Thursday, July 30, 2009

Who says you can’t grow corn in Alaska?

Jeff Werner stands in a field of corn at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm

Regardless of the urban legend that corn is nearly impossible to grow in Alaska, it can be done. Several farmers in the Tanana Valley and Matanuska Valley are successful with corn, as are researchers at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm on the UAF campus.

When his plot of corn tasseled July 27, research professional Jeff Werner was elated. “Tell me I can’t grow corn,” he declared. “Anything can be done if you want to do it, you try hard, and have an attitude of success. Watching this corn tassel is amazing and incredible.” When tassels appear, pollen falls onto the ears, a necessary stage for the corn’s development.

Werner and Professor Meriam Karlsson have been growing corn for eight years. “It’s good corn too,” Werner said. Their secret is simple: fertilizer with lots of nitrogen and plenty of water. Selecting the right seed is also crucial. Supersweet Bi-color and Bodacious are two good varieties this summer. Werner purchased the seed commercially, potted it in the greenhouse on May 15, and transplanted to the field the first week of June. He advised that the soil needs to be at least sixty degrees before planting. The seedlings were tucked in tightly with IRT film and outfitted with drip tape to ensure the plants get enough water.

Although Fairbanks is known for its twenty-four-hour sunlight in the summer, by late July the days are down to eighteen hours, providing the night that corn requires. “It’s just dark enough that they are starting to do great things,” Werner said.

Growing corn may be fun, but it also provides serious research opportunities. Dr. Karlsson measures the photosynthesis of the corn during periods of extreme daylight, along with plant nutrition required for plant growth. Each year after harvest the leaves are ground up to be analyzed in the lab. “We want to learn how to grow even better corn,” Werner explained. “It’s not going to be an Iowa market but it helps with sustainability.”

Dr. Karlsson added, “It’s never going to be a big crop in Alaska but people like to grow it because there is nothing like fresh corn. The belief is that if you can grow corn in Alaska you are a good gardener.”

Ongoing corn research is conducted at the Georgeson Botanical Garden, with trials focusing on types of plastics that warm the soil. A new project at Chena Hot Springs Resort will find Werner and a graduate student piping warm air from the hot springs into the corn rows to keep the plants from freezing in August when the nights cool off.

Fairbanksans will have the opportunity to see corn on the stalk at the Tanana Valley Fair Aug. 7–15. Dr. Karlsson and Werner, who are responsible for the demonstration garden at the fairgrounds, included some rows of Bodacious corn in the mix of vegetables and herbs.

“In Fairbanks we can grow just about anything if we try,” Werner said, eyeing rows of his newest crop, honeydew melons.

Further reading:
"IRT-76 Polyethylene Mulch Film and Growth of Sweet Corn in Fairbanks, Alaska," SNRAS Research Progress Report, April 1991, by Grant Matheke, Patricia Holloway, Patricia Wagner (PDF)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Garden Faire time!

The Georgeson Botanical Garden Society is holding the Second Annual Garden Faire at the garden on Sunday, July 26, from 11 am to 7 pm. Tickets are $5 for adults, $3 for children, and free to those 6 and younger.

Activities include the Open Invitation Garden Art Show; "Fabulous Fabrics in Bloom," the 4th annual Quilt and Fiber Art Show; various adult educational activities; a garden-themed Alaska-made open-air market from 11 to 4; and more than twenty activities for children. Family activities will be held from 1 to 4 pm. The Garden Faire is a fundraiser for the James V. Drew Outdoor Amphitheatre.

Biomass crops in Alaska

"Opportunities for Woody Biomass Fuel Crops in Interior Alaska", a new paper (PDF) by Robbin Garber-Slaght, Stephen Sparrow, darleen masiak, and Gwen Holdmann explores the cultivation of willows as a woody biomass crop for fuel in Alaska. Willows are among the first woody species to colonize new flood plains; they grow prolifically for four or five years, and are followed by alders (five to ten years) and then balsam poplars, which mix with the alders and dominate for around 100 years after a floodplain is created. White spruce will follow (provided no new flood washes out the previous growth) and remain as the dominant forest for 200 to 300 years, and then are followed by black spruce.

