Friday, March 24, 2017

OneTree plans birch sap cooperative meeting

Nicole Dunham collects birch sap from trees near the chancellor's
home on the UAF campus in 2016. UAF photo by Todd Paris

The OneTree Alaska program will host a meeting March 27 for individuals interested in tapping birch trees and forming a birch sap cooperative.

The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the OneTree STEM to STEAM Studio in the former Lola Tilly Commons kitchen on the UAF campus. The OneTree Alaska program processes birch sap with different types of evaporators as part of research assessing various methods and the quality of the product.

OneTree Alaska program coordinator Nicole Dunham said the structure of the cooperative will depend on what participants want. The OneTree program will lend buckets and taps to be used by members of the cooperative, who will bring their sap to the facility in exchange for birch syrup. The program wishes also to extend knowledge about syrup processing, and volunteers are needed for multiple tasks. Participants may tap anywhere from one to 100 trees.

Community volunteers and elementary and middle school students regularly participate in the annual sap collection process in April and May. Volunteers and staff collected more than 2,200 gallons of birch sap in 2016.

The birch sap season lasts anywhere from 10 days to three weeks in mid-April to early May. Equipment may be checked out from OneTree from noon to 5 p.m. April 5-7. To arrange another time or for more information, call 907-474-5517 or email OneTree Alaska is a research and educational outreach program affiliated with the School of Natural Resources and Extension.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

New 'citizen science' gardening app and website released

Heidi Rader shows her new Grow & Tell app. Jeff Fay photo

Heidi Rader describes the new Grow & Tell app and website she developed as “essentially Yelp for gardeners.”

The free app, which was released Tuesday, allows gardeners in the United States to see what vegetable varieties grow best in their areas based on what other gardeners say. The app also invites gardeners to act as citizen scientists and rate the varieties that they have grown for taste, yield and reliability.

Rader teaches gardening and farming as the tribes Extension educator for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. She also reaches gardeners and farmers from around the state through distance-delivered courses.

Vegetable variety trials conducted in Fairbanks show what grows well here, she said but not in other areas of the state.

“That works pretty well for me but not for people, say, in Arctic Village or Nome,” she said.

Rader hopes that lots of gardeners will rate crops, which will make the app more useful for others. “It’s citizen scientists conducting variety trials where they live,” she said.

The app is available on the App Store for iPhones, Google Play for android phones or as a website at Development of the app was funded by a grant from the eXtension Foundation to promote innovation in the Cooperative Extension Service. To keep the app free, Rader said, Extension will seek sponsorships to pay for updates, fixes and regular maintenance. Additionally, event advertising can also be purchased and targeted to app users locally, by state or nationally.

Rader hopes to expand the app to capture ratings on other plants used in the landscape and garden, including trees, shrubs, flowers, fruits and berries.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks recognized Rader with a 2016 Invent Alaska Award for her work on the app. Cornell University contributed ratings that it had already collected as well as lessons learned from operating a similar citizen science project. A Boston-based company, Geisel Software, built the app. For more information, contact Rader at

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

SNRE students receive URSA travel and project awards

Two students with the School of Natural Resources and Extension received spring travel awards from URSA, the Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity program at UAF.

Trisha Levasseur received funding to attend the National Environmental and Recreation Research Symposium April 2-4 in Annapolis, Maryland, and Zoe Marshall received support for exploring sustainable agriculture in Delta Junction.

Levasseur will present a poster on data analyzed as part of a large visitor survey conducted with Associate Professor Pete Fix this past summer. Marshall said she used the money to pay for a trip to Delta Junction, where she interviewed Bryce Wrigley as part of a case study she is writing for the Principles of Sustainable Agriculture course and as part of her senior thesis coursework. Wrigley operates a 1,700-acre farm that grows barley, which his family processes into barley flour and barley cereal at its Alaska Flour Company mill.

