhouse in Arizona, similar to the one she hopes to build.
“I haven’t really stepped into that situation where I can look around and say ‘Oh yeah, I never thought about this. How do you manage X, Y, Z?’,” Booker says.
The grant will also pay for packaging and logo designs.
“I’m sure there’s going to be stumbling blocks,” Booker says. “But I really feel like being able to utilize this money for training purposes will give us such a better leg up in the process and hopefully minimize our stumbling blocks.”
And Booker says she’ll incorporate that new fresh produce with her tried-and-true pizza shop, Not So Famous Pizza. She’ll add salads and fresh herbs to the menu.
The other Path to Prosperity winner this year is Hoonah-based Game Creek Family Orchards, which supplies fresh apples and apple trees to Southeast. Last year’s winners were Klawock-based Skya’ana Coffee and Juneau-based Wild Alaska Kelp Company.