Ionia grows grain, builds gentle life

Food for the soul

Posted: Sunday, September 16, 2001

The barley in the field stood ready to harvest, all green and golden. In the last halcyon days of summer, its seed heads shone blond in the sun.

Last Sunday, about two dozen people off all ages descended on the field to harvest it.

A grain harvest in Alaska is rarer than a sunny day in September. But this grain harvest would have been unusual anywhere.

The field was an experimental plot nurtured by farmers who are part of an experiment themselves: the community of Ionia in Cohoe.

"We are a consumer-run, mental health community. We have been here for 14 years," said Barry Creighton, one of Ionia's founders.

About 50 people live in Ionia, most of whom are children. In the summer, relatives and people interested in the project swell the ranks.

Creighton hopes that someday Ionia will grow into a village in its own right.

Food for thought

At Ionia, food is never taken for granted.

Residents are strict vegetarians. They shun all animal products and processed foods, living instead on whole grains, home-grown vegetables, seeds, beans, seaweed, fruits, nuts and berries. For protein, they rely heavily on soy products, and every child learns to make homemade tofu at their parents' sides the way other children learn to make cookies.

"We eat about 600 pounds of grain per month. We order it from stateside," Creighton said.

His family and three other families have been with the community since the beginning. Their experiences before moving to Cohoe included mental illness and the prejudices surrounding it. They found solace in camaraderie with like-minded families and in cleansing their bodies through natural foods.

Creighton criticized contemporary psychiatry's emphasis on drug therapy. Doping people up on Lithium and putting them in front of a television for hours a day is a poor excuse for a cure, he said.

"Mental health consumers need to come together."

During a sojourn with a Mennonite family in Pennsylvania, the Creightons became interested in self-sufficiency, simplifying life and turning away from materialism as paths toward sanity in a crazy world.


Claire Johnson, 9, and Aaron Eller, 9, watch the harvest from Ionia's John Deere tractor.


The families came to Alaska as a last resort, he said. They moved to Anchorage but were unsure what to do. They found a sympathetic ear in Dr. Aron Wolf, a psychiatrist who helped them pursue their vision of a community to nurture and heal people struggling with the stresses of contemporary society.

Wolf still visits the group once a month for consultations and advice.

Wolf helped them find land at Cohoe, where the tolerance of the wider community and the privacy of remoteness protected them from the stigma of mental illness.

"We needed a place that was going to be benign to us," Creighton said.

He and others at Ionia are delighted with Cohoe and the way things are working out for them. He cited the support of area businesses and individuals, who have been generous with expertise and materials.

The community's founders incorporated a nonprofit, Foundations Inc., to own the property communally. Keeping a low profile, they began rebuilding their lives the way they wanted.

Later, they needed to reincorporate to qualify as a nonprofit on both the state and federal level. They chose the new name Ionia.

The choice was based on the late Carl Sagan's description, in his popular television series "Cosmos," of the ancient Greek region of Ionia. On the coast of what is now Turkey, Ionia's trade routes and dispersed settlements led to a cosmopolitan, creative and independent culture that planted the seeds of Greek philosophy and Western science. The Cohoe group identified with the notion of independent thinkers forging new ways of looking at the world.

Creighton described a three-part strategy they have used.

The first is lots of meetings.

Residents gather every day, often for several hours, to talk over everything, large and small, that is going on. Decisions are made by consensus. Nobody is elected to anything. Problems are talked out.

The second is the food.

The community has a large garden, surrounded by a stockade to deter moose. It includes four 50-foot greenhouses and more than 2,000 square feet of raised beds. The gardens produce an abundance of vegetables, ranging from traditional crops such as lettuce to exotica such as burdock roots.

Once a year families travel to Seldovia on a minus tide and collect seaweed. Creighton showed off a bag of dried alaria kelp collected on the beach there.

"We got our equivalent of a free moose," he said.


Ionia residents join in the barley harvest.


The third is activities.

The residents pursue a back-to-basics lifestyle that emphasizes physical tasks with clear results. Originally city folk, they learned rural skills.

If someone needs a home, they build a house. If someone is hungry, they grow and prepare food. Children work alongside adults in tasks such as peeling logs and tending vegetables.

For fun, they play instruments and dance traditional folk dances.

The Ionians pick and chose what they want from old and modern ways. For example, they shun television but watch videos and cruise the Internet.

"Here, nobody is treated differently," Creighton said.

Ionians are not interested in franchising their approach, but they believe they have found something special. After years of travels, they have found a permanent home. After years of keeping to themselves, they are feeling confident enough to open their doors to visitors from around the world, Creighton said.

"It is what's working for us. That's all we care about," he said.

Going with the grain

The grain growing project fits in perfectly with Ionia's mission, Creighton said.

