Thursday, March 26, 2009

State bee tests students’ geography skills

On Friday, April 3, young geography whizzes from across the state will gather in Anchorage for the Geographic Bee, where they will compete for a spot in the national competition. Nearly 100 fourth through eighth graders qualified at their schools for the state bee. Events, which are being held Friday in every state, are organized by the National Geographic Society and sponsored by Google and Plum Creek. Each state winner gets a trip to Washington, D.C., for the national finals May 19-20. First prize in the national competition is a $25,000 college scholarship, lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society and a trip to the Galapagos Islands to experience geography firsthand.

The contest is designed to encourage teachers to include geography in their classrooms, spark student interest in the subject and increase public awareness about geography.

Bee questions cover a variety of natural and human geography issues. Samples are: Which state has a climate suitable for growing citrus fruits? California or Maine. Which country has the world’s largest Muslim population? Indonesia or Mexico. What is the term for a part of an ocean or sea that cuts far into the bordering landmass and may contain one or more bays? (gulf).

The Anchorage event is at the Egan Civic & Convention Center from 9:20 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 3.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Getting their hands dirty: teachers and Agriculture in the Classroom

For the first time, UAF Summer Sessions is offering teachers a chance to get their hands in the dirt and learn about Alaska agriculture. The new course offering, Alaska Agriculture in the Classroom, will prepare teachers to integrate the science of agriculture into their existing lesson plans.

“We hope this will expose students to agriculture,” said Professor Milan Shipka, chair of SNRAS’ High Latitude Agriculture department. “Teachers will have the opportunity to learn about agriculture and gain ideas about how to tie the components of agriculture, including physical science and social science, into the classroom curriculum. Agriculture is a science with really practical applications.”

The course will be offered June 2-4 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm on the UAF campus. Instructors are Victoria Naegele, executive director of Alaska Agriculture in the Classroom, and Marilyn Krause, a science teacher at Ryan Middle School and an FFA advisor. On the agenda are tours of farms and agriculture-related businesses, digging in a soil pit, learning about the state’s agriculture history, and understanding organic and sustainable agriculture. “I want the teachers to see agriculture at work,” Naegele said. “There is such diversity of agriculture in Alaska. We’re trying to make kids agriculturally literate.” Part of the course will involve teaching hands-on activities that children can do in the classroom.

Naegele has taught a similar course at the Matanuska Experiment Farm for the past two summers. Teachers are introduced to the Alaska Agriculture in the Classroom program and learn interdisciplinary methods of teaching principles of agriculture and strategies to promote students’ understanding of soil science, the water cycle, nutrition, gardening/gathering, agro-economics, innovations, and careers. There is a $100 materials and field trip fee and an administration charge of $90.

To register for the one or two-credit course, visit Summer Sessions and sign up for CRN 52291 or contact Wanda Tangermann, 474-7188. The class is limited to 25 students.

Related information:
US Department of Agriculture
Alaska Farm Bureau
Alaska Division of Agriculture
Natural Resource Conservation Service
USDA food pyramid

Seniors give thesis presentations

SNRAS senior thesis proposal presentations will be given Friday, March 27 from 2:15 to 4:15 p.m. in Arctic Health 183:
• Ellen Hatch, “Micro-hardiness Agriculture Zones in the North Star Borough, Alaska”
• Tamara Lozana, “Components Required in Providing Care for Impaired Wildlife in Copper River Basin, Alaska”
• Daniel Coleman, “An Inventory of Hazard Trees on the Campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks”
•Joe Kendall, “Macro Invertebrate Study of Purgatory Brook N.H., Upstream and Downstream of the Milford Fish Hatchery Discharge”
For more information, contact Wanda Tangermann at 474-7188 or e-mail

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

UAF brings CSAs to the table

Farmers can be an independent lot, but the day after many of them had gathered in Fairbanks for the 5th annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference hosted by UAF Cooperative Extension Service, over twenty-five people took the time to meet again. At a SNRAS-sponsored roundtable held March 19, the farmers who operate community supported agriculture businesses (CSAs) came together to meet each other and faculty and staff from CES and SNRAS, discuss the challenges of sustainable agriculture in Alaska, and to brainstorm options for meeting those challenges.