Garber-Slaght and company evaluated growing feltleaf willow from cuttings, and their potential for harvest as biomass. Farmed biomass, they concluded, may be feasible, but their research revealed several areas in which more information is needed:
• Which species of willow or other trees or shrubs will grow the fastest and produce the largest amount of biomass?
• How long should the plants grow before coppicing?
• How much biomass will they produce in 3, 5, or 8 years?
• What types and levels of fertilizers will they need?
• What is the best way to plant the chosen species?
• How much weed control is required? Which weed control systems will leave the biomass species unharmed?
• When is the best time to harvest the biomass? In the fourth year? During the fall or winter?
• How much is a power plant willing to pay per ton? Is it cost effective to grow woody biomass as a cultivated crop?
Biomass production potential and the costs of production, harvesting, transportation, and processing need to be examined before Alaskans can know whether this option is viable.

For further reading:
"Red-hot research: student examines plants for biomass fuel," SNRAS Science & News, January 6, 2009.
"Biomass may be the only alternative to petroleum," Todd Paris, Aurora Spring 2009.
• "Biomass Fuels: Local energy, local jobs, and community resilience," by Nancy Fresco and F. Stuart Chapin, Agroborealis (PDF), v. 40 n. 1, p. 19.
"Sustainable energy for Interior villages?" SNRAS Science & News, February 6, 2009.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

OneTree project grows, evolves

Tanana Valley State Forest was the site where OneTree began

On July 7, a sixty-seven-foot birch tree was felled in the Tanana Valley State Forest. When the eighty-year-old tree crashed to the ground, scientists, artisans, and craftsmen were standing by, waiting for pieces to call their own. The wood is being converted to spoons, bowls, chairs, shrink boxes, board games, knitting needles, mugs, pitchers, lumber, clothes hooks, etchings, and even a dreamcatcher mobile.

OneTree, a new community outreach and research project coordinated by the UAF Forest Products Program, explores art and science through a connection to a single birch tree. “It’s evolving as we go,” Coordinator Jan Dawe, adjunct forestry professor, said. “Plans are moving forward to incorporate this into school curriculums.”

Mac Levey, 11, makes a mancala board game from a piece of birch

OneTree aims to demonstrate the unique value of wood products. “It’s not just arts and crafts,” Dawe explained. “It’s a way for people to think about our forest resources.” For example, Assistant Professor Valerie Barber will be examining the properties of the tree at the Palmer Research and Extension Center. She and Dawe documented every part of the birch that was distributed to volunteers and will prepare a map of the tree showing each piece and who took it, as well as a history of the birch after Barber studies it.

Over twenty people are already participating and many more have expressed interest, including teachers who want to incorporate OneTree into their classrooms, emphasizing both scientific and artistic aspects of the project. “Teachers can stress timing, seasonality, and life history of the tree,” Dawe said.

By next spring a multimedia public art show will demonstrate the OneTree project to the Fairbanks community. “I’m pleased with the variety,” Dr. Barber said. “I didn’t know how it would play out. It definitely depends on the community. Fairbanks is the perfect place to start this project. Fairbanks is amazing; people jumped right in.”

The tree cutting and wood distribution were held in conjunction with the Week in the Woods camp. Instructor John Manthei said, “OneTree added another dimension to an already existing thing. It’s really neat, and an opportunity for connection. I’m looking forward to the whole process.”

Response to the initial launching of OneTree in Alaska pleased Dawe. “It couldn’t have gone better,” she said.

