Photo of Polar Permaculture’s greenhouse in Nybyen courtesy of Polar Permaculture
Polar Permaculture – which started in 2013 with one man’s dream of a greenhouse producing local food in Longyearbyen, and blossomed into a full-blown produce and tourism company – announced Friday it is filing for bankruptcy due the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of available assistance for companies owned by foreigners.
The pandemic, which had harsher economic impacts on Longyearbyen than any other municipality in Norway due to extra-strict virus restrictions, was the dominant reason for the bankruptcy, said Benjamin Vidmar, the company’s founder and co-owner, in an online interview. But because the co-owners were foreign citizens it also meant the company was ineligible for nearly all government aid provided to local companies affected by the pandemic.
“Before that when we were all busy, we didn’t realize how difficult our situation there was without rights,” he said.
The issue of foreigner rights has become a foremost topic during the past couple of years, with other major incidents surfacing including a proposal to deny non-Norwegian citizens the right to participate in local elections. Dozens of foreign employees – mostly tourism and service industry workers – have departed Longyearbyen since the pandemic due to mass layoffs.
But the bankruptcy of Polar Permaculture, which became globally famous due to constant high-profile media coverage, may be the most prominent victim of the foreigner rights issue to date.
“I am frustrated because I feel that Svalbard should have handled us differently as long-time foreigners there,” Vidmar said. “We gave years of our lives there and at the end of the day we are not different than someone who just came up yesterday.”
The bankruptcy announcement immediately generated responses expressing sympathy and loss.
“The tourism community in Svalbard is losing an important and unique niche business – not least in a sustainability perspective – and we thus are also losing some of the breadth that makes our destination extra interesting to visit,” Visit Svalbard Director Ronny Brunvoll stated in an online comment. “I hope it will be possible to build on what you have started when everyday life and normalcy eventually return to tourism.”
Polar Permaculture also provided local herbs and produce to Svalbardbutikken, as well as several local restaurants and tour operators.
“This is a true loss for our community,” stated James Adlington, a UK native now living in Longyearbyen. “Not least from a tourism-economic standpoint, but the spirit of building something green, environmentally friendly and sustainable in a land where not even trees will grow. It was inspiring for all of us.”
The building of Longyearbyen’s first outdoor greenhouse (but not the world’s northernmost, since the Russian settlement of Pyramiden established one many decades ago during the mining heydays there) began in 2013. Vidmar, a U.S. citizen working as a chef since moving to Longyearbyen in 2008, secured a 150,000-kroner grant from the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund and began selling a sometimes-skeptical audience on the project.
“I’ve worked in all of the hotels and restaurants, I’ve seen how we handle the waste, and I’ve always thought we could do a better job,” Vidmar said during a 2015 community question-and-answer presentation. “So I’ve been experimenting to see what kind of things can be worked out. I never thought it would turn into something like this.”
One thing that sprouted immediately was curiosity since, in addition to novelty of the concept, it involved certain eccentricities including the importing of 13,000 worms to generate compost from their excrement (Vidmar would early on distribute chocolate chip cookies made with some of those worms as part of his promotional efforts). Among those taking interest were the producer of a BBC reality TV series, which in the fall of 2015 began filming his efforts during the next eight-months for a show still being broadcast in various countries since its debut in the fall of 2016.
Hundreds (likely thousands) of other media entities whose focuses ranged from environmental sustainability (and climate change) to tourism to the sheer novelty of the project have consistently covered Polar Permaculture since the greenhouse became a prominent landmark in 2016. The dome-shaped greenhouse became one of the town’s most photographed structures, especially when lit up in purple during the dark season.
Much of the initial and subsequent work was done by volunteers, in addition to the handful of employees Vidmar hired over the years.
“It was never about me,” Vidmar said. “I was just the one crazy enough to do it. It was always for Svalbard.”
“We had so many amazing helpers over the years. I couldn’t have done it without all of them.”
But in addition to the flowery media attention, and blooming business as local food and tour companies embraced Polar Permaculture’s offerings, there were multiple tragic setbacks.
A fire in March of 2016 in a storage room adjacent to Polar Permaculture’s temporary indoor greenhouse at Stormessa covered all of the plants and equipment with toxic soot, forcing Vidmar and others to discard all of the greenery and start the growing process over.
“The smoke was a very toxic smoke,” Vidmar said, adding his plants and equipment is covered with a fine layer of soot from the burnt material. “It burns your tongue. I know I can’t sell plants that are covered with this type of smoke.”
The setback added a dramatic note to his reality TV exposure as questions were raised about whether Polar Permaculture could financially survive the setback. But months later, after lesser hardships including difficulties assembling the Arctic-worthy greenhouse kit arriving in several crates from Alaska, the greenhouse was completed (with the reality TV crew making a special trip back well after scheduled filming was completed to capture the final building efforts).
Another major and arguable more heart-wrenching setback occurred in April of 2018 when the Norwegian Food Safety Authority ruled quails Vidmar had started raising so he could sell their eggs violated a ban on importing livestock in Svalbard (he imported the eggs and hatched them in an incubator) because they were a potential disease risk.
“I’m still in shock,” Vidmar said a few days after killing the estimated 80 quails by cutting off their heads, which he called the most humane method possible.
The other parts of the Polar Permaculture project continued to thrive and Vidmar expanded the tourism portion, which quickly became the dominant source of income, by partnering with Arctic Tapas in 2016 and serving food with locally grown ingredients during tours aboard that company’s tour bus. But that also suffered a major setback when his efforts to buy the company got entangled in a legal dispute and he was ordered earlier this month to pay a 650,000-kroner judgement to the company’s owners.
The COVID-19 pandemic proved a crippling blow for many Longyearbyen residents involved in tourism, with up to 90 percent of the industry’s employees at least temporarily laid off during the peak of a months-long shutdown of Svalbard to all non-residents. But foreign residents were especially hard hit since they are not eligible for the unemployment and insurance benefits of Norwegians since Svalbard is exempt from much of the taxes that fund the country’s social welfare programs.
Vidmar and co-owner Elena Shcherbina, a Russian citizen, moved to the mainland earlier this year, hoping three years of residency there would allow them to become Norwegian citizens. But the hope was short-lived as a summons sent a summons sent June 28 of this year to Nord Troms and Senja District Court. resulted in the bankruptcy filing.
Vidmar said he doesn’t know what will happen to the existing greens and Polar Permaculture’s other assets including the greenhouse, but those seizing the assets “will try to sell them to the highest bidder I would assume.”
He said the business was thriving before the pandemic despite all of the setbacks and still believes it’s possible and desirable for the world’s northernmost community to produce the kind of produce – and other sustainable essentials such as livestock and energy – he constantly attempted to expand beyond his greenhouse project.
“I hope it’s not lost and that local food will flourish on the island,” he said.