Two SNRE students also received spring project awards. Kelly Schmitz received an URSA Spring Project Award to study the nutritional effect of willow on reindeer calf growth, and Kimberly Diamond is studying the factors impacting the dormancy and viability of Prunus padus (bird cherry) seeds. Zoe and Kelly are seniors.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Keynote speakers address Sustainable Ag Conference

Keynote speakers  at the Sustainable Agriculture Conference, Wyoming farmer
Mike Ridenour, left, and National FFA president David Townsend
pose  with conference organizer Steve Seefeldt.

More than 130 people registered and attended the Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference, which ends today with half- and full-day workshops.

Arthur Keyes, the director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture, introduced a recorded welcome by Gov. Bill Walker on Wednesday, the main meeting day. Before heading the division, Keyes was a farmer in Palmer who developed a farmers market in Anchorage and a CSA to sell his produce. He said he once gave Walker, who was then running for governor, a two-hour tour of Palmer farms and introduced him to area farmers. Walker wanted to hear about their operations and their challenges. Recently, the governor hosted a reception with Alaska-grown foods, said Keyes.

“He is a friend of agriculture,” he said.

Governor Walker welcomed participants and said agriculture was good for Alaskans’ health and good for the economy.

Steven Seefeldt, who coordinated the conference with Darcy Etcheverry, introduced keynote speakers Mike Ridenour, a Wyoming farmer, and National FFA President David Townsend. Ridenour, he said, faces many of the same issues as Alaska farmers, including a tough ecosystem, distance from markets and a need for season extension.

Ridenour and his wife, Cindy, have a livestock operation on the high plains and grasslands of southeast Wyoming. They also raise vegetables in high tunnels and irrigated fields. It is a windy area, with gusts to 50 mph, and temperatures range from 30 below to 120 degrees. Special challenges also include hailstorms and mountain lions.

The Ridenours were both trained as chemists and did not know anything about agriculture or running a ranch when they purchased the acreage.

They started with a philosophy, he said. “It must be good for us and for our customers, the environment and must be profitable.” “As it turns out profitability can be somewhat elusive,”  he added.

Ridenour talked about their successes and failures and how they embraced a sustainable approach to the farm, which includes the use of draft horses and composted manure to amend the sandy soils. Their livestock operations are based on the cattle’s natural birthing schedule in late spring. That decreases the need for additional winter forage. They also use heirloom seeds, save seeds and do not use any broad-spectrum insecticides. They use organic methods but are not certified organic.

The use of high tunnels has allowed them to provide produce at a time when many other vegetable farmers cannot — early and late in the season. They also use heated sand boxes to grow transplants and row covers to keep plants warm.

Townsend spoke about the opportunities for youth in agriculture, and the approach supported by FFA, which promotes leadership, personal growth and career success among its 650,000 members. He also  talked about the importance of agricultural education and the opportunities FFA provides to apply knowledge through projects.

He had not been aware of where his food came from, he said, until he got involved with FFA. He persuaded his parents to let him grow tomatoes and cucumbers, which the family enjoyed.

"It was really cool to see that farm-to-table process," he said.

It also got him more interested in plant science, which he is studying at the University of Delaware. Some of the FFA members get opportunities to work directly with farmers through internships and jobs, which is a great way to introduce students to agriculture as a career. For instance, he said, his younger sister, who is a high school sophomore, works on a local produce farm.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Public invited to meet with national FFA officers at UAF

The public is invited to meet with national FFA officers Thursday at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

National FFA president David Townsend
An informal meet and greet will go from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in the Murie Building atrium and auditorium at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. National FFA President David Townsend; Josh Bledsoe, the chief operation officer; and Ben Meyer, the regional specialist for national FFA, will be in Fairbanks to discuss the role of agriculture and natural resources management education and opportunities in Alaska. They will give a short presentation at the campus event.

Townsend, 21, is an agricultural and natural resources, plant science major at the University of Delaware. He will also participate, with other FFA officials and Alaska FFA, in a check presentation Wednesday at the Fairbanks Community Food Bank.

