Friday, August 27, 2010

Students learn to grow and share

Ellen Vande Visse and Jeff Smeenk survey the student garden at the Matanuska Experiment Farm.

Learning and sharing are the byproducts of a vegetable garden at the Matanuska Experiment Farm.

For the second year, SNRAS Assistant Professor Jeff Smeenk and Ellen Vande Visse of the Good Earth Garden School have been working with students to grow food that is donated to local food banks. “That way people learn who’s hungry,” Vande Visse said.

Throughout the summer thirteen students have been immersed in market gardening philosophies and techniques. The course is part of a series of agriculture classes offered through the UAA Matanuska-Susitna College. Many of the students are home gardeners but this was their first exposure to production scale gardening. Some are very experienced and others are beginners, making it challenging to teach the class. “We have some very earnest students and some still formulating their plans,” Vande Visse said.

In the spring, local farms donated transplants for the garden and Smeenk contributed excess seed potatoes from his potato variety trials. Also grown were zucchini, salad greens, chard, celery, and beets.

“We are trying to show good gardening practices,” Smeenk said. One-third of the garden rests under cover crops while two-thirds is in production. This method helps build organic matter. Smeenk and Vande Visse used a mixture of seed for the cover crop, which has proven highly successful. The garden is organic, with the only fertilizer being fish. It is also supplemented with homemade compost, spoiled hay, and cow manure. “Talk about sustainable,” said Vande Visse. “Talk about recycling.”

“This helps meet the needs in the community,” Smeenk said. “We are always interested in helping people with horticulture and I’m interested in helping growers make the transition from gardeners to small-scale producers. And this project is a good way for UAA and UAF to collaborate.”

Vande Visse hopes the gardening project will continue. “This is a way to involve people in the fun of growing things and it gives the experiment farm some exposure,” she said.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

UAF is home of Alaska's largest black spruce

The largest black spruce tree in Alaska lives on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Forester Tom Malone stands beside the tree.

By Ned Rozell
Forester Tom Malone once guided me on a trek to see Alaska’s largest black spruce tree. It was a short adventure. The 71-foot tree is a two-minute walk from my office.

The Alaska champion black spruce tree stands on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The tree lives in a mixed forest next to large white spruce trees, mature birch and a few alders and willows. The tree leans uphill, and its trunk is 45 inches around. When I hugged it, I could barely clasp my hands together. The largest black spruce in Alaska is a lucky tree, because its neighbors to the north are gone, removed in the mid-1990s during the installation of a power line.

The Alaska champion black spruce stood exposed for a few years before a researcher visiting from Iceland, a land of many volcanoes but few trees, pointed it out to forest geneticist John Alden as they walked by in the spring of 2001.

“He said, ‘That’s a black spruce,’” Alden said. “I said, no, it was too large. I didn’t think it could be a black spruce.”

Alden, a longtime university forest geneticist, thought the tree was a type of white spruce that is darker green and has coarser bark than other white spruce. When the snow melted, Alden walked back to the tree and saw beneath it the telltale sign of black spruce — pudgy cones, about one inch long. White spruce cones are longer and pointier.

Alden nominated the black spruce in “The Big Tree Challenge,” a nationwide program that was run in Alaska by Tom Malone of the UAF Department of Forest Sciences. Malone used a laser-measuring device to confirm the tree’s height of 71 feet, which bested the old record of 65 feet, set by a tree that stands near where the Tolovana River empties into the Tanana River in Interior Alaska.

Alaska’s largest black spruce stands up against national competition. The U.S. record is a 78-foot black spruce in Taylor County, Wisconsin, according to the National Register of Big Trees. The tallest trees are not always the winners of The Big Tree Challenge; foresters score trees on height, circumference and the spread of a tree’s crown.

The black spruce on the UAF campus is taller than the state record western paper birch, a 67-footer near Haines, and Alaska’s tallest balsam poplar, a 60-foot tree on the Kuskokwim River. Alaska’s current champion white spruce will soon give up its title, Malone said. The 112-foot tree in the floodplain of the Tok River is dying from an exposed root system.

