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Gays return to Alaska to continue garden project

October 10, 2011

FROM THE GARDEN ... Penny Gay holds a bag of produce that was given to a resident of Arctic Village from one of the gardens she and her husband Bill Gay helped to build. (Photo provided)

    Husband and wife team Bill and Penny Gay of Monroe returned to Arctic Village, Alaska, again this summer to help residents there build gardens.
    Arctic Village is home to the Gwich'in, an Indian nation which "lives off the land."
    Because Alaska is notorious for permafrost, they build elevated gardens in troughs to give the plants every opportunity to grow despite frozen ground temperatures.
    The garden project was started five years ago by Bill Gay and Arctic Village resident Charlie Swaney to help village residents integrate more variety into their diets which consist mainly of meat.
    "They were so receptive this year," said Bill of the residents. "People were making gardens on their own." He added, "It's incredible how much more they want to depend on their home gardens and how much their youth are encouraging it."
    Bill said the garden project is now village-wide, with 20 individual gardens growing in a village of approximately 150 residents.
    Despite the coldest and rainiest summer Arctic Village has seen since 1939, Bill said, "The gardens are beautiful this year. It was very challenging, but it was the best year we've had as far as quantity and quality of produce."
    The work the Gays have done with the gardens in Arctic Village has been receiving a lot of attention.
    Bill said they were told by Dean of Agriculture at University of Alaska Fairbanks, Carol Lewis, that they are "the two faces of a new era of agriculture in northern Alaska."
    Additionally, a two-man crew from New York City's LaGuardia Community College, headed up by the school's Director of Photography Scott Sternbach, took footage of the Gays for an upcoming film. Sternbach and his student assistant were in Arctic Village on a research grant to film a documentary and to take portraits of the Gwich'in for historical purposes.
    The Gays were also invited to, and plan to attend, a "Portrait of the Gwich'in" exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. The exhibit will be presented at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC as well.
    The Gays had the opportunity while in Arctic Village to discuss their gardening project with an author who was doing research on the Gwich'in for a book.
    "It's incredible how many people are interested in this," said Bill.
    However, what Bill and Penny say makes them feel the best is seeing the difference the gardens are making in the lives of the people who live in Arctic Village.
    They shared a story of Abraham, a single father of two young daughters, who "cradled his food [from the garden] like it was his third child." Bill said, "He was surprised he would get a yield that soon." Penny added, "He was just so proud."
    "It's humbling to know that two people can make such a difference," said Bill.
    The Gays said they will not be returning to Arctic Village next summer in order to allow the residents to do some gardening on their own. Instead, Bill and Penny plan to visit Circle, Alaska, to implement a similar gardening project. They are planning to return to Arctic Village in 2013.

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