Alaska FFA won $15,000 from Tyson Foods for having the best chapter participation in a national FFA Hungry Heroes Challenge to grow, harvest and collect foods for food banks and other organizations. All 12 Alaska chapters participated. The check will be donated to the Fairbanks food bank and shared with a Mat-Su food bank.

While in Fairbanks, Townsend will also speak at the Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference, which is hosted by Cooperative Extension and at Effie Kokrine Early College Charter School.

“Agricultural education is more important than ever, especially in Alaska where we are dependent on out-of-state food sources," said Sue McCullough, the president of the Agricultural and Natural Resource Educators in Alaska.

FFA is a national youth education organization affiliated with Extension in Alaska. For more information about the FFA visit, contact Kevin Fochs, Alaska state FFA advisor, at or 907-707-9710, or McCullough at or 907-474-0958 ext. 33183.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sustainable Agriculture Conference begins Tuesday

Mike Ridenour of Meadow Maid Foods 
The Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference will take place Feb. 21-23 in Fairbanks with an eclectic mix of sessions that cover reindeer husbandry, farm management and processing of birch sap.

“If you want to grow food or raise animals, this is perfect conference,” said organizer Steven Seefeldt.

The conference usually draws more than 200 people, including farmers, ranchers, gardeners and others in the agricultural support industry. It is the state's largest agricultural conference.

The keynote speakers will be Mike Ridenour of Meadow Maid Foods in Wyoming, Steve Caccamo of Next Generation Maple Products in New York and National FFA president David Townsend. Ridenour will talk about challenges he faced starting and building his farm in Wyoming. Seefeldt said Ridenour and his wife, Cindy, who grow vegetables and raise grass-fed beef, face similar problems as Alaska growers, including cold weather and distance from markets. Caccamo's has experience fabricating commercial-quality, affordable sugaring equipment for small producers in the Northeast and now with OneTree Alaska. He will discuss steps to developing a viable birch sap and syrup industry in Alaska, and  Townsend’s topic is opportunities for youth in agriculture.
National FFA president David Townsend

The main meeting day will be Feb. 22, with keynote speakers, presentations on sustainable practices, farm management, meat and fiber production, and birch sap and syrup making. Full- and half-day workshops are scheduled on Feb. 21 and Feb. 23 on recent innovations in birch sap processing, woodlot management, improving soil with combusted biomass, soil management, farm risk management and financing, growing rhodiola, and gardening and farming in rural Alaska. A full-day reindeer husbandry course will feature university experts and reindeer producers talking about reindeer nutrition, handling techniques, parasite control and artificial insemination.

The Cooperative Extension Service will host the 13th-annual conference at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel. Agenda and registration information are available at For more information, contact Seefeldt at or 907-474-1831 or Darcy Etcheverry at

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

New Matanuska Experiment Farm director hired

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has hired Susanna Pearlstein as the new director for the Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension center near Palmer.

Susanna Pearlstein
Pearlstein, a postdoctoral researcher based at the Environmental Protection Agency in Corvallis, Oregon, will start her new job April 3. She will provide leadership and administrative oversight for the academic, research and Cooperative Extension Service outreach programs based at the farm, which is owned by UAF.

Pearlstein is excited about the new job. As an ecohydrologist for the EPA, she said she enjoyed working with community members. She served as the outreach coordinator and researcher looking at the effects of fertilizer management practices on groundwater quality. Pearlstein also wrote grants that funded agricultural research and she looks forward to finding new revenue and options for the farm.

“I’m inspired by the multiple opportunities at the Matanuska Experiment Farm,” she said.

Pearlstein has visited Alaska many times, including as a member of interagency hotshot crew that fought wildfires on the Kenai Peninsula in 2007. She enjoys cross-country skiing, beekeeping and hiking and is enthusiastic about coming to Alaska.

Milan Shipka, the director of the UAF Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, said Pearlstein impressed the hiring committee with her knowledge of the farm, her background and her enthusiasm.

“She’s got some really good ideas and brings new energy to the position,” he said.

Pearlstein grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended college in British Columbia and in Arizona. She earned her doctorate in soil, water and environmental science from the University of Arizona in 2015.