Other Alaska state champions are a 126-foot quaking aspen off Cache Creek Road, west of Fairbanks; a 132-foot black cottonwood providing a lofty perch for eagles in Haines; a western hemlock standing 150 feet tall on Admiralty Island; and a Sitka spruce near Exchange Cove on Prince of Wales Island — perhaps the tallest tree in the state, at 185 feet.

(Ned Rozell photo.) Ned Rozell is a science writer at the Geophysical Institute.

Friday, August 20, 2010

SNRAS Dean promises botanical garden will remain open

Georgeson Botanical Garden.

Regardless of social media claims made Aug. 20 that the Georgeson Botanical Garden, a program of SNRAS/AFES, would be closing, Dean and Director Carol Lewis stated adamantly that the facility will definitely remain open.

“The garden will be whole,” Lewis said. “We are very proud of the garden and we will do everything we can to maintain it.”

GBG fits perfectly with some of the school’s main areas of focus, including economic development with GBG’s peony and berry work, and food security with the research done on foods appropriate for production in Alaska, Lewis said.

She explained that the school has been facing financial challenges and recently did provide layoff notices to three staff members (none at GBG). The school’s research technicians who are funded through federal formula funds were placed on eleven-month contracts for the current fiscal year and faculty members who receive formula funds through approved projects were given nine-month contracts with only one additional month added rather than the three additional months they had been provided in the past. Faculty have the opportunity to pursue funding from external grants and contracts and quite a few are already funded in this manner.

“We are working our way out of this budget shortfall,” Lewis said. “We have tremendous support from people around the state and we fully expect to see brighter days ahead.”

The Fairbanks Experiment Farm, founded in 1906, is home to GBG, which has been in operation since 1989. In addition to being a beautiful place for the public to visit and hold events, the garden is home to 350 varieties of flowers and 150 vegetable varieties. The overall vision of the garden is to demonstrate the depth and breadth of responsible natural resources management in Alaska.

Pat Holloway, GBG director, said the garden is a center for horticultural knowledge in subarctic Alaska, providing information to growers interested in sustainably managing lands for garden culture, producing plants commercially or for home use, exploring new crops and new markets, preserving traditional plant knowledge, expanding uses of native plants, conserving and rehabilitating plants on wild lands, and promoting good stewardship of horticultural resources.

“We conduct applied plant research that adds to this body of knowledge and we share results of our efforts through formal and informal education for all ages, published works for the local and scientific community, and internet networking,” Holloway said.

Eat local for a week: the veggies are here!

The state’s Alaska Grown program will host its Eat Local Challenge 2010 Sunday through Saturday, Aug. 22-28. This year, the Alaska Center for the Environment has joined Alaska Grown as a sponsor as part of the center’s local foods and sustainable communities program.

Alaskans have many ways to eat local, from veggies they grow in their own gardens or buy from Alaska farmers, berries they pick, fish they catch, game meat they hunt, seaweed and other beach greens they gather, etc. The benefit of eating local food is it’s fresher so it tastes better and has more nutrients, and you cut out the thousands of miles of transportation costs needed to ship food from the Lower 48 and other countries to Alaska. Growing local food makes a community more sustainable.

During the week of Aug. 22-28, Alaska residents are encouraged to:

  • Try eating at least one home-cooked meal this week, made of mostly local ingredients.
  • Try to incorporate at least one never-before-used local ingredient into a meal.
  • Try “brown-bagging” at least one meal this week made primarily of local ingredients.
  • Try talking to at least one local food retailer and one food producer about local food options.
  • Try to choose local food products whenever possible.

(Reprinted from the Sitka Local Foods Network.)

Good sources for local foods in Fairbanks are the Tanana Valley Farmers' Market, open Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. or the Ester Community Market, Thursdays from 4 30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Ester Park. Calypso Farm operates five farm stands at local schools and FFA produce is sold at Pike's Waterfront Lodge greenhouse.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Farm draws crowd to Ag Day event

Jeanne Havemeister displayed the wonderful dairy products from her family farm.