Dean Carol Lewis told the group she wanted to see how UAF could help them and she wants to receive ideas about the farmers’ needs. Because Alaska imports almost all of its food, it’s important for the state’s agriculture school (specifically the Department of High Latitude Agriculture) to support CSAs in their mission of serving the public with locally grown produce, Lewis explained. The department’s agriculture research is available to the growers, and the university can also help the group through an internship program, a resource list of publications about Alaska small-scale farming, facilitating meetings and surveys, and providing public education on food security, food costs, and possible business options.

She cited the Alaska Peony Growers Association as a good example of the university’s assistance to growers. SNRAS brought the peony growers together, the School of Management helped them with a business plan and the group eventually formed its own association, built a website, and now hosts conferences.

“Horticulture people have been sadly disconnected,” Dean Lewis said, “but we’re trying to change that now.”

There are two basic types of CSAs: subscription CSAs and shareholder CSAs. From the publication “Community Supported Agriculture,” (PDF) by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service:
Subscription CSA (farmer-driven). In this approach, the farmer organizes the CSA and makes most of the management decisions. Farm work is not required of subscribers. A permutation is the farmer cooperative, where two or more farmers organize to produce a variety of products for the CSA basket. Subscription CSAs now constitute more than 75 percent of all CSAs.

Shareholder CSA (consumer-driven). This type of CSA typically features an existing “core group” that organizes subscribers and hires the farmer. The core group may be a not-for-profit organization and land may be purchased, leased, or rented. Most key decisions are made by core group personnel.
The permutations on these two basic types are as varied as the individual farms that use them. The agriculturalists represented at the SNRAS forum came from across the state, although mostly from the Fairbanks area (Basically Basil, Calypso Farm, Eden Lake Bison Ranch, Feedback Farm, Rosie Creek Farm, Spinach Creek Farm). Farmers from Palmer (Spring Creek Farm) and Skagway (Jewell Gardens) also came. Several attendees were gardeners interested in the possibility of forming their own small CSAs.

The roundtable discussion highlighted the challenges CSA operators face, including:
• Labor: Several farms have resorted to advertising in the Lower 48 for seasonal labor or for interns. The turnover is high and finding people with horticulture skills is difficult.

• Costs: Growers would like the public to know what the real costs of supermarket food are compared to the costs of locally farmed food.

• Infrastructure: Alaska doesn’t have much historical farmland; farmers must start from scratch, clearing the land, building the soil, and creating fields and buildings.

• Supporting businesses: The group sees a great need for compost companies, fertilizer manufacturers, food processors, food storage businesses, cooperative kitchens, root cellars, freezing or dehydrating facilities. The difficulty of transportation was also addressed.

• Supporting organizations: There is no organization in Alaska specific to the CSA niche, although others with a related focus exist, including FFA, Alaska Farm Bureau, Farmers’ Market Association, Alaska Grown, etc.
In the Lower 48, there are many cooperative internship or training programs for people interested in working on small, sustainable farms, either urban or rural. A few examples are:
• Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) programs:
Growing Power Commercial Urban Agriculture Training

SAITA program: Sustainable Agriculture Internship Training Alliance
The growers discussed forming a CSA organization, coming up with a clear definition of CSA, and reaching out to the public via blogs, e-lists, and directories. The group will meet again in mid-April. Anyone interested in attending should contact Mike Emers of Rosie Creek Farm (Tanana Valley) or Anne-Corinne Kell of Spring Creek Farm (Matanuska-Susitna Valley).

“Small farmers are an important component of agriculture,” Emers said. Dean Lewis said the school recognizes the diverse nature of agriculture in Alaska and seeks to serve all those aspects.

