Intentional community eats with purpose

[by Amy Newman]

LIVING OFF THE LAND IS THE ALASKAN WAY: Alaska’s Native people have led a subsistence lifestyle for generations; sportsmen stock their freezers with salmon and halibut in the summer and moose and caribou in the winter; weekend foragers spend the late summer months filling buckets to overflowing with berries for jellies and jam. Yet even in a state where subsistence living doesn’t elicit much awe, Ionia, a 200-acre intentional community located in Kasilof, 160 miles south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula, manages to stand out.

The 45 men, women, and children who live in the semi-isolated community focus on living as naturally and healthfully as possible, said Eliza Eller who, along with her husband, Tom, was one of the community’s founders.

The idea for Ionia was formed more than 30 years ago, in 1970s Boston. Four families, each experiencing mental and behavioral health issues, were searching for a way to cope in an increasingly chaotic world, Eller explained. Their solution was a community centered on meaningful, natural connections with each other, and a return to a natural environment.

“We really just needed to stabilize in a more natural way, a way in which we could find some shelter from the pressures that were in society,” Eller said. “Sometimes, simply rekindling those connections and providing a sense of hope can provide the spark in recovery.”

Alaska seemed the ideal place to fulfill that dream. They spent time in Anchorage before purchasing five acres of land in Kasilof, which gave them the space to build, grow their own food, and retreat from the larger community.

“It was a very slow, organic process,” Eller said of Ionia’s growth. “We found some systems that worked well for us, (and as) people came with their expertise, we’ve learned more.”

Ionia’s ability to provide food for itself is one area that has evolved. Believing that diet plays a crucial role in their mental and physical health, Ionians follow a macrobiotic diet, which is rich in whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fermented foods, and devoid of meat and all processed foods. In the community’s early days, a local farmer helped them clear space for a vegetable garden.

“We were people from the city; we knew nothing,” Eller said, laughing.

As the community grew, so too did their knowledge of farming practices and their production capacity. They grow winter pantry staples like potatoes and squash, and what Eller calls “the fast food of the vegetable world”—radishes, turnips, lettuce, and other produce typically grown in a kitchen garden. They’ve also added produce that’s either too expensive to purchase or not readily available in Alaska, like leeks, daikon, and burdock. PartnerIonia community members Cathy Creighton, Mary Creighton, and Eliza Eller chop cabbage to make fermented sauerkraut. ships with local farmers to purchase traditional crops, like cabbage and carrots, frees up space to grow the low-demand crops that figure heavily into their diet, Eller said.

They’ve become more ambitious with their harvests as well, experimenting with adapting crops not typically grown outdoors in Alaska. While repeated attempts to grow rice in the fields have failed, Eller said, they’ve successfully adapted three types of beans, and have had great luck growing spring oats, barley, winter rye, millet, and grain corn.

Alongside the field, rows of kale, sunflowers, and beans—fava, black soybean, cranberry, Jacob’s cattle, and yellow Indian—grow in high tunnels, which they received as part of a USDA program encouraging micro farms.

Wild foods have become more of a focus in recent years as well. Seaweed harvested from Homer’s Kachemak Bay is hung to dry in the eaves of Ionia’s 12,000-square-foot barn, and they take advantage of the many berries, plants, and herbs that grow in the vicinity, making sure to be mindful of how much they harvest.

Two of Ionia’s founding mothers, Cathy Creighton and Victoria Becherer, help hang the community’s yearly harvest of wakame, a sea vegetable used for making miso soups and other delicious dishes.

“Wild foods are awesome,” said Eller’s son Connor, who grew up in Ionia and lives there with his wife and child. “We bring home cases of wild cucumber, which we ferment. A visitor from Estonia taught us how to forage wild mushrooms. All the work you put in growing vegetables, and there’s just this bounty out there.”

While Ionians keep themselves somewhat segregated from the larger community, their food efforts have expanded from providing for themselves to supporting local growers and espousing the health and environmental benefits of local food production as well, Eller said. They play a large role in the Harvest Moon Local Food Festival, participate in the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Plants as Food and Medicine Symposium, and as much as possible, purchase what they can’t grow from local farmers.

“We don’t ever think we’ll grow all our own food. That isn’t even a goal,” Eller said. “It’s more about eating more local food, whether that involves growing it, farming it with other farmers, wild harvest, or all of the above.”

For more information about Ionia, visit ionia.org.

Amy Newman has written about Alaska’s people and places since first stepping off the ferry 17 years ago. She spent her first seven years as an Alaskan in Juneau, which she still misses 10 years later. She now lives in Anchorage with her husband and two daughters.

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