Aug. 17 was a good day for ducks at the Matanuska Experiment Farm, but it also proved a good day for people. With rain falling on the Valley for the thirty-second day in a row, people defied the precipitation and ventured to the farm to celebrate Alaska Agriculture Appreciation Day.

Over 300 visitors arrived to chat with vendors, watch animals get milked and professors get dunked, win cakes in the cake walk and bob for fresh vegetables in tubs of ice cold water, in short, to have fun at the farm!

"It's amazing how people pulled together for this," said SNRAS Associate Professor Norm Harris. Nearly fifty exhibitors set up tents in the rain and displayed their goods and information, from tractors to cotton candy to rhubarb recipes. SNRAS Dean and AFES Director Carol Lewis said, "I think it's great; I'm totally impressed."

In the past, the farm had hosted a similar event but it had been six years since the last one; it seemed the community was ready for it at this time. Popular tunes and soulful oldies were belted out by Alaskan Express Air Force Band. There were vegetables, dairy products, plants, jewelry, food, and pottery for sale, as well as free information and publications by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Cooperative Extension Service, Alaska Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, Mat-Su Borough Cultural Resource department, and other organizations.

Mike Pendergrast gives a goat milking demonstration.

A highlight of the day was the old-fashioned games run by Rachel Kenley, past Alaska FFA president. She organized a cake walk, vegetable bobbing, tug of war, and a treasure hunt in the hay, much to the delight of the children who participated and their parents and grandparents who watched the excitement.

Matanuska Experiment Farm Manager Jud Scott expressed appreciation to all the sponsors and exhibitors and said he is already looking forward to the 2011 Ag Appreciation Day at the farm.

"I think it turned out very well," said Fiscal Technician Gidget Wensel. "The public needs to be aware that agriculture exists. This is a good opportunity for them to meet agricultural entities."

Riley Scott dives for vegetables in the ice cold water.

View slide show on Flickr

Read the Frontiersman writeup: "Fun on the farm," The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, Aug. 19, 2010, by Victoria Naegele

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Auction buyers bid high on reindeer

Brianne Frame shows off her reindeer at the Tanana Valley State Fair livestock auction.

The second year that reindeer were included in the Tanana Valley State Fair 4-H and FFA livestock auction saw a huge increase in the price of reindeer on the hoof.

The auction, held Aug. 13 at the fairgrounds, featured an evening of local business owners and individuals bidding on turkeys, steers, rabbits, lambs, goats, swine, geese, chickens, and reindeer.

While 2009's reindeer prices topped at $7 per pound, this year's reserve champion, shown by Joe Bue, sold for $10.25 per pound to Bucher Glass. The grand champion animal, shown by Joe's sister Cortney Bue, went for $9.75 per pound to Patrick Mechanical Inc. Brianne Frame's animal sold to Delta Meat and Sausage for $7.25 a pound.

"I was pleasantly surprised," said Reindeer Research Program Research Coordinator George Aguiar, who provided guidance to the students throughout their time raising the animals. RRP, a program of SNRAS, donated the reindeer to the 4-H'ers with the agreement that they would sell the animals at the livestock auction for butchering purposes only.

Aguiar credited the students with promoting the value of their animals to local business people prior to the market auction. "There was a lot more serious bidding than last year," he said. "I was very happy with the prices. The animals looked really nice and the kids did a great job raising the reindeer, tracking their intake and costs, and maintaining their hoof trims and vaccines."

Due to budget cuts, RRP was not able to provide reindeer calves to 4-H'ers for the 2011 auction, but the program is currently seeking funding to help the project continue. "We are trying to show that these are livestock and meat animals," Aguiar said.

Friday, August 13, 2010

UAF: Your land grant institution

Imagine a country where enemy combatants terrorize citizens at home and at work, where civil hostilities tear apart families, and where the largest share of the nation’s treasury fuels domestic warfare. That place was the United States in 1862. At that time, during the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed the law that created the states’ land-grant universities. Weeks earlier, Lincoln had signed the Homestead Act and established the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It would seem that the nation’s leaders, at a moment of national crisis, saw education and agriculture as necessary to national security.

