Friday, July 30, 2010

Agriculture tour brings legislators to Experiment Farm

Squash from Jenny M Farm was a highlight of the SNRAS legislative farm tour luncheon.

Guests, including Alaska lawmakers and their aides, were immersed in agriculture July 21 during a SNRAS/AFES farm tour.

The theme of “Celebrate Alaska Agriculture” was carried out in the food, demonstrations, and talks by agriculture experts.

The event began at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge with an almost entirely Alaska-grown meal, complete with steaks from the Matanuska Experiment Farm, potatoes from UAF research programs, squash from Jenny M Farms, lettuce from Chena Hot Springs Resort, tomatoes from Pike’s Tomato Greenhouse, cucumbers from UAF West Ridge Greenhouse and Pike’s Tomato Greenhouse, and rhubarb bread pudding.

SNRAS Dean and AFES Director Carol Lewis told the audience, “This is where food security begins.” She said UAF, as a land grant university, is part of American heritage that has helped the U.S. produce the highest quality food in the world.

Lewis said when food is gone people will finally understand the real price of food.

After lunch, the group toured the Pike’s Tomato Greenhouse where SNRAS researchers work with FFA students and university students to grow cucumbers and tomatoes hydroponically.

SNRAS Research Professional Jeff Werner, left, explains about hydroponic growing at Pike's Tomato Greenhouse.

On the bus en route to the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, on the west edge of the UAF campus, Professor Steve Sparrow said the day had started backward, with the guests consuming the Alaska-grown food first and then seeing how it is grown. “We’ll do a full circle but we’ll do it backward,” Sparrow said.

He questioned the crowd, “What’s the big deal with food security?” Then he replied, “We are extremely vulnerable concerning food.” If transportation systems were down Fairbanks would be in real trouble in a short amount of time.

The first stop was at Homegrown Market, where owner and livestock producer Jeff Johnson said he opened the shop out of frustration. “There was no outlet to sell meat,” he said. “I got sick to death of not selling my stuff.”

Rep. Ramras,left, and Rep. Bill Stoltze of Chugiak survey the goods at Homegrown Market.

Business in the small, tidy shop is good, according to Johnson. “I had 4,300 people in here last week.” The best sellers are beef, milk, and pork sausage. His next project is to add a smokehouse. “I’m paying my employees and my bills are paid so I’m happy with that,” Johnson said.

Franci Havemeister, director of the Division of Agriculture, enjoyed the quick visit with Homegrown Market owner Jeff Johnson.

Back on the bus Dean Lewis said, “UAF is not steeped in agriculture like most land grants.” In the 1930s and 1940s the university was an integral part of the community. By the 1950s when refrigeration was available it became cheaper to import food than to grow it.

Driving by the West Ridge Greenhouse, Lewis said the old building can’t keep up with the education and outreach needs of the school and community. A new greenhouse is included in the general obligation bond package (House Bill 424) to be voted on this fall. The existing greenhouse, about fifty years old, is 3,500 square feet. The spot it is on is slated for the university’s new Life Sciences building, and a new greenhouse is being planned for construction adjacent to the Arctic Health Research Building.

CES Director and UAF Vice Provost Fred Schlutt said he looks at the AFES greenhouse as part of community sustainability and food security, as well as energy. “It’s a state issue,” he said.

At the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, Lewis told the visitors about the 250-acre research farm. “Much of the land is used to grow food for reindeer,” Professor Steve Sparrow said. Describing his work with biomass, he said, “A lot of what you hear about biomass is hype. We are looking at whether we can farm grasses and wood species feasibly for use as biomass.” Willows and poplars are in the test plots.

Associate Professor Mingchu Zhang emphasized the three components of the experiment farm: “education, research, outreach.” He said barley, oats, wheat, canola, camelina, and sunflowers are tested at the farm.

“We are developing technology for our farmers, determining what we can grow and how we can grow it best,” he said.

USDA Agricultural Research Service Researcher Steve Seefeldt outlined his work with weeds, such as quack grass, bird vetch, and pineapple weed. “Weeds are one of the consequences of farming,” he said. He is currently concentrating on chickweed, experimenting with seventeen different treatments. “I’m studying what happens to herbicides in frozen soils,” Seefeldt said.

Professor Meriam Karlsson took the group though hoop houses. “We are adding new structures as technology has improved and changed,” she said. Hoop houses have been popular in Europe for many years but only the last ten in the U.S. “They get a lot of use in the summer and fall,” she said.

Part of her research is how strawberries are sensitive to day length. “We are trying to get them to flower earlier and produce earlier,” she said. She is also working with six to eight varieties of potatoes, and growing horseradish, sugar beets, and popcorn.

A popular guest on the tour was Rip, a reindeer used by the Reindeer Research Program for outreach. Assistant Professor and RRP Program Manager Greg Finstad explained the meat science and nutrition research performed by RRP. “I believe in the product,” he said. “The meat is an amazing product. It is low-fat, low cholesterol, and has high mineral content.”

Rep. Jay Ramras visits with Rip the reindeer, while at left Associate Professor Mingchu Zhang lectures about research at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm.