(Addendum) Related reading: "Community shared agriculture offers shareholders a tasty payout," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, March 26, 2009, by Mary Beth Smetzer

Friday, March 20, 2009

Local Rotarians toast UA Geography professor

UA Geography Program Director Mike Sfraga, left, with Don Lynch
UA Geography Program Professor Emeritus Don Lynch was honored March 16 at the College Rotary Club meeting in Fairbanks. Affiliated with the geography program at UAF since 1970, Lynch earned a PhD from Yale University in 1965. His research interests include regional, economic, and historic geography in Alaska, northern Scandinavia, and Siberia.

UA Geography Program Director Mike Sfraga told the audience it was a daunting task to follow in Lynch’s footsteps. “He is a true Renaissance man,” Sfraga said. “We are building on what Don has left us at the university and he has built a legacy.”

Sfraga said Lynch’s former students inevitably say they learned a great deal from him and that he is a big thinker with an incredibly big heart. “He brought a definitive way of thinking,” Sfraga commented. “He had the vision to grow the geography department. Now we have four degrees instead of two and we have grown to include the graduate level.”

He said Lynch had challenged the geography department to connect with teachers and students in kindergarten through twelfth grade and now there is a tremendous outreach effort in that area, through National Geographic Society and Google. “It is a pleasure to be a small part of what Don has created at the university and in the community,” Sfraga said. “The measure of an institution is the students we put out there as thinkers and the faculty members who serve the university and the community. I don’t know anyone who has done as well for as long as Don Lynch.”

Colleague John Kelley said, “I have the highest respect for Don as a scholar.” And colleague Rudy Krejci said, “Thanks to Don, geography became a solid discipline.”

Lynch grew up in Seattle and attended Yale University, where he majored in history and Russian studies for his undergraduate work and geography and Russian studies for his graduate degrees. He worked as a civilian with the Air Force, for a research analysis corporation, then Teledyne Corp. before getting the offer to teach at UAF. His family had been in and out of Alaska since the Gold Rush and he had worked on a survey team in Sitka and the Kenai Peninsula.

He said he loves geography because it is an integrated discipline that helps you understand the world in which you live. He praised the students and faculty at UAF. “You won’t find students like ours anywhere in the world,” he said. “Our students have done things with their lives.”

In addition to Rotary service work, Lynch has been very active in the Elks Lodge, Phi Kappa Pi, and the UAF Faculty Senate. He has traveled extensively and speaks Russian, German, Norwegian, and Finnish. For twenty years he served on an International Geophysical Union commission for marginal lands. “I’ve had the kind of life where you are constantly doing things you want to be doing,” he said.

Further reading:
Geography of Alaska study guide by Donald Francis Lynch, 2003, University of Alaska, (PDF)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Community Supported Agriculture Roundtable

Alaskans all over the state are looking for local options for their food, and more and more small farmers are considering using the CSA model as a means of lessening the economic risk of farming, and encouraging interest in locally grown, fresh food. SNRAS and AFES are hosting a CSA Roundtable on Thursday, March 19, on the UAF campus to discuss ways in which the university can best serve the needs of Alaska farmers considering this model or already operating a CSA.

Alaska-based CSA operators or those planning on setting up a CSA are invited to participate in this brainstorming/planning session. The meeting agenda includes:
• presentations by participants on their farms and CSAs;

• overview of the Fairbanks Experiment Farm;

• discussion of farmers' needs and the needs of their customers;

• consideration of various options, such as creating a campus CSA as a research/teaching tool, various research directions that the university might take that are appropriate to CSAs, possible curriculum/degree focus on CSAs or similar marketing models, forming an Alaska CSA Operators' Network, and other ideas.
Please join us for this discussion!

