A woman sticks her head through the door and asks:
"Are you growing hashish?"
But what is sprouting under the psychedelic lights in the basement under the old Stormessa is not drugs but food. Cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs, carrots and lettuce. And around 13,000 earthworms. If everything goes according to plan, everything will be moved out into a "garden" in Nybyen in the spring.
Benjamin Vidmar, the driving force behind the company Polar Permaculture Solutions and an effort to grow local food in Svalbard, has received a 150,000-kroner grant from the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund to build Longyearbyen's only outdoor greenhouse.
Comittment to grassroots
Here he plans to cultivate a number of different vegetables and herbs for his Spitsbergen vision, in which they will be an alternative to the long distances traveled by produce sold and served on the island today.
"We sincerely want to eat food that comes from here, instead of things that are transported over long distances by ship," said Vidmar, who works as a cook at Svalbar. "When it's local, then you know where it comes from and that it does not contain pesticides."
According to an online survey conducted by three students participating in the project, 100 percent of the 54 respondents to date favored local crops over imported. Three-fourths stated they are willing to pay higher prices. Earlier this week, they held an open meeting in the city and presented their plans.
"We are trying to attract the local community and develop this together," Vidmar said. "People have been incredibly interested in the idea and many have been surprised that it is actually possible to grow their own vegetables here."
The greenhouse, which will be located behind the old Stormessa, is designed to be ten-by-ten meters and supported by stilts
Greenhouses are not something new in Svalbard's history. Residents of Barentsburg, Pyramiden and Ny-Ålesund have previously grown food for their own consumption, despite the island's cold and barren environment.
"But it has been so difficult to find good information about how the greenhouses were built
and operated," Vidmar said. "Therefore, we are starting from scratch with everything."
The biggest challenge of organizing the project was – not surprisingly – the bureaucracy.
As with any other construction project in Longyearbyen, a vacant site had to be found and a building application approved. More unusual was the process of getting permission to import two kinds of earthworms to be allow the composting of food waste into nutrient-rich soil.
"It was a long process," said Vidmar, holding up a pair of the fat specimens. "There is no field in the nature here and we had to bring in a professor who could demonstrate that these would not survive outdoors in the cold."
It's not known yet how the locally-sourced herbs and vegetables will be sold.
"We are pushing and looking at different business structures, but haven't landed on anything yet," Vidmar said. "Now in the initial process it is most important to get the greenhouse up. It is not enough to feed the whole city, but it's a start."
Few would use the term "local" about the current product range in Svalbard. The VAT exemption makes it cheaper to import from the outside world which, among other things, results in soft drinks bottled in South Africa and affordable chicken breasts from France.
Rigid rules have made it difficult for local opportunities, such as an on-site brewery. But this summer will likely see the first locally produced beer, five years after Robert Johansen, head of Svalbard Bryggeri, first sought to change a law banning alcohol production in Svalbard. In addition to beer, Johansen also hopes to bottle local water that can replace the ubiquitous Ramlösa from Sweden.
In April, Tone Løvberg told Svalbardposten there should be changes in the law so businesses can use local meat and fish resources. She said she is very happy about the greenhouse initiative.
" t takes so little until we are self contained with some things up here," she said. "Finally something is happening. People are daring to bet."
"In the southern regions it is good to be self-sufficient on the islands. Why should we not also be here? It's a good start with own brewery and greenhouse, but it takes time until we are completely at our objective," said Løvberg, who sent a comprehensive letter to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries, as well as the Ministry of Justice and Public Security's Polar Affairs Division, regarding the use of Svalbard's game and fish.
"I have not received any feedback," she said. "I've heard word of talk at the ministerial level, but not a word to me. They are only pushing the problem onto others."