In December, Herb Bartel of Hillsboro, a State Director for the Kansas Farmers Union, shared memories of his work on the North Slope of Alaska and life in an Eskimo village 35 years ago, at the organization’s annual convention in Topeka. Now, he can see how those experiences shaped and influenced his life to become a self-sufficient farmer in Marion County, producing his own electricity and improving soil and pasture quality.
“Up there, I was immersed in a culture that depended completely on whaling for survival,” he said. “What we are doing here, with our use of oil and gas, is completely wrecking them. It is close to climate injustice.”
As a planning director for the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act, Bartel worked in seven villages to establish capital improvements such as airstrips, power sources, schools, and safe water supplies.
“I was very impressed with the communal way of life there,” he said. “Food and services didn’t belong to any one group or person. It was for everyone, to be shared equally. We just don’t live like that here.”
Bartel was also impressed with the Eskimos’ way of life, and how it revolved around the whaling trade.
“My wife, Pat, and I lived in Barrow, Alaska, from 1975 to 1981,” he said. “People there had regular 9 to 5 jobs, just like they do here, but if a captain of a village was successful on a whaling expedition, that took priority over everything else.”
Barrow, located on the northern-most point of Alaska, is completely dark during the winter months. The sun returns in ever-increasing, 20-minute segments by mid-April.
“All life there is linked to the ice cycle,” he said. “When the lead (ice broken by warmer currents) opens up, it is time to go whaling.”
He explained there are two types of ice off the coast of the Northern Slope. The first, called young ice, refers to ice on coastal waters that freezes each winter and then thaws in late spring. The second, polar ice, caps the North Pole and is always there, except for that which is breaking off in ever-larger chunks due to climate changes in the region.
When a whaling expedition is successful during the lead, the entire village gathers to celebrate.
“There are several feasts,” Bartel said. “The first is right out on the ice where they kill the whale.”
He said boiled whale meat tastes like shrimp, but the outer skin is loaded with minerals and oils necessary to maintain life in those harsh circumstances.
“They make use of everything,” he said. “The captain makes sure everyone in the village gets to partake of the bounty.”
While there are no whales to kill and share in Kansas, Bartel said living a subsistence lifestyle is not hard and could go a long ways toward improving life on a global scale. Electricity is just one example he gave of how a different way of thinking is needed to make sure this resource is available for all users.
“We need to use our resources more carefully,” he said. “What we do here, with our pressure on oil and gas reserves, greatly affects life in other places, like up north.”
In early fall of 2010, Bartel installed several solar electrical panels that allow him to produce all of his own electricity.
“I pay the bare minimum and have been putting extra watts back into the system since I started this,” he said.
His system is capable of producing 2,200 watts, far in excess of what he needs. He also uses wind chargers to provide power, utilizes wood heat, and practices conservation management on his 340-acre farm north of Hillsboro.
“My goal is to convert cropland to native prairie,” he said. “Grass fed beef is where it’s at. Last year we fed out and marketed 50 head of cattle. It was a much more efficient use of our resources to feed them out on grass, plus the market price was higher for them when we sold.”
In addition to being efficient with natural resources, Bartel promotes developing regional food systems and diversifying Kansas farm food production. He has served on boards of the Kansas Rural Center and Kansas Organic Producers.
“When I lived in Alaska, I was most impressed with the Eskimos’ ability to adapt to whatever conditions affected them,” he said. “We need to think like that more here. We need to be adaptable in order to better utilize our resources here.”