Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Researchers continue quest for spring wheat variety

Mingchu Zhang looks over wheat varieties in August at the
 Fairbanks Experiment Farm.
The quest for a spring wheat variety that grows well in Alaska has been ongoing for more 200 years.

University of Alaska Fairbanks agronomist Mingchu Zhang is continuing the research with Bob Van Veldhuizen, a research assistant in agronomy and soils. Zhang believes that with Alaska’s warming climate, more opportunities may exist to find or develop a wheat variety that grows well in Alaska.

Russians reportedly tried to grow wheat, with limited success, in coastal Alaska to provide bread flour for the Russian American Co. fur trading posts in the 1790s.

The hunt continued with the development of agricultural experiment stations in Sitka, in 1898, and then in Rampart in 1900 and Palmer in 1915. Researchers developed several spring varieties, most recently Ingal wheat in 1981. Most of the early maturing wheat varieties developed in Alaska have had problems with “shattering,” where the grains fall off the plant before they are harvested.

Bob Van Veldhuizen harvested wheat in late August.
Zhang said that farmers in Alaska, the Yukon and Newfoundland have expressed an interest in an early maturing spring wheat that does not shatter. While hobbyists and Alaska farmers have experimented with growing wheat, no one raises it commercially on a large scale.

“If we can grow wheat in the state, it can help with food security,” Zhang said.

Since Alaska does not have a plant breeder, he and Van Veldhuizen are working with Washington State University wheat breeder Stephen Jones at the Mount Vernon Research Center. In 2010, Jones’ doctoral student, Karen Hills, developed three crosses with the Ingal variety and other varieties grown in Saskatchewan and Alberta. A second graduate student developed four new varieties of hard red spring wheat in 2014.

In summer 2016, Zhang and Van Veldhuizen grew 80 varieties, including the crosses, parent varieties of the crosses and 68 varieties that Jones obtained from northern European countries, including Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland. All varieties were grown in a one-acre plot at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm.

Standing in the wheat field in late summer, one could easily see which varieties grew better. Some of the taller wheat toppled in the rain, and the shorter dwarf varieties appeared to ripen faster and turn golden. The slower-maturing wheat was still green.

Van Veldhuizen harvested the wheat in late August.  While the test weight and yield data are still being analyzed, Zhang said two varieties from Scandinavian countries look promising. They are both “dwarf” varieties, about two feet tall.

The process of selection, however, will take years. They expect to grow all varieties again next year, and then will select for the varieties that mature early, don’t shatter, have high yields and don’t fall down. The varieties will also be tested to determine nutrition, baking quality and shelf life. Selections will continue for three to five years in Fairbanks, followed by test plots in Delta Junction and Palmer.

“It’s a long process,’’ Van Veldhuizen said.

Van Veldhuizen, who has worked with grains research for 36 years, hopes a commercial variety will be found, but, unlike barley, which is resilient in low temperatures, wheat is a much fussier crop, he said. Wheat stops growing when temperatures reach 40 degrees. “Wheat is very, very sensitive to the environment,” he said.

Zhang said WSU is interested in their results because it is also trying to develop early maturing wheat to grow in western Washington, particularly for niche markets. While farmers in Alaska want wheat that will mature in a short growing season, Washington farmers want wheat that matures before the late summer rainy season begins.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

SNRE profile: Jan Rowell studies muskoxen and reindeer

Jan Rowell
When she was 18 or 19, Jan Rowell read an article about a muskox farm in Alaska that caught her interest. She was working as an animal science technician in Nova Scotia.

“It really fascinated me,” she said. “I knew I wanted to work with animals. I wanted to do something cool and I wanted to get out of Nova Scotia.”

She earned a degree in zoology in Victoria, B.C., and then studied the reproductive anatomy of female muskox for her master’s degree at the University of Ottawa. She continued her studies of the reproductive biology of muskoxen as she earned a doctorate at the University of Saskatchewan.

While she was in Saskatchewan, as part of her Ph.D., Rowell organized the capture and transport of 13 muskox calves to the University of Saskatchewan. She wanted a captive herd to facilitate research on the species. Rowell was struck by their docile nature and, as a knitter, the fineness of their wool, qiviut. When they reached 18 months of age, she began studying the endocrine patterns of their estrous cycle and pregnancy for her doctorate.