Further reading:
"UAF project seeks to find out how many uses one birch tree has," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, by Jeff Richardson, July 8, 2009

"OneTree project begins in Fairbanks," SNRAS Science & News, June 23, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

Intern samples science

Kelsie Maslen works in the AFES greenhouse

A rural high school student got to try her hand at being a budding scientist, thanks to the High School Summer Research Internship Program funded by the National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research program and co-sponsored by SNRAS, EPSCoR, and IARC.

Kelsie Maslen, a high school senior from Kotzebue, worked with Professor Stephen Sparrow June 4-July 8. Maslen tackled a project to determine if treatment with a root substance would improve the rooting of poplar and willow cuttings. She selected the topic because it complemented the work being done by Dr. Sparrow and research associate darleen masiak, who are evaluating the storage effects of cuttings. Sparrow is also studying the potential of willows as a biofuel crop.

The cuttings in Maslen’s study were collected while the trees were dormant in the winter, and were stored at 5 degrees Celsius until they were moved to a greenhouse. Maslen wanted to compare three treatments: no treatment, dry hormodin (rooting inducing substance), and soaking in water for forty-eight hours. Her methods included a 1:1 mixture of perlite and vermiculite, placement in a misting bed in a greenhouse, evaluating weekly for presence of leaves, checking for root growth after four weeks.

Maslen concluded that for the balsam poplar, no treatments affected the leafing and that treating with dry hormodin improved the rooting. For the willow, dry hormodin reduced leafing by the first sample date and also reduced rooting.

Maslen aims for a career in marine science, but said working with plants was a lot of fun. Dr. Sparrow said the internship is a good opportunity for bright rural high school students to learn about science by working with scientists and doing hands-on work. “Kelsie is a good worker and good to be around,” he said.

Maslen was recognized at UAF’s Rural Alaska Honors Institute graduation ceremony July 8. The students, who came from forty-three communities across Alaska, spent six weeks living in UAF residence halls, building their academic skills, and learning firsthand about college life. Following graduation, three of the students flew to New Hampshire to participate in three weeks of academic study with the Science & Mathematics through Research Training Project. Another ten students flew to Barrow to work with scientists from the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium and seven others took video cameras home to their communities to complete a film project for possible premiere at the Alaska House in New York. Maslen participated in the Barrow adventure.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

UAF, WSU collaboration benefits agriculture

Seated, from left, Glen Franklin, Haly Ingle, Rich Koenig. Standing, from left, Charlie Knight (Division of Agriculture) and Mingchu Zhang

Recently in Fairbanks a donor got to see firsthand the research he had made possible, and one of the graduate students he funded got to thank her sponsor in person.

Glen Franklin of Delta Junction, retired from the Alaska Division of Agriculture, set up the endowment program with Washington State University Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. He specified that the Franklin Distinguished Graduate Fellow should fund agricultural research that is beneficial to both Alaska and Washington.

For the first time, a WSU agriculture student came to Alaska to do research. Haly Ingle conducted a study of nitrate levels in lettuce, under the direction of Professor Meriam Karlsson. A simultaneous study occurred at WSU in Pullman. On July 6 Franklin met with Ingle in Fairbanks, along with Mingchu Zhang, chair of SNRAS’s High Latitude Agriculture department, and Rich Koenig, chair of WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Koenig is a UAF alumnus.

Franklin explained his generosity. “I want to encourage academic study in agronomy, continuing what Gov. Hammond started in the late 70s.” He lamented that Alaska seems to have lost interest in agriculture and said he hopes Alaskans gain more interest in becoming self-sustaining. “Agriculture has been good for me,” the former European literature professor and farmer said.

Dr. Zhang praised Franklin’s passion for agriculture and the new collaborative effort between the two universities.

Dr. Koenig also lauded the project, Ingle’s work, and Franklin’s foresight. “I’m pleased and impressed,” he said. “We accomplished the goals we set out. It was a good opportunity to compare different environments in terms of latitude and day length.” He will keep in contact with SNRAS professors to select a UAF student who could study at WSU and then return to Alaska to contribute to agriculture here.