But, Finstad cautioned, “If you don’t cook it right it tastes like liver.” He is working with culinary school at Kapiolani Community College in Hawaii to develop gourmet recipes using reindeer meat.

“There is a huge demand for reindeer meat,” Finstad said. “We want to put reindeer meat in grocery stores and upscale restaurants in Alaska.”

A new curriculum for high latitude range management at the Northwest Campus will help to build the industry, he said.

“Reindeer mean food and jobs for Alaskans.”

The last stop on the tour was Rosie Creek Farm, where owner Mike Emers explained that his is the farthest north certified organic farm in the country. He serves 160 Community Supported Agriculture members and sells other crops to restaurants and at farm stands. “I market directly to the consumer,” he said. “The buy-local movement is catching on but it’s tough. We have to charge more for what we sell and we can’t compete with Food Service of America in price but I know my quality is better.”

Surveying his land, he said, “It’s ridiculous that this is the largest vegetable farm in the area; we should have fifty more and we could be feeding Fairbanks.”

As the tour concluded, Rep. Jay Ramras who was a co-host with SNRAS and the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp., said, “I was fascinated with the reindeer discussion and I’m fascinated with growing food for volume so it contributes to food security.

“It’s nice to see so many intelligent people pushing forward with these issues,” Ramras said. “And it was a darned good steak.”

See Denali Park up close and personal

Hikers in Denali National Park will be interviewed by a temporary research aide.

Associate Professor Peter Fix is hiring a temporary research aide to work on a project in Denali National Park. The research project relates to the park's Backcountry Management Plan, specifically evaluating conditions hikers experienced.

The position involves administering surveys during selected times to visitors who have hiked in the backcountry.

Skills required are:
  • ability to follow directions
  • attention to detail
  • aptitude to interact with park visitors
  • ability to represent UAF in a professional manner
Housing in the park will be provided. Compensation is $12.76 per hour, plus travel. The duration of the position is Aug. 22-31. For more information contact Dr. Fix at 907-474-6926.

To apply, visit UAF's job website. Click on "advanced job search" and seek out position #0060170.

A mid-2010 update on Alaska climate change and forest health

Smoke from the Willow Creek Fire has been consistent all summer.

Professor Glenn Juday and student David Spencer will travel the Tanana River to Caribou Crossing and then follow the Kantishna River Aug. 1-5, continuing Juday’s longterm research.

Professor Juday outlines his observations:

Parts of central Alaska, especially the Fairbanks area, received heavy precipitation in a traditional near Fourth of July thunderstorm, on July 5. Some of the deepest accumulations of the largest size hail seen in recent years were part of the storms. Then from July 13 until recently a period of very slightly cooler but cloudy and rainy weather occurred across nearly all of boreal Alaska, which at least nominally ended the 2009-2010 El Nino drought. Total precipitation at most Interior stations is approaching twice normal for July. However, even this break in the weather has not been enough to extinguish the Willow Creek Fire on the Tanana Flats. After all the recent July rain, a line of smoke from smoldering fires around the perimeter is rising, even today. It is difficult not to imagine that long-term stored carbon is being mobilized. The cumulative drying that was necessary to set up this situation was historic, and public interest is so high that an information station has been placed on the George Parks monument (see photo below).

Early August appears to be favorable for a warming trend, setting the stage for a re-activated late fire season. Already the 2010 season has reached 1 million acres burned.

The persisting aspen leaf miner outbreak (pictured above), and possibly the acute heat and drying of summer 2009 are now beginning to clearly take a toll on aspen trees, as can be seen almost everywhere in low-elevation central Alaska. In the first few years of outbreak, aspen leaf miner was a nuisance, then a factor in reducing growth. But after nearly a decade of heavy feeding by leaf miners, tree death on a large scale has begun for the first time to my knowledge and others I have spoken to.

My research (soon to be submitted) shows that spruce budworm outbreaks require a critical heat sum (818F growing degree days or 454C) to be accumulated on or before July 7 at Fairbanks. In 2010, the critical heat sum was accumulated in Fairbanks on July 6. Since the local budworm population was low, it appears that 2010 is a buildup year, and that a warm August 2010 would now favor a 2011 outbreak, unless further population buildup is required to recover from the 2008/2009 budworm low. But that might only delay the outbreak to 2012.

Barrow had a brief cooler than normal period of temperatures (after near-record positive anomalies for most of a year) due to late persisting pack ice to the east in the Beaufort Sea. In late July the ice had largely dissipated, and strong positive temperature anomalies resumed. Monthly precipitation at Barrow during the past year frequently has been twice the normal (extremely low) amount, as could be expected with less ice covering the ocean to the north.

Alaska birch are showing signs of birch leaf scorch, a form of acute drought stress injury. Symptoms normally appear the year after the severe heat and drought, because of the lag effect of root dieback. July 2009 was the fourth warmest month in the entire 105-year Fairbanks record, and leaf scorch is right on schedule by appearing in summer 2010. During our trip to the Rosa Keystone Dunes Research Natural Area in the Tanana Valley State Forest, Quartz Lake, and Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research my technician, students, and I have seen leaf scorch, trees with very low leaf mass and yellow leaves in early summer, birch top dieback, and now tree death. The 2009 severe stress was the second in a decade (previous in 2004/2005), and the trees are near lethal limits of climate change.