The CSA Roundtable will be held in Fairbanks on the UAF campus, the day after the 5th Annual Sustainable Agriculture & Organic Growers' School:
Thursday, March 19
11 am to 1 pm
UAF campus, room 501 in the International Arctic Research Center (IARC) on West Ridge
ADDENDUM: the room has changed. It is now in rm. 204 Butrovich Bldg. (also on West Ridge, UAF campus.)
Lunch (a salad buffet) will be provided. Please RSVP to Deirdre Helfferich, 907.474.6923, or

5th annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference

The Cooperative Extension Service is hosting the 5th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference & Organic Growers' School next week, Tuesday, March 17 and Wednesday, March 18, at the Princess Riverside Lodge in Fairbanks, with a few pre-conference activities scheduled as well. Keynote speaker George DeVault, the president and executive director of Seed Savers Exchange, will be discussing season extensions, direct marketing, and seed saving.

SNRAS faculty will also be participating in sessions during the conference: Mingchu Zhang and Jeff Smeenk will be participating in a panel on composting.

Other sessions include information on funding opportunities, soil fertility, weed suppression, egg and poultry production, food security, soil blocking, and growing food for local markets. If you'd like to register for the conference, a form is available on line (PDF).

Scott Rupp to speak on climate change

Associate Professor of Forestry Scott Rupp will speak in Anchorage at the Loussac Library on Tuesday, March 17 at 7 pm in the Science for Alaska Lecture Series. His lecture, "Our New Frontier—Exploring Climate Change," will focus on climate research in Alaska and its worldwide applications. Rupp is the director of the Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning, or SNAP program, which provides climate maps and projections that managers and policy makers can use to make informed decisions.

Monday, March 9, 2009

UAF helps Purdue test soy diesel in road test

SNRAS Dean Carol Lewis and Purdue's Bernie Tao at the March 9 seminar

Cold weather testing of soy biodiesel conducted by Purdue University, the Indiana Soybean Alliance, and UAF this past week made scientist Bernie Tao happy. “I knew this stuff would work,” he told over sixty attendees at a seminar hosted by SNRAS and the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation March 9. Yet the Purdue researcher was excited to see firsthand how well his creation, Permaflo biodiesel, worked in Alaska.

Tao, along with Indiana farmers and Indiana Soybean Alliance representatives, rode in UAF diesel vehicles fueled with Permaflo from Anchorage to Fairbanks on March 5 and from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle on March 7 for an overnight camping trip. At the seminar, Tao thanked UAF Assistant Professor Andy Soria for helping the group survive the cold weather and road conditions.

UAF Assistant Professor Andy Soria pumps soy biodiesel into a truck for the ride to the Arctic Circle

While there are many biodiesel products on the market this one is specially designed to work in cold temperatures. Tao had tested the product in his lab but this was a chance to see how it worked on the road and in the camp.

The process of making Permaflo is efficient and simple, Tao explained. He predicted economic benefits for Fairbanks if a similar biodiesel can be created and used here. UAF Associate Professor Mingchu Zhang highlighted his canola research to the audience. He hopes to develop a canola industry in Alaska in a similar manner to what Indiana has done with soybeans.

ISA spokesman Ryan West said he was very proud of the way the product performed in Alaska. “We put 1,300 miles on a pickup truck using pure Permaflo B100 biodiesel with no additives and no indoor storage,” he said.

Doug Morrow, president of ISA, said it’s not often the growers get to see a product tested. “To be able to come up here and work with the University of Alaska has been great for us,” he said. “It has been beyond belief.”

Soybean farmer Mike Yoder said renewable energy in the Lower 48 is a “nice to thing to do,” but in Alaska it could be a matter of survival. “I applaud you for your work,” he said.

Dr. Soria researches woody biomass for UAF and is considered a pioneer in the alternative energy arena. While most of his work is done in a lab at the Palmer Research and Extension Center, Soria said he was thrilled to spearhead the Alaska road test for soy biodiesel. “I commend ISA for understanding the value of research,” he said.

Further reading:
"Testing soy biodiesel in Alaska," SNRAS Science & News blog post, Feb. 26, 2009