“This is really good for both departments,” Koenig said. “I look forward to strengthening the ties between us. We share an interest in horticulture and agronomic crops.”

After seven weeks in Alaska, Ingle packed up her dried samples and returned to Washington, where she will analyze the results and incorporate them into her thesis. She hopes to return to UAF and give a presentation about her work.

“I am so glad I got to meet Glen Franklin and personally thank him,” Ingle said.

Further reading:
“Lettuce gets a close look in Alaska and Washington,” SNRAS blog, by Nancy Tarnai, June 19, 2009

Speaker breaks down the politics of food

You might never look at grocery shopping the same way again after listening to Marion Nestle’s (pictured at right) hard-hitting speech, “Politics of Food: Personal Responsibility vs. Social Responsibility,” at 7 p.m. July 15 in Schaible Auditorium. In this free public event, Nestle will provide an in-depth analysis of the business of food in the United States, an industry that grossed nearly $900 billion in sales in 2000.

A prize-winning author of such books as Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002) and What to Eat (2006), Nestle focuses her research on how science and society influence dietary advice and practice. Her blog provides the latest information on food, nutrition, and the political aspects of food. In her work “Politics of Food,” Nestle offers a behind-the-scenes view of the advertising and marketing involved in the fierce competition for America’s food dollars; she tells us that, like manufacturing cigarettes or building weapons, making food is a very big and very expensive business with an intricate interplay between shareholders, government regulators, lobbyists, advertisers, and the public.

Editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health, Nestle got her start in education and research at the Department of Biology at Brandeis University. She has held positions with the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and the Department of Health and Human Services; been a member of the Federal Drug Administration Food Advisory Committee and Science Board, the USDA/DHHS Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and American Cancer Society committees; and is currently Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food and Studies, and Public Health, and professor of sociology at New York University. Her degrees include a PhD in molecular biology and a master's in public health nutrition, both from the University of California, Berkeley.

Nestle is able to share her expertise with Fairbanks at this free event thanks to the generous support of UAF Cooperative Extension and UAF Summer Sessions and Lifelong Learning. For more information call 474-7021, toll-free 866-404-7021, or e-mail

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Peony harvest: growing fast

Botanical garden horticulture assistant Shannon Pearce shows off the peony plots
Late June and early July find technicians at the Georgeson Botanical Garden snipping peony stalks throughout the day, taking painstaking care in handling each stem to determine the best post-harvesting procedures. “There are so many different methods of handling,” Professor Pat Holloway said. “No one had tried comparing them.”

Examining 400 stems a day, the researchers observe buds that wait in the sun before being placed in water (one hour and three hours) and buds that go straight into cold water the moment they are cut. Clippings are taken to a 34-degree cooler where they are stored. Some are wrapped in newspaper; some are kept in water an entire week. Once the stems are taken from the cooler the technicians measure when the flowers open up and how long the blossoms last before the petals begin to fall. There are 18 different combinations of handling methods, and all the different scenarios are being compared. “It’s not rocket science; it’s real practical stuff,” Holloway said. “People usually do what works best for them.”

Nearly 80 varieties of peonies grow at the botanical garden. The cool season crop comes in a rainbow of colors and shapes and usually begins to emerge from buds by mid-June in Fairbanks. Bloom time is later in other areas of the state, as late as mid-August in southern parts of Alaska.

Peonies have a place in Dr. Pat Holloway's office

Holloway is excited about the experiment because it will help move forward Alaska’s first horticultural export. “The research shows it can be successful,” she said. There has been so much interest in the crop since Holloway delved into it in 2000 that today there are 33 Alaska peony growers statewide, 13 who have at least 500 peonies in the ground. The Interior has seven members in the Alaska Peony Growers Association. “People in the flower industry are always looking for niches,” Holloway said. The beauty of this one is that peonies bloom in Alaska later than they do in the Lower 48 and the demand for them has increased.