Very severe damage from Willow leaf blotch miner has spread in 2010 across most of the Tanana Valley, as we had anticipated after 2009 observations of the Yukon Flats.

Workshop builds cordwood structure for GBG

Agriculture Lab Assistant Grant Matheke takes a break during the construction of a cordwood shed at the Georgeson Botanical Garden.
A Summer Sessions workshop attracted hard-working students who helped build a cordwood shed at the Georgeson Botanical Garden July 27-29.

Led by Rob Roy, the workshop focused on the principles of building a cordwood structure and included hands-on training at the garden. The shed will be used for storing tools.

A closeup shows the pattern of cordwood in the shed wall.

For a full story about the workshop, visit the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Geocaching event draws crowd to UAF

Geocaching participants learned to use GPS instruments at the Monday Marvels event.

The UA Geography Program hosted a high-tech treasure hunt during a Monday Marvels activity on the UAF campus.

The geocaching event was popular with Fairbanksans of all ages, who traversed the area near the Reichardt Building and the UA Museum of the North hunting for designated sites with the help of GPS devices.

The evening began with Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning Post-doctoral Fellow John Bailey explaining the history of global positioning systems, which got their start in the 1960s-1970s. “This was a navigational system created to provide targeting for weapons and keep tabs on troop movements,” he explained. GPS was still in development in 1983 when Korean Air Lines Flight 007 departed Anchorage and was shot down by Soviet interceptors over the Sea of Japan (killing all 269 passengers and crew). After that, President Reagan ordered the military to make GPS available for civilian use so navigational errors could be averted.

While in the 1960s there were only five satellites, by 1994 there was a “full constellation” of satellites, Bailey said, in six different orbits, constantly circling. “It operates using basic fundamentals of geometry.”

Applications for GPS include navigation, surveying, map-making, search and rescue, military tracking and guidance, vehicle and pet tracking, cell phone location, tectonic monitoring. The U.S. nuclear detonation system involves separate instruments that happen to be on each GPS satellite but the functionality is separate from the GPS.

On July 12 GPS use took a fun turn at UAF when Bailey, UA Geography Program Education and Outreach Coordinator Katie Kennedy, and recent geography graduate Amy Rath coordinated the Monday Marvels activity. Groups received GPS devices (once they traded their IDs for them) and were given quick instructions before being sent to a carefully laid-out course. Canisters containing geography-related queries were discovered by the students, who answered the questions and raced to the next cache. Prizes were awarded to the first people back with the correct answers.

“We tried to make it user-friendly,” Kennedy said, and from the excitement exhibited by the crowd, they succeeded.

See photos of the event at this website.

Monday, July 26, 2010

SNRAS leads UAF contingent in Golden Days Parade

George Aguiar on a SNRAS/AFES tractor along the parade route.

Until the starting minute, when the drizzle let up, the weather wasn't extremely cooperative for Saturday's Golden Days Parade in downtown Fairbanks but it did not dampen the spirits of the participants from UAF. Leading the UAF portion of the parade was the SNRAS/AFES tractor driven by Research Coordinator George Aguiar. On the trailer were brass musicians from the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.

Chancellor Brian Rogers and his wife Sherry Modrow (pictured above) walked the entire parade route, handing out blue and gold beads and various trinkets donated by UAF schools and colleges.

UAF's presence in the event, the largest parade in Alaska, included a marching band coordinated by the Music Department, 4-H, FFA, Summer Sessions, athletes in uniform, Facilities Services, the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, the Community and Technical College, Center for Distance Education, UA Press, Printing Services, Fairbanks Shakespeare Theater, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, and more. SNRAS/AFES Public Information Officer Nancy Tarnai, chair of the UAF parade committee, said, "This was a coordinated effort by many people on campus and it turned out to not only be a fun day but an excellent opportunity to share the faces of UAF with the public."

SNRAS Research Professional Jeff Werner (dressed as a clown) along the parade route.

Also visit:
UAF celebrates at Golden Days parade, (photos and video of the parade at UAF website)

Wednesday seminar focuses on climate change, carbon dynamics

"Planning for Alaska's future: Linking climate change science and carbon dynamics to real-world decision-making" will be presented Wednesday, July 28 at 9 a.m. in the UAF Arctic Health Research Building, Room 183.

At the seminar, Nancy Fresco, candidate for research assistant professor with the Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning, will discuss her goals for future collaborative research projects in modeling ecosystem change and carbon dynamics, as well as present an overview of some of her ongoing work at SNAP. These projects link climate projections with other ecological and environmental research, with a strong focus on outreach and collaboration in order to assist land managers and other stakeholders in long-term planning.

The seminar is open to the public and can be distance delivered to other UA locations if there is interest. Please contact Steve Peterson for distance delivery information. For seminar information, contact Susan Todd.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Experts ponder peonies at national conference

From left, Professor Pat Holloway (UAF), Professor Meriam Karlsson (UAF), Red Kennicott of Kennicott Brothers Ltd., and Professor Thomas Davis (UNH) gather to talk about peonies at a Fairbanks conference.
Peony growers and want-to-be growers listened attentively Thursday to nationally-recognized horticultural experts about how to grow peonies in Alaska. The Peony Conference, sponsored by the Georgeson Botanical Garden (a program of the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences) and the Alaska Peony Growers Association, attracted nearly seventy participants.