How much do we still depend on education and agriculture? What is the legacy of the land-grant university in the twenty-first century?

Before 1862, higher education was a privilege for the wealthy, patterned after the European class system. A college education was generally available if you were wealthy, white, and male. You would study Latin, literature, law, or the classics at a private school. Education of the working class was left to guilds, where tradesmen instructed apprentices, or to seminaries, where clergymen taught religious novices. In the young United States, a few well-educated planters studied scientific agriculture, but generally it was the pioneering yeoman farmers who tilled the soil in the same way their grandfathers had back in the old country.

The idea of education for all people was revolutionary. There was nothing else like it in the world. At the beginning of the industrial revolution and the massive migration into the western United States, the land-grant universities represented a radical idea: public education is fundamental to the nation’s economic development.

With the radical idea that research was fundamental to the nation’s economic development, Congress passed the Hatch Act in 1887, which established a network of Agricultural Experiment Stations. And in 1914, at the onset of World War I, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act that established the Extension Service to deliver research- based education to all people, reinforcing the idea that education is fundamental to a strong nation. UAF is Alaska’s land-grant university, and the radical ideas of public education, practical research, and the Extension Service are written into its mission.

The Alaska Agricultural Experiment Station was established in 1898 in Sitka and branches were later opened in Kodiak, Kenai, Rampart, Copper Center, Fairbanks, and the Matanuska Valley. The latter two remain as the Fairbanks Experiment Farm and the Matanuska Experiment Farm. The USDA established the Fairbanks experiment station in 1906 on a site that in 1915 provided land for the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. In 1931, the experiment station was transferred from federal ownership to the college, and in 1935 the college was renamed the University of Alaska. Early experiment station researchers developed adapted cultivars of grains, grasses, potatoes, and berries, and introduced many vegetable cultivars appropriate to Alaska. Animal management was also important. This work continues, as does research in soils and revegetation, forest ecology and management, and rural and economic development. The station is administered through the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences. As the state faces new challenges in agriculture and resource management, the AFES continues to bring state-of-the-art research information to the people of Alaska. Scientists are improving crops and learning ways to keep water clean and soil healthy. UAF Cooperative Extension Service has faculty working throughout the state, where they deliver research-based education to communities, industries, and youth.

"This is where food security begins," SNRAS Dean and AFES Director Carol Lewis said. "We are your land grant. Own it, love it, and we'll love you back."

(This article was adapted in part from the Summer 2010 Oregon's Agricultural Progress magazine, Oregon State University, by Peg Herring, editor.)

SNRAS welcomes new chef to UAF

From left, Dean and Director Carol Lewis, Professor Meriam Karlsson, and UAF's new Executive Chef Natalie Janicka pause in front of a row of corn at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm.

SNRAS welcomes UAF's new executive chef, Natalie Janicka. Raised in California, she has been in Alaska for sixteen years. Her most recent position was chef at the Snow City Cafe in Anchorage.

Janicka shows strong support for local food and will be exploring the possibilities for incorporating some Alaska-grown foods into the menus on campus. "It's wide open," she said. "There is tremendous potential."

At Snow City, Janicka included local foods on the menu, which was met with great acclaim by the clientele. "People really want what's around them," Janicka said.

To familiarize Janicka with SNRAS and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Dean and Director Carol Lewis and Professor Meriam Karlsson gave her a tour of the Fairbanks Experiment Farm Aug. 11. Viewing the potatoes, corn, kale, berries, and other bountiful crops, Janicka was duly impressed. "It's amazing the variety of vegetables and fruits you have going here," she said. "It's really exciting to see the potential and the possibilities."

While the farm can't supply the food demands of Nana Management Services, Janicka's employer and the operator of dining services at UAF, Lewis wanted her to see what foods can be grown in Fairbanks. "If this is adopted by local producers this is the variety you can expect," Lewis said.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Arctic experts gather at UAF

Dozens of university leaders and students from around the Arctic will gather at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Aug. 12-15 for the fourth University of the Arctic Rectors’ Forum.