Rowell had a special opportunity to study muskoxen after finishing her undergraduate program. The National Museum of Natural Sciences in Ottawa hired her to collect information the behavior of muskox in their natural habitat in the high Arctic. She studied muskox, which were then considered a threatened species, for two five-month field seasons and recorded everything she saw. She worked with an international community of scientists at the museum field camp in Polar Bear Pass on Bathurst Island, a pretty rare and unique experience.

“What a fabulous job,” she said.
Freya, who was orphaned in the wild, is shown at the Large Animal
Research Station in 2013.

She and her husband, Dr. John Blake, moved to Alaska in 1988 after he became the University of Alaska Fairbanks veterinarian, and she happily continued her studies of muskoxen and reindeer with the Large Animal Research Station and, in 2009, as a research associate and later a research assistant professor with SNRE. She and SNRE Research Director Milan Shipka share an interest in ruminant reproductive physiology and endocrinology.

Since then, they have collaborated on numerous studies. They have studied many aspects of muskox and reindeer husbandry and reproduction but are currently studying the effectiveness of a synthetic progestin (DepoProvera) used by reindeer farmers Outside to subdue the normally aggressive male reindeer during rut, when the animals become dangerous to handle and can lose a lot weight. Rowell and Shipka are also studying the impact of the medication on fertility and sperm production. They expect to publish a paper soon on these results.

Another interest for Rowell is qiviut production. She and the education and outreach coordinator of the Large Animal Research Station received a USDA Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program grant to enhance communications between fiber producers and users and to develop marketing tools for them to use. A second part of the grant covered qiviut research.

The work is exciting for her, since interest in Alaska fiber production is growing. The only two fiber mills in Alaska are in the Interior, including one that specializes in qiviut. The grant helped promote the Alaska Natural Fiber Business Association and supported fiber festivals in Mat-Su, Kenai and, on Oct. 15, in Fairbanks. As part of her work, Rowell is studying how nutrition affects the quality of qiviut and is developing sorting standards to improve the quality of qiviut yarn.

Rowell worked with the university to develop a YouTube video on qiviut combing, which shows how to harvest qiviut from muskox. Officially, her work on qiviut is through the office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and her animal reproduction studies are through SNRE.

Rowell is glad to be at UAF, which hosts the world’s only muskox research herd. There are 24 animals. While her focus is research, she also teaches. This coming spring, she will teach a class on theriogenology, the study of applied reproductive science, to veterinary students. Her hobbies include spinning and knitting, and she is the secretary of the Alaska Natural Fiber Business Association.

Monday, October 10, 2016

19th annual Forest Fest brings fun and oddities

Birling competitors balance precariously on the log in Ballaine Lake.
See the Forest Fest video developed by Jeff Fay.

The 19th annual Farthest North Forest Sports Fest on Saturday attracted its usual blend of fun and oddities, including a team sporting “Make Forestry Great Again” caps.

Team member Adrian Baer confirmed, “It’s all about making forestry great again.”

Baer, who lives in Palmer, has competed five or six times and talked two friends from Palmer and his brother, Zach, into joining him this year. Adrian Baer graduated from UAF in 2011 with a geography degree and Zach Baer graduated five years earlier with natural resources management and biology degrees.

2016 Bull of the Words Nelson Crone
Forest Fest competitors included students, alumni, staff, soldiers and other community members who all came out on a crisp fall morning (25 degrees) to try their hand at old-time forest skills, such as the bow saw, double bucksaw, pulp toss, axe throw, log rolling, fire starting and birling (walking on logs).

Many were trying the competition for the first time, but others, including retiree Pete Buist, have competed nearly every year. Buist competed on a woodsman’s team from State University of New York.

“I used to do it at college and it’s still fun, especially when I can beat people a third of my age,” he said.

It’s no idle boast. Buist placed third overall among male competitors and his Old Growth Team, which included his son, Jason, placed third overall. The first-place overall team was Adequately Hardwoods.

Nelson Crone, a GIS analyst from Anchorage and a member of Adequately Hardwoods, placed first among males overall, earning him the title of “Bull of the Woods.” Crone graduated from UAF with natural resources management and geology degrees in 2009 and has competed multiple times. The “Belle of the Woods” was Ruby Baxter, another repeat competitor who placed first in axe throw, bow saw, log rolling and birling.

Tanja Schollmeier , who is working a doctorate in marine biology, competed for her second time as a member of the Burly Beavers.