Beth Ann Van Sandt of Homer came to the meeting because she wants to start growing the big beautiful flowers. “I’m doing a lot of networking,” she said. “I am living vicariously through these experts and gaining knowledge that other people didn’t have when they started growing peonies. I’m getting my feet wet.”

Speaker Red Kennicott of Kennicott Brothers Ltd. told his perspective as an industry representative. He has already contracted with two peony growers on the Kenai Peninsula to buy their flowers. “I’m very fascinated with what is going on in Alaska,” he said.

Because Alaskans can produce blossoms later in the season than most growers there is a market for the blossoms, Kennicott indicated. “There is potential or I wouldn’t be here.” He noted that peonies are in demand for weddings but that the popularity of certain colors and shapes changes over time. “Networking is really important,” he said, urging growers to join peony associations. “Keep up the enthusiasm and the passion,” he said. “Learn all you can about growing and marketing.”

Kennicott pledged his support to the success of growing peonies in Alaska and said it was an honor to be a part of the state’s peony industry.

Cooperative Extension Service Agent Michele Hebert attended because she wanted to learn about weeds and pest management. She often gets calls from the public needing advice and she wants to be prepared. “I want to know about thrips” (a tiny bug), she said.

Professor Thomas M. Davis from the University of New Hampshire participated in the conference because he has the same passion for peony research that UAF Horticulture Professor Pat Holloway has. “By partnering we can enhance our mutual chance of success,” Davis said, referring to USDA grant funding that the conference attendees will be seeking.

Davis’s specialty is studying the breeding and genetics of peonies. “In the long term that is going to be crucial,” he said. “If Alaska is going to have a long-term, sustainable peony industry you want to have a breeding program here to breed peonies to meet specific opportunities and solve problems that will inevitably arise.”

Alaskans are currently “operating in a state of Eden,” due to lack of diseases in peonies and the fact that there is not much competition. “That’s gong to change if the industry is successful,” Davis said. “Alaskans could definitely benefit from the development of more knowledge and resources for peonies related to breeding and genetics.

“Peonies have not yet been well studied from the genetic perspective.”

He said the future for growing peonies in Alaska seems promising. “Obviously it has appeal as a potentially profitable horticulture product.”

The conference began Wednesday with a tour hosted by the Alaska Peony Growers Association. Attendees visited plots on the UAF campus and at private farms, including Polar Peonies, Basically Basil, Spinach Creek Farm, and Lilyvale Farm. Thursday was dedicated to the seminar and Friday and Saturday will be used for planning an approach to request funding through a USDA specialty crop grant.

Further reading:

UAF hosts peony conference for farmers and brokers to discuss Alaska's peony crop, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 25, 2010, by Jeff Richardson

Monday, July 19, 2010

Delta Farm Tour shows full circle of agriculture

Russ Pinkelman poses with Big Joe at his farm on July 15.

Anyone who thinks no one cares about Alaska agriculture didn’t see the curiosity and interest of the participants in the Delta Farm Tour. All fifty-two guests taking the July 15 tour got the picture of the “full circle” of Alaska agriculture.

Starting out in relentless drizzle, tour guide Michael Paschall, publisher of the Alaska Farm and Ranch News and representative of the Farm Bureau, Delta Junction chapter, apologized for the weather, then quipped, “A farmer never says no to rain.”

The tour’s first stop was at Northwest Land and Livestock’s hog barns where there were many echoes of ooh’s and ah’s at the adorable, tiny pink piglets and their big intimidating mothers. Farmer Russ Pinkelmann welcomed the crew with these sage words: “With pigs something is always going to stink.”

Pinkelman’s specialty is Galloway cattle but the focus of his stop on the tour was the “pig show,” as he called it. “We are a ‘dirt to the plate’ operation,” he explained. Pinkelman came to Alaska to work construction and got into farming because of a “love of good quality meat.” When the family got into the pig business they purchased the animals that had been part of a UAF research project. His 25 sows produce 400 piglets a year. Pinkelman’s pigs are sold to individuals and there is usually a waiting list.

“These pigs make the best sausage in the world,” he said. The work is never done in farming and there’s always more to do, he said. “I don’t know how long we’ll survive but it’s in our blood.”

Back on the bus, Paschall explained that raising animals is different in Alaska. “Worldwide the producers do one aspect of it; it’s compartmentalized. Here the producer must take it from inception to packing.” In this state, a farmer will most likely have to raise his own feed for the livestock, birth the animals, raise them up, slaughter them, then ship them.

The bus rolled on to the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station Delta Research Site, researchers gave the highlights of their work on fertilizer, weeds, and grain variety trials.

