Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Children learn GPS techniques

Students from Arctic Light Elementary School were excited to learn about GPS technology.
With assistance from the UA Geography Program, fourth graders from Arctic Light Elementary School transformed a simple downtown Fairbanks walking tour into a practical GPS training exercise.

“The entire experience was incredible,” teacher Timona Grogran said. “The kids were enthralled with the project and couldn’t get enough.”

In fact, Grogan was so pleased that she plans to expand the project next year and will be seeking to buy GPS equipment for her school. She also shared the project details with the entire staff of Arctic Light at the end-of-school meeting May 20.

Katie Kennedy, education and outreach coordinator for the UA Geography Program, orchestrated the activity. “I had heard about Ms. Grogan’s walking tour from instructional technology teacher Lindy Kinn. We wanted to add geospatial technology to the field trip by having students work with GPS and Google Earth,” Kennedy explained. “I knew this would get kids excited about geography.”

She made an advance trip to the school to work with the students on geo-caching as an introduction to using the GPS units. On the playground she set up a mystery for the children to solve, asking them to locate clues contained in caches found at particular waypoints. She also explained how satellite technology works. “They understood they had to wait for the GPS unit to acquire signals from at least three satellites,” Kennedy said. “But they were so cute because they held the GPS receivers as high as they could to get closer to the signal.”

On May 8 the walking tour occurred, with students working in teams of three to collect data. Each child took turns taking photographs, recording information, and marking waypoints. Hiking through downtown Fairbanks, the students visited historic sites including the Clay Street Cemetery, a pioneer neighborhood, the Lacey Street Theatre, the Alaska-Siberia World War II Memorial, the E.T. Barnette plaque, the George C. Thomas Library, the Masonic Temple, and City Hall.

Throughout the day the students learned local history, used their writing skills, and began to grasp geospatial technology. “It combined a lot of skills,” Kennedy said. “One of the biggest lessons I wanted to convey to the students was that they can create their own content in Google Earth. Everybody knows how to go to Google Earth and look at things; I wanted them to know they can also display their own work in Google Earth.”

The class created a Google Earth (KML) file consisting of the path they traveled and placemarks, containing photos and short pieces of text, at each of the chosen sites.

Introducing children to geospatial technology is advantageous because so much information is shared this way now, Kennedy said. “It’s a powerful presentation tool and it’s great to see in 3-D, not just on a piece of paper.” She was impressed at how quickly the students learned their tasks and how hard they strived for accuracy. “They were pretty savvy,” she said. “They did a really good job.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Research reveals good news about potatoes

Potatoes grown in Galena, Alaska, in summer 2008
After examining potatoes from all across Alaska, SNRAS Instructor Jodie Anderson confirmed that the crop is relatively free from viruses. “It’s pretty exciting that we are as clean as we thought we were,” she said, “because pathogens can reduce production yields, especially in commercial fields.”

In the summer of 2008, Anderson and Principal Investigator Jeffrey Smeenk were funded by USDA/ARS Integrated Pest Management Projects to take an extensive look at non-commercial potatoes around Alaska, working from the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer. “We thought the state had a very low presence of vector-transmitted potato viruses,” Anderson said. “We do have some aphids and leaf hoppers that transmit certain potato viruses but not large quantities.”

Anderson requested potato samples from eighty-eight non-commercial growers, who get their seed potatoes from multiple sources. There are concerns that people could be bringing diseased potatoes into the state. Part of the study helped determine where growers purchase their seeds. “We found out many people don’t keep their own seed,” Anderson said.

Because commercial-scale seed growers primarily purchase certified seed potatoes for their plantings the inspection and certification process of the Division of Agriculture ensures that they are planting clean seed.

Each of the participants sent Anderson three tubers for a greenhouse grow-out study. She requested a sample from the worst-looking plant and one from a great-looking plant, thinking that the sick plant might be infected. The plants that grew from these tubers were assayed for several potato viruses. “We found a very low amount of viruses,” she said.

Maintaining Alaska’s reputation of clean seed, because of its isolation from other potato growing regions has economic implications, as there is the potential for selling seed potatoes to Outside growers. “It’s a step in that direction,” Anderson said. “I am hoping the science behind this will show how virus-free Alaska’s potatoes are.”

As the work continues, Anderson and Smeenk will also try to create best management practices for potato growth, harvest, and storage, then reach out to the public with that information through SNRAS publications and UAF Cooperative Extension Service. “We need to let people know what diseases we are identifying in the state and what to do so we can help them manage their potatoes in the best way.”

The current project expires this year- after five years. The new project, in cooperation with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, will study integrated pest management for potatoes for another five years. “We will work on pathogen identification, along with weed management,” Anderson explained.