“We just did it for fun,” she said.

Adraian Baer, a member of the Make
 Forestry Great Again team.
Victoria Smith, an academic advisor at UAF, placed second among the women. She grew up in a small logging town in Washington state, but she never competed in forest sports until she lived in Fairbanks.

“I love the camaraderie of it,” she said.

Teammates cheered as their teammates competed.
“Bring it home,” one competitor advised, as his  teammate attempted to heft a four-foot section of log between metal uprights in the “pulp toss.”

Matthew Balazs, who competed with the Burly Beavers, was pleased to win second place in the fire-building competition with team member Marc Oggier. They placed first last year.

“We wanted to prove it wasn’t a fluke,” he said. Balazs, who is completing his doctorate in geology, attributed his success to “strong lungs.”

Competitors start with logs, which they chop down for shavings and kindling. Competitors must blow vigorously on the fire to get the fire going and boil water in a pot.

The Forest Fest is sponsored by the School of Natural Resources and Extension and the student group, Resource Management Society.

The winners are:

Jason Buist, left, and Pete Buist fan the flames.
Top Team: Adequately Hardwoods, with Adam Kuegle, Jon Hutchison, Bob Torgerson, Nelson Crone, Brooks Lawler, Stephen McKee Amanda Myhand and Victoria Smith

Top female overall winners
1. Ruby Baxter
2. Victoria Smith
3. Cynthia Nelson

Top male finisher
1. Nelson Crone
2. Adam Kuegle
3. Pete Buist

Axe throw women: Ruby Baxter
Axe throw men: Matthew Balazs

Double bucksaw women: Trisha Levasseur and Michaela Pye
Double bucksaw men: Jason and Pete Buist
Jack and Jill: Nelson Crone and Victoria Smith

Nelson Crone and Victoria Smith compete on the double bucksaw.
Bow saw women: Ruby Baxter
Bow saw men: Pete Buist

Log rolling women: Ashley Straoch and Ruby Baxter
Log rolling men: Paul Klech and Jason Buist
Log rolling Jack and Jill: Yancey and Yancey (no first names)

Pulp toss: Adam Kuegle, Nelson Crone,  Bob Torgerson and Victoria Smith

Birling women: Ruby Baxter
Birling men: Zachary Baer

Fire building: Adam Kuegle and Nelson Crone

Friday, September 30, 2016

19th annual Farthest North Forest Fest set for Oct. 8

Coleman Smith, left, and Josh McNeal operate the double bucksaw at the
 2015 Forest Fest.

Calling all would-be lumberjacks: The 19th annual Farthest North Forest Sports Festival will take place Oct. 8 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Students and community members 18 and older are invited to try their hand at forest sports at an event that hearkens back to old-time lumberjack competitions. Expertise is not necessary. Events include ax throwing, log rolling, bow saw and crosscut sawing, campfire building and birling (staying upright on a log in the lake). At the end of the day, the "Bull of the Woods" and the "Belle of the Woods" will be announced. 

The Forest Fest begins at 10 a.m. at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm fields, across from the Georgeson Botanical Garden. At 1 p.m., the games move to Ballaine Lake. A warming fire and hot drinks will be available at the lake. Participants are advised to dress warmly. If competing in the birling, a towel and change of clothes would be a good idea.

Faculty members and students developed the competition as a way to commemorate the old-fashioned forest festivals. Professor Dave Valentine is looking for volunteers to help out at the event, which is hosted by School of Natural Resources and Extension and the student Resource Management Society. Anyone who is interested may contact him at or 474-7614.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Association to host Fairbanks Fiber Festival Oct. 15

The Alaska Natural Fiber Business Association will host its first Fairbanks Fiber Festival Oct. 15 at Badger Hall on the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds.

The public is invited to the free event, which will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It will include vendors and demonstrations on knitting, weaving, dyeing, drop spindle and wet felting. Short presentations are also planned on livestock nutrition, and marketing online and through social media.

Association members include fiber producers and fiber artists. According to its website, the association supports Alaska fiber producers and fiber artists by working to strengthen Alaska’s natural fiber industry, economy and marketplace.

SNRE Research Assistant Professor Jan Rowell serves as secretary of the association’s board of directors. Her research interests include studying muskox fiber (qiviut) production and quality. The association was developed in part by a USDA marketing grant and has hosted similar festivals this year in Kenai, Nome and Palmer.