Meghan Lene of the Soil and Water Conservation District told about her research on phosphorus and potassium. “They are essential for plants to photosynthesize, for respiration, energy transfer, crop yield, and quality of crops,” Lene said. They also provide natural disease resistance. Her plots at the research site compare how plants grow when lime is administered to the soil. “I am hoping to see trends, publish the results, and provide recommendations for phosphorus and potassium,” Lene said. “Fertilizer is not cheap and we want to make sure people are applying the right amount.” UAF Professor Steve Sparrow added that researchers are also studying fishmeal and fish bonemeal as possible fertilizers. “They could be a good organic source of nutrients,” he said.

USDA Agricultural Research Service research agronomist Steve Seefeldt outlined his work with weeds. “Thirty years ago this was forest,” he said. “When it was cleared there were no weeds but shortly after the weeds came in.”

Seefeldt is conducting 17 control treatments in barley fields. Upon completion of the study he will provide recommendations to Cooperative Extension Service agents so farmers can get the results of his research. He is also studying what happens to herbicides in the soil.

UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences Research Technician Bob VanVeldhuizen gave details on the agronomic crops: barley, oats, wheat, rye, canola, smooth bromegrass, and timothy. It was explained that recently UAF released a new type of hulless barley, Sunshine, that has netted nationwide attention and demand.

Lunch at the Snowhook Club was delightfully tailored to an Alaska-grown theme. Local buffalo, potatoes, greens, and rhubarb were on the menu. The crowning jewel was Alaska-made gourmet chocolates from the candy shop next door.

Dustin Peterson ponders life on the farm at Insanity Acres.

Then it was on to Insanity Acres, where the Peterson family wowed the crowd with tales of operating their grain operation, the Natural Resources Conservation Service programs they implement and the “no-till” practices they employ to preserve the land and protect wildlife. Randy Peterson explained how the family farm got its name. “We were farming in Missouri and decided to move up here; people said ‘you’ve got to be insane,’ and it stuck.” The thinking was the Petersons would take life easy in Alaska and do some hunting and fishing. “We went right back into farming even deeper,” Peterson said. “It’s turned into a big nightmare,” he joked.

While he had been practicing no-till farming methods in Missouri for years, he is one of the first to get it started in Alaska, with 500 acres in no-till.

Kasey Peterson showed off her brand new hoop house, where she is endeavoring to grow berries and vegetables. Adding to the excitement, just prior to the bus’s arrival the family had observed a grizzly bear near one of the barns.

In just two and a half years Scott Plagerman has taken a former elk farm and built up a huge hay production operation and horse stable. Even though the rain still poured, Plagerman demonstrated his state-of-the-art irrigation system, one of the few in the area. His unusually-sized 3 x 3 x 8 hay bales and his construction of a hay dryer were of great interest to the tour-goers.

June Siegrist, left, meets Douglas, the four-month old yak. Mary Kaspari is at right.

Extension Agent Phil Kaspari welcomed the group to his farm where people cuddled up to young yaks. Kaspari told about the importance of “imprinting” the babies so they are used to being around humans and act more gently.

The last stop, completing the circle, was Delta Meat and Sausage where everyone (who could take it) walked through the kill floor and peeked into the meat locker to see massive hanging cattle carcasses. After hitting the gift shop it was back to Fairbanks.

USDA Farm Service Agency Alaska Executive Director Daniel Consenstein, among the tour-goers, said about the tour: “I have learned a lot about Alaska agriculture and the potential we have here in Alaska. There are so many opportunities for people who want to grow food and fiber.”

One of the contented tour-takers, Samantha Castle-Kirstein, executive director of the Fairbanks Community Food Bank, thought the tour was well organized with great dialog and speakers. “There was a touch of politics as well as the technical parts,” she said. It’s always good for her to meet food producers and personally she is a hobbyist and locavore too. “It’s good to focus on that,” she said.

SNRAS offers web-based course

Associate Professor Susan Todd (pictured at right) is blazing new trails for SNRAS, offering the school’s first web-based course.

Todd has been teaching the Natural Resources Management 101 course, “Resource Conservation and Policy,” for fourteen years in the traditional classroom setting. “It’s intriguing to find out what it is like to teach an online course,” she said. “The whole concept was new to me.”

She geared up by starting the summer taking an iTeach course at the Center for Distance Education. “They gave me fabulous online tools.”

At first Todd was a little suspicious of online courses, fearing that they were all about bells and whistles and not about substance, but in the past month she has become a convert.

While there is no set time for class and no location to convene (except cyberspace) the course is well organized and going well. Students have weekly deadlines to meet.

The class began with fourteen students and six remain. “It looks like the remaining students are all going to finish,” she said. The class ranges from Fairbanks to Homer and even to Missouri.

One challenge has been trying to get to know the students a little better. With students from the classroom there is a certain familiarity. “I see them ten years later in the grocery store and ask them about their careers and families.” But with the online students, there could be almost no interaction. “I know that body language is important but they’re not getting that from me and vice versa,” she said. To help get acquainted with the online students, Todd asked them to each prepare a home page in Blackboard and include a picture. “I want to think of each of them as a person.”

Something new she is trying with the online course that she really likes is requesting weekly feedback from her students. “They tell me what they like and what needs improvement each week. It’s quick and it’s more detailed than end-of-the-semester evaluations,” she said.