Smeenk and Anderson are also beginning a three-year project involving community plots in Galena, Nome, Bethel, Dillingham, Kasilof, Palmer, and Two Rivers. Each site will receive five varieties of potatoes to grow in their 20 x 30 plots, and the participants will send samples back to Anderson for a winter grow-out. Leaf tissue will be sent to an Outside lab for viral examination as well as yield information. “I have worked with these communities before and they expressed interest in sustainability and increasing their food security and food variety as well,” Anderson said.

Potatoes, the state’s number one vegetable crop, are versatile, functional, and easy to grow. “We couldn’t have done this study without the input of the Alaskans who participated,” Anderson said. “This research helps move toward securing the future of Alaska potato production.”

Further reading:
Potato Variety Performance, Alaska 1996, by D. E. Carling and M.A. Boyd, Circular 110 June 1997, Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, UAF (PDF)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Food security and local agriculture

An article in the April 9, 2009 editions of newspapers belonging to the Alaska Newspapers, Inc. chain, "The chard's in the mail," was an interesting piece on how vegetables and fruits sold through subscription are distributed by mail throughout Alaska. However, the article confounded the distinction between community supported agriculture and subscription supported agriculture (which have similarities), so we submitted a letter in response, published variously on May 14 as "State's farmers, not vegetables by mail, grow agriculture," or "Defining community agriculture."

Responses to this latter article have revealed more efforts at improving local food security:
• Minty Ruthford in New Stuyahok is working on a community greenhouse and school-community partnerships involving students, community elders, and teachers at Chief Ivan Blunka School;
• Charles Bingham of Sitka sent links to the Sitka Health Summit, which sponsors a farmers' market and a community greenhouse, and has recently set up a Facebook group, the Sitka Local Foods Network;
• Elizabeth Strassburg in Allakaket is working on community agriculture projects;
Anonymous Bloggers has several sections on gardening and food preservation in the Yukon River Basin.

Monday, May 11, 2009

SNRAS students graduate May 10

SNRAS graduates pose before commencement ceremonies May 10 at the Carlson Center
The University of Alaska Fairbanks conferred 1,179 degrees on 1,121 students during its 87th commencement ceremony Sunday, May 10 at the Carlson Center.

SNRAS awarded twenty-two baccalaureate degrees and six master’s degrees.
Geography graduates were Cameron Baird, Brennan Conor, Nelson Crone, Andrea Devers, Keith Forte, David Hamm, Kandace Krejci, Alice Orlich, Kristen Shake, Nicholas Toye, Chris Van Dyck, Jesse Wells. Devers earned two degrees, both a B.A. and a B.S. in geography and earned student leadership honors. Crone, Maxwell, and Orlich received Golden Key Honor Society recognition. Orlich graduated cum laude.

Natural Resources Management grads were David Ellsworth, Jessica Guritz, Larsen Hess, Jennifer Kapla, Cody Maxwell, Ronald Norman, Mia Peterburs, Cassidee Hall Plunkard, and Eli Sonafrank. Guritz graduated magna cum laude.

Master’s graduates were Erin Kelly, Lorene Lynn, Douglas Smart, Quinn Tracy, Sarah Runck, Noreen Zaman.

Among the three honorary degrees UAF awarded during the commencement ceremony was Yup’ik elder and storyteller Annie Cungauyar Blue who has worked closely with the Math in a Cultural Context program for many years.

Related reading:

"UAF Peace Corps program has first graduate," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, May 11, 2009, by Chris Eshleman

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The celebration of Alaska agriculture continues

Alaska Division of Agriculture Director Franci Havemeister pictured with SNRAS Associate Dean Stephen Sparrow
May 5 was Alaska Agriculture Day, but the festivities have not ended yet: a “Taste of Alaska Grown” event is planned for Friday, May 8. From 6 to 8 p.m. at the Morris Thompson Center, 100 Dunkel St., in downtown Fairbanks, the public is invited to sample Alaska Grown foods, including locally grown meats, vegetables; cheese and ice cream produced in Alaska; and value-added products such as sauces, potato chips, and relishes. To add to the fun there will be a 4-H petting zoo.

On Tuesday, Alaska Agriculture Day, at the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce meeting, state Division of Agriculture Director Franci Havemeister kicked off the celebration. She told tales of her husband’s family history with the Matanuska Colony and quoted agriculture statistics. She informed the audience that the average age of Alaska farmers is 56 years. “There are 660 farms in Alaska bringing in $33.8 million every year.” Local agriculture lessens the state’s dependence on outside sources, she said, and she urged everyone to support local producers. “We need to protect our agriculture land,” she added. Later that day, Havemeister visited Woodriver Elementary School to read agriculturally-themed books to first graders and help them plant onion sets.