Friday, September 23, 2016

OneTree to host open house and fundraiser Sept. 30

"Dancing into the Dark," by Kesler Woodward

The OneTree Alaska program will host an open house and fundraiser Sept. 30 to support its work in Fairbanks area schools. 

Kes Woodward prepares to hang paintings
in the OneTree lab. Todd Paris photo
The event will run from 5 to 8 p.m. at the OneTree Alaska STEM to STEAM Studio in the Lola Tilly Commons Building. Fairbanks artist Kes Woodward, who is known for his colorful paintings of landscapes — especially birch trees — will sign prints of his limited edition “Dancing into the Dark” painting. In notes about the painting, he said he was inspired by seeing birch leaves in the UAF research plot on North Campus. He said, “It's not only a collection of observations about parts of that tree and its falling leaves, but as so often in my work, a personal rumination on life, growth, beauty, strength, vulnerability and change.”

The limited-edition print will sell for $150. Woodward is the OneTree artist in residence and has work space in the lab. Five of his paintings will also be available for viewing and sale during the open house.  Proceeds from all sales will benefit OneTree. Participants will also be able to see the birch sap processing equipment and a short video with the New York-based fabricator who specializes in equipment for small-scale syrup operations and is working with the OneTree program. Refreshments “from the forest” will be available, including moose chili, raspberry confections and gingerbread made with birch syrup.

OneTree provides outreach to K-12 students and teachers related to boreal forests. The students explore plant anatomy and physiology, the scientific process, and annual events in a birch tree’s life through experiments dealing with budburst, growth rate, and germination. On the art side, artists and K-12 students take the materials from the tree to create leaf rubbings, prints, sculptures, weavings, ledgers, books, containers, musical instruments and more.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Visitors polled in Alaska public lands survey

Survey aides Charly McConaghy and Josh Benson pose in front of Mendenhall
College students and recent graduates are traveling Alaska this summer, surveying visitors about their experiences on public lands.

SNRE Associate Professor Peter Fix, who is coordinating the survey, said that about 3,000 recreation and subsistence users of public lands will be surveyed by Labor Day weekend.

Fix, who teaches outdoor recreation management, has been conducting recreation surveys for state and federal agencies over the past 12 years, but this is the largest survey conducted on-site. The survey is part of a three-year $399,407 cooperative agreement from the Bureau of Land Management.

Fix said survey responses will be analyzed this fall and will help agencies determine how Alaskans and other visitors access public lands and whether that access is adequate or needs to be improved. They will also provide information on visitors’ activities and their experiences.
Survey aide Josh Benson interviews tourists at Mendenhall Glacier.

 “Hopefully, it will lead to better planning for federal lands in the region,” says Fix.

The survey began Memorial Day weekend. Six survey aides based in Fairbanks, Soldotna and Juneau have been interviewing resident and nonresident visitors at trailheads, campgrounds, visitor centers, tourist destinations and parks, including Mendenhall Glacier, White Mountains National Recreation Area, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Kenai Fjords and Denali national parks. They’ve also interviewed cruise ship and Alaska ferry passengers that travel through public lands.

Survey sites were chosen by representatives from entities that manage public lands in Alaska, including BLM, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Samples are taken on a variety of weekend and weekday dates, and include certain dates, timed to take advantage, for instance, of the height of the fishing season at the Russian River, the silver salmon derby in Seward and moose hunting in the Nome Creek Valley near Fairbanks. The visitors answer questions on iPads or on paper and are sent follow-up surveys by email.

Fix said that more than three-quarters of visitors contacted completed the survey and 40 percent of individuals who were sent the follow-up survey completed that.

Fix said that visitors to Alaska have been slightly more willing to complete the surveys than residents. He theorizes why: “It’s a pretty unique experience for them and they’re jazzed about telling people about it.” 

Coordinating a statewide survey was challenging, Fix said, but it was made possible with the assistance of Cooperative Extension Service faculty and staff who helped the aides with logistics and training.

Trisha Levasseur, a senior at UAF this fall, traveled Interior Alaska this summer interviewing visitors and is helping Fix analyze the data as part of a university internship. She enjoyed going to the sites, hanging out and talking to people.

Levasseur, who is French-Canadian, got to use her French to interpret the survey for tourists in Denali.

“It was pretty friendly,” she said.