Testing is done online, with students being proctored, and most of the grading is done automatically (except for open-ended questions).

Meanwhile, Todd is building up a huge database of coursework, tests, PDFs, assignments, and readings in Blackboard.

One difference from the classroom course is that students are required to write more essays and post them to the class blog. “I’m hoping this raises the quality because it opens their work to the whole world and their peers.” She has been duly impressed with the writing and lesson plans the students have prepared. “It’s summertime and it’s beautiful out and they are still doing this; that’s pretty dedicated.”

Todd will continue to offer the web-based course as well as her classroom sessions. “It will be interesting to see if the face to face classes get smaller as a result of having this new option open,” she said.

All in all, Todd has been pleased with this first run at online teaching, which fits her profile because she has never been afraid of professional challenges. “I love trying new software,” she said. “That adds a lot of fun to the course.”

Conference draws peony experts to Fairbanks

A peony attracts a busy bee at the Georgeson Botanical Garden.

Although the peak peony season has passed in Fairbanks, peonies will be the sole focus of a conference hosted July 21-24 by the Georgeson Botanical Garden and the Alaska Peony Growers Association.

Experts in floriculture, specialty cut flowers, high tunnels, nutrition, soils, plant diseases, breeding, and post-harvest care will arrive from universities across the nation. Private industry will be represented by Red Kennicott of Kennicott Brothers Ltd. and Don Hollingsworth of Hollingsworth Nursery.

On the first day the participants will tour the GBG, Polar Peonies, Basically Basil, Spinach Creek Farm and Lilyvale Farm.

The second day is dedicated to a symposium at the Elvey Auditorium on the UAF Campus. Topics will include an overview of specialty cut flowers, the peony cut flower industry perspective, research needs, marketing, field production, pest management, DNA fingerprinting, and breeding. There is a $50 fee to attend either the Wednesday tour or the Thursday sessions, or a $75 fee to attend both. Call 474-5651 for details and to register.

“This is Flowers 101,” said Patricia Holloway, a horticulture professor at UAF and director of the GBG. “This will give people a good background into peonies.”

Holloway considers the big beautiful blossoms the most economically valuable plant in Alaska. “It’s the first agricultural export with a huge potential,” she said. “I am getting calls from London for peonies.”

There are currently forty-one producers growing peonies in the state, from Fairbanks to Homer, and more are joining the ranks each year. Of those, thirteen have 500 or more peony plants. “It’s an emerging industry,” Holloway said. “This is big time; this is outsiders investing in agriculture in Alaska.”

To conclude the activities, the experts and growers will form a “think tank” to prepare a proposal for a USDA specialty crop research grant. The goal is to discover exactly what is necessary to market peonies, extend the seasons, and explore cut flower opportunities. The conference was funded by UAF Center for Research Services.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Botanical garden tea party raises funds for amphitheater

From left, Virginia Damron, Donna Dinsmore, and Melody Springer lead the grand march, followed by the bagpipe band.

Lorraine Peterson showed people how to make art with pressed flowers.

Karen (left) and Meghan Malone showed off their extensive collection of Irish treasures.

The Georgeson Botanical Garden was transformed into a Celtic wonderland July 11 during the GBS Society annual tea party fundraiser. GBG Society President Donna Dinsmore said, "It's a beautiful day and everyone is having a wonderful time."

Scottish and Irish music, attire, and food created a festive atmosphere. Fairbanksans attending the gala affair showed up in their Sunday best, from kilts to laces. A highlight of the day was the grand march, with Dinsmore leading the Red Hackle Pipe Band and willing participants throughout the garden and up the hillside. Other music was provided by Anam Cara and the Fairbanks Flute Quartet. Karen Malone had an entire booth full of Irish items her family has collected and Lorraine Peterson helped willing passersby create beautiful pressed flower artwork. A scavenger hunt and Scottish golf game rounded out the fun activities.

Many behind-the-scenes volunteers worked for months to plan the successful event. The society is working to raise money for the completion of the Drew Amphitheater. "Our goal is $180,000 so we have a while to go," Dinsmore said.

If interested in joining the society, visit its website. GBG is a program of UAF's School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

GPS: hands-on session set for Monday

If you often ask yourself “Where am I?” an upcoming free lecture and learning session is perfect for you. University of Alaska Geography Program faculty and staff John Bailey, Amy Rath, and Katie Kennedy will explain the origins and workings of global positioning systems at a lecture and workshop Monday, July 12 at 7 p.m. in Room 201, Reichardt Building. This free lecture will include a demonstration of how to use GPS devices, followed by a treasure hunt. GPS units will be available for loan (with appropriate ID). Fun prizes will be given to the winners.

First there is a brief lecture on the workings of GPS, its use, and some applications for the waypoint data/tracklogs. This will be followed by a geocaching activity where young people and their parents will romp around near the Reichardt Building in search of locations of caches using hand-held GPS instruments. Geolocated photographs will be posted at a special website. (Google Earth plug-in required).

Bailey is a post-doctoral fellow with the Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning, Kennedy is the UAGP education and outreach coordinator, and Rath is a 2010 geography program graduate. (Pictured from left are Kennedy, Bailey, Rath.)