The event will draw university presidents, chancellors and other leaders from eight circumpolar nations for discussions about postsecondary education’s role in serving northern communities.

“The University of the Arctic is an extraordinary network of over 120 postsecondary educational institutions across all the countries of the circumpolar north,” said forum chairman and UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers. “The Rectors’ Forum is the only annual international gathering of the leaders of these institutions and UAF is honored to host the 2010 meeting. Participants will discuss how the UArctic network can best address the educational and other needs of an arctic region that is undergoing rapid and unprecedented change.”

The forum is preceded by a student workshop with a similar focus. The student workshop began today and runs through Saturday.

“The UArctic students in the workshop, which runs parallel with the Rectors’ Forum, will identify gaps in how universities serve northern communities as well as best practices for solving problems common to the Arctic,” said UAF professor Rich Boone, who serves as UAF’s representative on the University of the Arctic council. “It’s an opportunity for a fresh perspective from graduate students who will become future leaders in science, policy, resource management, and governance in the eight Arctic nations.”

The University of the Arctic is a network of universities and other higher education organizations that work together to build educational programs that address the needs of circumpolar communities. The University of the Arctic currently offers a bachelor’s-level certificate in circumpolar studies. Courses are open to students at all member institutions and are delivered online.

Work to establish the University of the Arctic began in 1997; UAF is one of the founding members. The first rectors’ forum was held in 2007. The forums are an opportunity for the leaders of the member institutions to meet face-to-face and determine direction for the network.

The forum will open with a reception on Thursday, Aug. 12 and will be followed by two full days of workshops and presentations from scientists and leaders, including Denali Commission co-chairman Joel Neimeyer, UAF professors John Walsh, Scott Rupp (director of SNRAS's SNAP program), Terry Chapin and Terrence Cole, and UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer. Sessions on Friday afternoon will focus on higher education, business and tourism, health, and climate, energy, and natural resources. On Sunday, participants will make their final recommendations and sign a declaration that will provide direction for the coming year.

The student workshop began today, when fifteen graduate students from nine universities met on campus for the first time. In advance of the workshop, students surveyed their local leaders about how universities can best serve communities. Most of the morning on Thursday will be spent in a panel discussion about how universities can help communities deal with the challenges they face. Students will join rectors for plenary sessions on Friday and Saturday and will present the results of the workshop to the rectors’ forum on Saturday afternoon. The student workshop has been organized by four graduate students in the UAF Resilience and Adaptation Program.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Matanuska Experiment Farm hosts Ag Appreciation Day

August days are beautiful at the Matanuska Experiment Farm. (Photo by Norman Harris)

The public is invited to help UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences celebrate agriculture at a free event Aug. 17 at the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer.

“We invite the public to come see your farm,” said Judson Scott, farm manager. In the past the farm hosted an agriculture day event annually but it has been six years since the last one was held. “It’s the resurrection of ag day,” Scott said. “We are celebrating agriculture in Alaska and the 75th anniversary of the Matanuska Colony.”

The day is planned to be both educational and fun for friends and neighbors in the Matanuska Valley and beyond. There will be hay wagon rides, pony rides, a small farmers’ market and a GPS scavenger hunt. A musical performance will be given by the Air Force band, Alaskan Express.

Animals will be on display and milking demonstrations will be given. Games include animal calling, a cabbage toss, a cake walk, potato sack races, tug of war, three-legged races, and vegetable bobbing. Prizes will be awarded.

Informational booths will feature displays on the Matanuska Colony, Natural Resources Conservation Service, potato varieties, steam tractor engine, and water quality. Vendors will be selling food and displaying their wares. A demonstration of precision agriculture will be given, along with tours of the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences research labs.

The celebration will be held at the Matanuska Experiment Farm, 1509 South Trunk Road, Palmer, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. A farm fun run (3.7K or 6K) will conclude the day’s activities at 6:30 p.m. Co-sponsors with SNRAS/AFES are the UAF Cooperative Extension Service and the Alaska Division of Agriculture.