Holloway and a cut flower grower from the Lower 48 were both speaking at a greenhouse conference in 1998 and got into a conversation about a cut flower that Alaskans could grow and ship to Outside markets. They jumped from delphiniums to peonies and that’s when something definitely clicked. Holloway got funding from a Sen. Ted Stevens earmark for crop research and the project was off and running.

When Holloway (pictured at left) published variety trials about the peonies she received a call from London requesting 100,000 stems per week. “I told him check back in a few years,” Holloway said. In 2008 the first commercial shipment of peonies went from Colleen James in Homer to a buyer in Texas at a price of $4 per stem.

Peonies, named after Paeon, physician to the Greek gods, are one of the oldest cultivated ornamental plants, dating back nearly 1,400 years in China. “It’s an old-fashioned flower that’s been around forever and it is enjoying a resurgence of popularity,” Holloway said. Peonies are very popular for wedding decorations.

Holloway’s advice for growing peonies is simple: They don’t tolerate wet soil, so they don’t do well in permafrost areas; an area with well-drained soil is ideal. “Peonies are amazingly resilient,” said GBG horticulture assistant Shannon Pearce.

At the Peony Growers Association Aug. 2-4 in Kenai, Homer, and Soldotna, Holloway will present the latest findings of her research. With funding dwindling, Holloway is worried about the future of the project. “It’s uncertain,” she said.

Further reading:
"Peonies: An Economic Background for Alaska Flower Growers," by James D. Auer and Joshua Greenberg, SNRAS/AFES Miscellaneous Publication MP 2009-08, June 2009 (PDF)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Services planned for Robert Wheeler

Dr. Robert Aaron Wheeler, 57, passed away June 29, 2009, at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital after a short battle with cancer, which was a risk associated with his kidney transplant for treatment of polycystic kidney disease. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 7 at the UAF Georgeson Botanical Garden pavilion.

Dr. Wheeler taught forestry classes for SNRAS, including "NRM 452 Forest Health and Protection." He was born in Lewiston, Idaho, on Oct. 5, 1951. He grew up in eastern Oregon, living at several Forest Service ranger stations. This is where he developed his love for fishing, hunting, and forestry. He graduated in 1974 from Oregon State University with a bachelor of science in forestry and earned a master’s degree in forestry from Colorado State University in 1978. After working for a private lumber company in Bend, Ore., for eight years, he moved to Hawaii where he worked on agro-forestry research for five years at the University of Hawaii. Bob traveled extensively with this job, visiting many South Pacific and Southeast Asia countries. While at Hawaii, he developed a fast growing variety of the tree, Leucaena, which is now grown and used throughout Indonesia, South America, Mexico, and Australia. He then returned to school and received his doctorate from Purdue University in 1993. From there, Bob spent a year teaching forestry at Alemaya University in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. He returned to work for the state of Montana and built his dream log house in Red Lodge, Mont. Bob moved to Fairbanks in 1997, where he worked for the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service as a forestry specialist. His most recent project was developing cold tolerant apple trees that would grow and thrive in the Interior. Bob was active in the local, state and national forestry associations, and many committees associated with the university, as well as local and national cooperative extension organizations. His areas of interest included horticulture and climate change and its impact on the boreal forest.

Some of Bob’s colleagues in the Association of Natural Resource Extension Professionals created a blog about Bob. A note from UAF Provost Susan Henrichs, sent to all UAF faculty and staff last week, lauded Bob for his university service. “In addition to his valued Extension work, many of you became acquainted with Bob due to his diligent service on a number of campus committees, including the Master Planning Committee and Promotion & Tenure Committee.”

Bob is survived by his wife of 35 years, Beverly. Donations are being accepted at the Georgeson Botanical Garden for a memorial apple tree in Bob’s name. Donations may be sent to Georgeson Botanical Garden, P.O. Box 757200, Fairbanks, Alaska, 99775-7200.