The event is part of the Monday Marvels series, a free hands-on session and lecture series presented by UAF Summer Sessions & Lifelong Learning and the Alaska Summer Research Academy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Botanical garden hosts Celtic tea party

Musicians, including Anam Cara, will provide a lively background for the Georgeson Botanical Garden Society Celtic Tea Party on Sunday. (Photo by Ken McFarland)

The Georgeson Botanical Garden Society will present a Celtic Garden Tea Party, a fundraising benefit for the Georgeson Botanical Garden, Sunday, July 11, from 1 to 4 p.m. This event will weave together the tartans, plaids, and kilts of Scotland wth the symbolic green of Ireland, and the best tea foods from both countries. Authentic scones with jam and cream, shortbread, Irish soda bread, traditional cakes, and tea breads will be served with classic British teas.

Live music is being donated by Anam Cara, an ensemble that plays traditional harp, fiddle, and whistle tunes from Scotland and Ireland. At 2:30 p.m. the Red Hackle Bagpipe Band will arrive to play the stirring sounds of the Scottish bagpipes and lead a grand march to the pipes through the garden. The grand march, a social happening descended from Victorian times, was used to introduce people to each other. In this case it will show off the numerous flower beds and specialty gardens that GBG has to offer.

People who have family tartans or kilts are encouraged to wear them for the event; otherwise wear Irish green. There will be a display of Irish crafts, including weaving, pottery, and glass objects. Scottish outdoor games will be played.

The GBG Society was formed three years ago to provide additional funding opportunities and awareness of GBG's value to area residents and guests. Past events have included a Victorian Tea and an Alaska Statehood Tea. "It takes a community working together to create successful multi-faceted events such as these," said Ken McFarland of the GBG Society. The society is working to provide funding for the Drew Amphitheater, located high on the hillside above the garden. Named in memory of Jim Drew, former dean of the School of Agriculture and Land Resources Management and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, the amphitheater will provide a dramatic setting for weddings, community social events, and outdoor lectures.

Tickets are $40 for GBG Society members and $48 for others; the price includes a commemorative teacup. Tickets may be purchased at the botanical garden gift shop or Gulliver's Books. Call 474-5651 or 479-5265, or e-mail Donna Dinsmore for details.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Advice on sustainability in Alaska gardens shared by experts

From left, Jenny Day, Katie DiCristina, and Pat Holloway shared their knowledge on sustainability.

Professor Pat Holloway opened a Summer Sessions-sponsored June 30 lecture on sustainable gardening with a question. After asking how many gardeners were in the audience and noting that most people were waving their hands, Dr. Holloway said, “I’m preaching to the choir.”

When she first heard the buzzword “sustainable” Holloway said she immediately thought, “That’s a gardener’s middle name.”

At the Georgeson Botanical Garden, a program within UAF's School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Holloway, the GBG director, said she tries not to let the word sustainable become so commonplace that it gets overlooked. “Sustainability is important in everything, especially gardening,” she said, “but you can screw it up pretty badly.”

Sustainable practices have been used at GBG for a long time. “We have the oldest compost pile in interior Alaska,” Holloway said.

Sustainability must include looking at the big picture of what people are doing and their place in the environment. “Is it environmentally sound, economically feasible, and socially acceptable?” Holloway asked. Her favorite definition for sustainability is: “Simply put, sustainable gardening is that which depletes neither the garden nor the gardener.”

Holloway emphasized five areas critical to sustainable garden practices: water, plants and animals, materials, human health and well being, soils, and financial and political health.

Wise use of water is imperative, Holloway said. “Minimize waste, avoid erosion, and minimize pollution,” she advised. “It can be as simple as using rain barrels.”

Before the botanical garden was built, Holloway consulted with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help plan how to manage water so gullies would not form and the garden would not lose its precious topsoil. For Holloway, managing water includes having diversion ditches, directional slopes and paths, grass walkways, and porous gravel walkways. Also, irises and daylilies are instrumental in helping manage water.

For irrigating, GBG uses soaker hoses and trickle irrigation systems. Mulching and composting also help in this conservation effort. And all the rainwater that can be caught is used to water plants.

As for sustainable plantings, Holloway said, “I’ve been an advocate for years and years about using native plants.” Propagating your own plants is another recommended method. “I’m a big fan of berry bushes,” she said. “If you have to plant a bush why not a black current bush?”

In the vegetable garden, Holloway said she tries all kinds of experiments to see what will grow and what won’t. “We even figured out a way to grow artichokes.”

Whatever you are growing needs to fit the location. “Think about the whole life cycle of the plant; figure out the ecology of the plant,” Holloway said.

She advised constantly looking out for potential invasive plants. “Every plant has the potential to run amok.”

Holloway encouraged everyone to share seeds and cuttings with other gardeners. “Learn how to take cuttings and do graftings,” she said. “It’s not insurmountable.”

Concerning pest control, Holloway said GBG is not entirely chemical free but there is hardly anything that can’t be controlled with biological products.

To be more sustainable, re-use garden materials as much as possible.