For more information, contact Judson Scott at 907-746-9481 or Phyllis Craig at 907-746-9495.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Chena Hot Springs hosts energy fair

SNRAS will be well represented at the Fifth Annual Renewable Energy Fair hosted by Chena Hot Springs Resort on Sunday, August 15. Speaking from SNRAS will be Dean and Director Carol E. Lewis, Professor Meriam Karlsson, Research Professional Jeff Werner, and Assistant Professor Andy Soria.

The fair will provide free workshops, seminars hosted by speakers on various topics, an art display of recycled art presented by the Fairbanks Arts Association, and science experiments for children of all ages. There will be a variety of renewable energy vendor booths and free food.

Charles Baron, Google's Geothermal Program leader, will represent Google's philanthropic arm, which has been leading the charge into renewable energy sources with its Recharge IT project, a program that has been seeding innovation, demonstrating new technology, and striving to stimulate market demand.

Arun Majumdar, director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy will also be in attendance as a keynote speaker. His research career includes the science and engineering of energy conversion, transport, and storage ranging from molecular and nanoscale level to large energy systems.

Other noteworthy speakers include Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Mark Begich, Rep. Don Young, Gov. Sean Parnell, Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins, Brian Hirsch from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, University of Alaska President Pat Gamble, and former Sen. Ted Stevens. Modern day father of hydrogen, Roy McAlister, author of H2Nation and The Philosopher Mechanic, will be in attendance as well.

This year Chena Hot Springs Resort will be showcasing two new special pieces of technology, one of which is a Fodder Unit, a hydroponic growing room that has been specifically developed to sprout grain for highly nutritious but cost effective livestock feed. Amazingly, this unit can produce its yield with only six days between seeding and feeding out. The other new piece of technology is a new gasifier. There will be presentation on a biomass power plant, under construction outside Fairbanks.

Electric vehicles, a water ram, a three-pressure absorption chiller, the hydroponics greenhouse, and the geothermal power plant will be a part of the day. The event, which is free, is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For shuttle information call 451-8104, extension 0.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reindeer: it's on Fairbanks' menu now

Jeff Johnson of Homegrown Market slices reindeer meat.

Pass the steak, reindeer steak, that is.

Locally grown reindeer meat is available for purchase in Fairbanks, thanks to the collaborative efforts of the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Homegrown Market.

Reindeer Research Program Manager Greg Finstad said, “Nobody knows the market value or demand for these good cuts of meat. I say there is a demand but that is based on third party, anecdotal information.”

Finstad should have more hard facts to rely on soon. He provided three reindeer to Jeff Johnson, owner of Homegrown Market. The animals were slaughtered this week and the meat is being cut and packaged today.

“We hope to establish the market for prime cuts like steak, roasts, and ground meat,” Johnson said. His goals are to find out what cuts people like best and to educate the public on the benefits of reindeer meat.

High in protein and low in fat, reindeer is known for its many health benefits, Finstad stated. He is working with a culinary school in Hawaii to develop gourmet reindeer recipes. He advised cooking the meat to an internal temperature of 150 degrees. “You cannot cook by appearance,” he said. “You need a meat thermometer.”

Johnson recommend this method of preparing reindeer steak: Heat a small amount of virgin olive oil in a pan and sear the steak at a high temperature for three minutes, turn it over and cook three minutes more, then let it sit for five minutes before removing it from the heat.

The meat will sell for $25 to $30 per pound, and Johnson will carefully track sales information and records to share with the university. The results will eventually be published.

“We’re going to establish a price matrix,” Johnson said, “and see what the market can bear. We want everyone along the chain to make a profit, from the producer to the retailer.”

Further reading:

Reindeer goes gourmet, Frontiers magazine, Summer 2010, by Nancy Tarnai

Will Reindeer Take Off -- In the Meat Aisle?, AOL News, Aug. 25, 2010, by Steve Freiss