"That is why agricultural therapy is where we are headed. It's very simple. As far as I know, we could be the only organic grain producers in Alaska for human consumption."

Grain is a way for the community to grow more of its own food, a wholesome activity for residents of all ages and a chance to tackle a challenge that may have statewide implications: Can Alaska grow more of its own food?

The agricultural project grew out of a change that came to Ionia in the late 1990s.

Land adjacent to their settlement belonged to an elderly homesteader who spent most of his time out of state and worried about the eventual fate of his land. He watched the newcomers skeptically for several years and decided he liked what they were doing. He began selling land to Ionia for far below market rates.

Now the corporation owns about 70 acres.


Barbara Hawley uses scissors to snip barley heads from the stalks.


"This land was almost half gift," Creighton said.

The Ionians embarked on a mission to coax crops out of the boreal land, a challenge due to the harsh climate and poor, acidic soil.

In 1999, Ionia Inc. won a series of grants to explore grain stocks to see which would grow best in the area. Money came from the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation, the Alaska Conservation Foundation, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and the Firecatcher Foundation. The funding paid for clearing about four acres of land for the experimental plots.

"We ask for so little. The grant world seems to like that," Creigh-ton said.

Clearing land for cultivation turned into an interesting experiment in its own right.

Initially, Ionia's residents hired a bulldozer to clear forest and muskeg, piling brush up in berms around the field. Now they realize that process removes what little topsoil is available, reducing nutrients in the already infertile soil.

They then bought a tractor and an attachment to uproot trees individually. They laboriously shake all the soil from the spruce roots before burning the stumps and slash.

However, they found another option that works even better. On the Internet they found a machine from Finland called a Meri Crusher, a heavy-duty rototiller device designed to convert hummocky muskeg into tillable fields. With grants from the Rasmuson Foundation, the ASTF and the mental health trust, in 1999 they became the first Alaskans to own one. The machine weighs more than a ton and is capable of devouring roots and branches up to four inches in diameter.

"It is quite a machine. We highly recommend it for the Alaska terrain," Creighton said.

Last year, they planted 40 plots with varieties of seven grains: rice, wheat, barley, oats, rye, millet and buckwheat.

"This barley outdid everything," he said.

The seed they chose to focus on is called Sheba barley.

Creighton described it as an ancient stock native to the Himalayas, where the harsh mountain climate resembles Alaska's. The heirloom seed is expensive and available only in small amounts.

The Ionians turned to old-style seeds that produce lower yields but are more robust than modern, high-maintenance hybrids.

"We wanted to start with a strong seed," he said.


Ionia residents collect barley heads in a tub as the harvest proceeds.


This year, they planted the barley seed they harvested last year in two plots, side by side. One was part of the original clearing enriched with organic fertilizer and lime. The other was native ground tilled with the Meri Crusher and treated only with lime.

They expected the fertilized ground to produce superior crops. It did not.

The fertilized plot produced uneven growth, with patches nearly bare. The newly tilled section fairly exploded with a dense, lush stand of waist-high grain.

"This is a very successful crop. We are very happy with it," Creighton said.

"That is more proof to us to use the muskeg and all the richness in it."

The only conventional farm implement Ionia has acquired so far is a seeder. In about two hours it planted this year's rye stand, about three or four acres next to the barley test plot. Residents plan to plow the rye under to enrich the soil.

Until the grain growing expands, they are using a unique, labor-intensive approach to harvesting: scissors.

Lines of people moved through the patch, about 20-by-30-feet square, snipping or breaking off heads and collecting them in plastic totes and bags. When the younger farmers tired of the task, they explored the aerodynamics of the grain heads as missiles.

The crop will be spread in the lofts of log homes to finish drying.

The last step in finishing the seed grain is the threshing, separating the seed grain itself from the chaff. The best way they have found to handle threshing is to put the heads in stout bags and let the children jump up and down on them on the trampoline.

Planning for the future

This year's barley will seed four acres next year. The Ionians plan to clear more land and plant about 20 acres of barley in 2003. Then they can begin eating it and, they hope, even market it to outlets such as area supermarkets during good years, Creighton said.

The barley is not the only project keeping hands busy at Ionia these days. The group is building a "long house" to serve as a community center. The foundation and basement of the T-shaped building are in; the rest will probably be built in the spring. The funding is from community facility grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and the Rasmuson Foundation -- and elbow grease.

The Ionians already are looking forward to their next big project, a barn in which to store farm equipment and process grain from the anticipated expansion of the barley program. They already have preliminary architectural drawings.

Farming, like Ionia itself, is a gradual process. Those involved are taking the long-range view, planning now for the harvests of future generations.

"We plan to grow oats and wheat (as well), but our soil definitely needs to be richer," Creighton said. "You have to put back what you take out. ...

"We are going to stay with this as long as it takes, regardless of how many times we fail."

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