In the human health category, Holloway stressed the importance of antioxidants gained from wild berries. “We try to help gardeners become more knowledgeable in what they are eating,” she said. “The trend across the nation is to grow local. We can do it here.”

Her final point was the beauty of recycled art in gardens. Showing examples of planters made out of basketballs and cactus growing in an old chair, she said, “Gardening stimulates art and great literature. Using recycled art is a fun and interesting way to enjoy gardens in a different way.”

Yet in the end the thing that is most sustainable is education, Holloway said. “It’s the cornerstone of sustainability. Knowledge can be gained from Summer Sessions, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Master Gardeners, and even the back fence. “Pass it on, especially to the next generation,” Holloway said.

SNRAS Research Technician Katie DiCristina began her talk on sustainable soils with a definition. The word sustainable comes from the Latin word sustinere (to hold up, capable of enduring). “The forest is truly sustainable,” DiCristina said. “It maintains itself over time. We can look to these sustainable soils and apply to our own gardens.”

Soil consists of an organic layer, topsoil, subsoil, parent material, and bedrock. One teaspoon of soil can contain 100 million to 1 billion bacteria, several yards of fungal hyphae, thousands of protozoa, forty to fifty nematodes, and some arthropods and earthworms. “It’s all interconnected,” DiCristina said. “It’s a complex web of relationships between organisms.”

The “ingredients” of soil help the soil structure, increase water holding capacity, improve aeration, decrease erosion, and aid in nutrient availability and disease resistance.

Common methods of soil management include Rototilling, using pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and compost. “Rototilling makes the soil nice and fluffy but it breaks up the fungal hyphae and kills the worms and arthropods,” DiCristina said.

Pesticides reduce the microbial diversity, “killing the things you want to kill and the things you don’t want to kill.”

When applying fertilizer DiCristina advised getting to know your plants and what they actually need. Adding compost increases the microbial populations and builds the soil structure.

Her advice is to limit Rototilling and if you must do it, work in compost as you go. Limit pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. Follow up with compost teas. Apply compost. “Feed the soil, not the plants,” she said. “If you have healthy soil you will have healthy plants.”

Jenny Day, UAF Facilities Services landscape supervisor, concluded the evening with a talk about the work she and her crew are doing on campus. They maintain 200 annual and perennial beds and 124 hanging baskets and pots. They take care of some houseplants in offices, provide a cut flower service, and grow some food for dining services based on organic principles.

“I am incredibly interested in sustainability,” Day said. Facilities Services greenhouse is heated with steam and solar panels heat the water. Day uses no chemical fertilizers and she started a compost pile last year. She uses a computer database to track all aspects of gardening work to minimize use of paper.

Her most innovative methods have included switching annual beds to perennial and introducing companion planting where she pairs vegetables with flowers or herbs in the same bed. “We are working toward being more sustainable,” she said. “It’s sometimes a battle but a lot of people want the university to be a better place.”

Further reading:

Holloway recommends: The Sustainable Sites Initiative

Day recommends:
Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening, Storey Publishing 1975, 1998, by Louise Riotte

Great Garden Companions: A Companion-PLanting System for a Beautiful, Chemical-Free Vegetable Garden, Rodale Press, Inc., by Sally Jean Cunningham

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fairbanks conference to examine all aspects of peony production

This beautiful blossom was photographed June 30 at the Georgeson Botanical Garden.

UAF Georgeson Botanical Garden and the Alaska Peony Growers Association invite producers and other interested parties to attend the Summer Peony Growers Conference July 21–22 in Fairbanks. The conference includes an all-day tour of the botanical garden and Fairbanks area farms on July 21 and presentations July 22 from peony researchers, soil scientists, nursery owners, and cut flower industry representatives. Topics will include marketing, production, soils, pest management, breeding, and more. On July 23-24 a grant writing session will be held.

John Dole, professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State University, will lecture on specialty cut flowers. Red Kennicott, Kennicott Brothers Ltd., Chicago, Ill., will talk about the peony cut flower industry perspective. Don Hollingsworth of Hollingsworth Nursery, Maryville, Mo., will talk about research needs from the industry. Bridget Behe, horticulture professor at Michigan State University, and Jim Collins, director of entrepreneurship at UAF School of Management, will talk about cut flower marketing and entrepreneurship.

SNRAS Professor Meriam Karlsson and Brian Krug, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension greenhouse/floriculture specialist, will lecture on field production and high tunnels. SNRAS Associate Professor Mingchu Zhang and Dave Mengel, Kansas State University, will discuss nutrition and soils. USDA Agricultural Research Service's Alberto Pantoja and Steve Seefeldt, along with Agricultural Extension Agent Phil Kaspari of UAF Cooperative Extension Service, will talk about pest management. Peony diseases will be addressed by Ken Johnson, Oregon State University professor of botany and plant pathology. A session on virus indexing and DNA fingerprinting will be led by Kim Hummer, Nancy Robertson, and Barbara Reed of the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository, Corvallis, Ore. Tom Davis, University of New Hampshire, and Peter Waltz, private breeder, will talk about breeding peonies. Post harvest issues will be addressed by John Dole, NC State.

The deadline for registering is July 12. Call 907-474-5651 for further information.