Also at the Chamber meeting, local farmer Mike Emers of Rosie Creek Farm discussed the economic impact of the Tanana Valley Farmers’ Market and the details of participating in community supported agriculture. The Farmers’ Market brings in over $1 million each summer. As for CSAs, (see map) he said the local farms participating in this type of venture serve over 300 families and bring in $150,000 each year. Community supported agriculture is so popular that existing farms are at full share capacity, with plenty of room for more farms and farmers. Based on the waiting lists for shares at local farms, CSAs could serve up to 1,000 shareholders in the Fairbanks area right now, Emers stated. “We just have to have the land and the producers to do it,” he said. “In a small plot with a lot of hard work a small garden can support five to ten families.”

Jan Hanscom, recently retired from the Georgeson Botanical Garden, explained about the new Alaska industry of growing peonies for profit and the research that has been done to prepare for this opportunity. Members of the Alaska Peony Growers’ Association will have 100,000 peony plants in the ground by the end of 2010. Research continues on growing seasons, and test shipments to California are in progress. “I’m convinced that we can sell everything we grow,” Hanscom said.

Monday, May 4, 2009

SNRAS professor receives Usibelli award

One of the most prestigious faculty awards at UAF has been bestowed upon SNRAS Associate Professor John Fox (pictured at right). He was named the recipient of the 2009 Emil Usibelli distinguished award for excellence in teaching. Two other awards were granted, one for service to (Richard Seifert, Cooperative Extension Service energy specialist,) and one for research, to (John Walsh, chief IARC scientist). Each will receive $10,000.

“I hope I have had some positive impact on students, educational programs, and my teaching colleagues at UAF,” Fox stated. His philosophy throughout his thirty-six years at UAF has been to foster wisdom, not to just share knowledge. “I try to advocate clear thinking,” he said.

Fox grew up in Hartford, Ct., and credits his participation in the Boy Scouts with fostering a love of the outdoors and nature. He started college as a math major, struggling with calculus before switching to biology. He later rediscovered his attraction to math in graduate school. After graduating with a B.S. in biology from Trinity College in his hometown, he headed west to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, where he earned a master of science degree in forest resources and a PhD in forest hydrology.

When Fox started graduate school his goal was to earn a master’s and teach at a high school or preparatory school, but he got hooked on research and stayed to earn his doctorate. He joined the UAF faculty in 1973.

Fox teaches watershed management, environmental ethics, and a graduate course in biometeorology. Other courses he has taught include forest management and resource inventory and measurements. He finds that teaching is a great way to learn. “If you are teaching something you better understand it yourself,” he said. An advantage of teaching is that constantly interacting with young people keeps a person invigorated. “It’s great to share what you know with them and, in turn, learn from them,” he said.

Over the years, Fox has seen amazing changes in technology but has kept abreast of new developments, creating simulations of random sampling, mark and recapture population estimation, strip-flush census, solar and net radiation fluxes as a function of slope, azimuth, and latitude, and of the local water balance. He also developed simulations of uneven and even-aged forest growth and harvest, and financial analysis of forest management options. These programs are designed to involve the student in decision-making where the consequences of their decisions can be experienced and the dynamic nature of the systems can be appreciated.

The changes he has seen in students include the present generation’s technological savvy and their higher expectations that the university should meet their needs. He would like to see students work a little harder. “I don’t want them to bleed but it wouldn’t hurt them to sweat a little,” he said. Even though Fox has taught children of his former students he said most of the differences in the student body have been subtle. “They don’t get my jokes any more,” he laughed.

What he hopes most for his students is that they gain enthusiasm for learning and a sense of continuing to be curious about the world beyond the classroom. The three key components he tries to foster are critical reflection, empirical inquiry, and intellectual honesty. Challenges of teaching include addressing the wide range of students’ backgrounds and their varying levels of enthusiasm, Fox said.

The professor’s goals are to continue to be relevant and to accomplish more in the research arena of his appointment. His research focuses on water levels at Harding Lake and incorporating frozen soils into hydrologic models. “Linking frozen soils and hydrology in models is now popular because of climate change, but I think I was one of the first to do that in a watershed and land-use context,” he said. “This provided a starting point for others to build upon.” He also strives to elevate and clarify the role of ethics in natural resources management and to “be there for students, colleagues, the public, UAF, and SNRAS.”

Fox was a member of UAF’s Interdisciplinary PhD review committee for several years, is a faculty representative for the Society of American Foresters, and for six years has served, by appointment of the chancellor, as UAF’s NCAA faculty athletics representative.

In his spare time, he loves to play basketball and spend time with his wife Sheila and their four children and two grandchildren.

A nomination from Fox’s colleague, Associate Professor Dave Valentine, stated that from his first days at UAF he picked up a wonderful strategy for teaching from Fox. “He views the job as creating a space for learning. He takes a thoughtful, scholarly approach to education.”

Celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day

Carol E. Lewis, (pictured at left) dean of UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, shares her commentary on Alaska Agriculture Day, which is being celebrated Tuesday, May 5, 2009:

One thing we all have in common is food. We need it to survive!

The food we consume affects our health, our quality of life and even our frame of mind. Here in Alaska, where the agriculture industry provides less than 5 percent of our state’s food supply, it would be easy to leave it to Outside forces to send truckloads and barge loads of groceries and call it good. I say, “not so fast.”

As we celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day May 5, I ask you to take a moment and consider the goodness of locally produced food and what goes into its production. Many would say there is no comparison between the taste and quality of food produced in Alaska and that which has traveled thousands of miles to get here.

We have been doing research, providing education and bringing our knowledge about agriculture specific to high latitudes to Alaskans for over 100 years at UAF’s Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and more recently the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences. We have experts studying composting, hydroponics so we can produce crops without soils and the use of lighting and alternative energy in controlled environments to extend our short growing season and possibly make crop production a reality year-round. We have developed superior quality strawberries and potatoes, and are working with new varieties of barley and sunflowers. With UAF’s Specialized Neuroscience Research Program, we are investigating the health benefits of Alaska wild blueberries. The agricultural research, education and outreach work at UAF continue to benefit Alaskans in the 21st century just as they did in the 19th century. Our findings have benefited Alaskans in ways they might not know.

From the time Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 the topic of agricultural potential was a hotly debated issue. Our rich history began in 1898 in Sitka, when the first agricultural experiment farm opened in Sitka, followed by Kodiak, Kenai, Rampart, Copper Center, Fairbanks, Matanuska and Homer, operated by the Alaska Agricultural Experiment Station. Right from the start, cattle and vegetables, small grains and hay production were focuses at the experiment farms. Amazingly, some of the research conducted back then is still useful today. The two experiment farms still growing today at Matanuska and Fairbanks are strong supporters of the agricultural industry in Alaska.

As the state faces new challenges in agriculture and resource management, AFES and SNRAS bring state-of-the-art research information to the people of Alaska. Research on soil and crop management to sustain agriculture includes breeding and selecting forage and energy crops adapted to high latitudes, reducing pesticide use and determining alternatives for pesticides, and assessing how agricultural practices might impact the production of greenhouse gases at northern latitudes. Research by our Reindeer Research Program at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm and our Nome Research Site emphasizes developing best management practices. In horticulture, we are working on annual flowers, native plants, fruit crops, and woody and herbaceous perennial ornamental production for high latitudes; developing management systems for efficiently cultivating these crops and applying research results on light quality, day length and temperature to the greenhouse production of horticultural crops. At the Georgeson Botanical Garden and the Controlled Environment Agriculture Laboratory at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm we provide research and demonstrations on the production of annual and perennial horticulture plants. Take some time to enjoy a leisurely visit to the Fairbanks Experiment Farm this summer. You’ll be impressed at the variety of research we are doing for our state.

We are reaching out to rural Alaska to assist with crop production and greenhouse experiments. Places that had hardly ever known fresh produce are reaping the benefits. Alaskans all over the state are increasingly interested in buying locally, in the interest of supporting their community and economy, increasing food security and enjoying the freshness of food grown nearby.

As concerns blossom about locally grown crops, shipping costs to get products to Alaska, the economy in general and interest in growing one’s own food, it’s good to know the experts at the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station have “got your back.” We are Alaskans too and we care deeply about the future of our state’s food supply. In fact, we focus on it daily.

Now pass that reindeer sausage and Yukon Gold potatoes around the table. Lift a glass of blueberry juice and let’s toast Alaska Agriculture Day.

Published versions:
"Celebrate Alaska Agriculture Day," Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, April 30, 2009, by Carol E. Lewis
"Great land, great food," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, May 5, 2009, by Carol E. Lewis

Friday, May 1, 2009

Opinions sought about fair

Love the fair? Hate the fair? Now’s your chance to say so. UAF marketing student Kimberly McMillan is conducting a survey about the Tanana Valley State Fair.

Part of the work for her applied business degree requires that she conduct a survey. “I grew up loving the fair and participating in the exhibits,” McMillan said. She heard an interview with fair manager Randi Carnahan one morning on the radio and thought it would be fun to do a project on the fair. “I was looking for a challenge,” McMillan said.

So far, McMilllan said she has received excellent feedback from the community and is pleased that people are taking the time to add comments and suggestions. Her goal is to receive 500 responses; she’s currently gotten a little over 200. “I'm hoping that with the community’s participation we can help the fair understand why attendance is dropping and what they may do to help revive the fair,” McMillan said.

Further reading:
"Tanana Valley State Fair faces $210,000 budget gap," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Feb. 3, 2009, by Amanda Bohman