Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Food systems course: week one

Our first week in the Comparative Farming & Sustainable Food Systems course consisted of going over the syllabus, which is long and detailed and actually rather interesting. Professor Gerlach introduced the idea of shizen in it, which he described as "a spontaneous, self-renewing sacred and natural world of which humans are inextricably a part." When I look this up on line, I find shizen noho, or "natural farming," a type of permaculture. Gerlach described shizen noho as the "gardeners of Eden" method. This in turn is a reference to a book by the same title by Dan Dagget, with the important subtitle, Rediscovering Our Importance to Nature. Another one for my reading list, I'm afraid…

This idea, that we are a part of nature, and not apart from it, is one that isn't all that startling on the face of it, but the behavioral consequences that naturally (so to speak) follow are profoundly different than the ones modern industrial culture is creating. The situation we're in now (in terms of our food and social systems and the environmental results) arise from the assumption that we are not part of, or subservient to, Nature. I use the idea of subservience quite deliberately: we are used to the idea of dominion, of heirarchy, in our relationship to the natural world—and each other. We operate as though we aren't part of the natural world, as though there are no consequences to what we do (at least, not ones that affect us). This is true in farming and in our food systems.

Our first assignment was to read an essay by Michael Hamm talking about developing sustainable, or healthy, food systems as a "wicked problem," i.e., one that doesn't have a solution, exactly, because not only do people not agree about what the problem is, but that the solution is different for each stakeholder. This is a very interesting concept. The opposite sort of problem he presented was that of a "tame problem," one in which the answer is inherent in the problem itself, and has a clear end; it's complete when solved. A wicked problem, on the other hand, can't really be completed. It's that nebulous, complex, ever-changing and evolving sort of problem that the real world is full of: a complexity of problem.

Class was canceled yesterday due to no classroom and an ill professor, but we got an e-mail assigning us to find a definition of "food system" and to come to class prepared to talk about it. (Wikipedia once again provides a good starting point.) And of course, if we're going to be talking about sustainable food systems in this course, we'd better know what a food system is.

—Deirdre Helfferich
Cross posted at The Ester Republic blog.

Previous posts in this series:
Note: posts in this series are the personal reflections and observations of Deirdre Helfferich about the class.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Space Grant funds SNRAS grad student research on sea ice

Alice Orlich pauses from field work for a quick Kodak moment.

SNRAS graduate student Alice Orlich is the recipient of a $5,000 Space Grant fellowship award, which she will use to continue the work she has been doing with Dr. Jennifer Hutchings since 2007, comparing in-situ sea ice data with AMSR-E and SSM/I imagery. As an undergraduate student research assistant she studied the variability of ice conditions in the Beaufort Sea during late-season melt and the onset of freeze-up for the summers of 2006-2009.

Advised by Assistant Professor Patricia Heiser, Orlich will amass disparate data records. Along with the Beaufort Sea data collected during the summer 2010 field season, Orlich intends to acquire comparable datasets of ship-based ice observations and on-ice sampling programs which were conducted aboard other research vessels throughout the Arctic during the same time period and analyze them.

During two extensive field seasons (May to October) Orlich will spend as much time as possible in the full cycle of the melt-freeze in the Arctic. She hopes to work on multiple ships from a variety of countries so as to capture ice conditions in different regions of the Arctic, as well as work with numerous researchers who seek various datasets from their observation programs. This extensive collection will establish the base for a future archiving system that will serve the entire Arctic sea ice research community. Then she will create a standardized approach for ship-based sea ice observations in the Arctic, a system that as of date only exists for the Antarctic region.

Orlich's goals are to continue working and learning in the polar regions. "For me, the greatest sense of accomplishment comes from intense field experiences that not only wrangle data for the continuation of knowledge and understanding of a phenomena, but also provide insight into the design and organization of the research itself," she said.

"Before entering UAF, I was drawn to work in the U.S. Antarctic Program because, in addition to the romantic image I had of an extreme climate at the end of our Earth, I was mesmerized by the idea of the International Antarctic Treaty and what that meant for how that region was managed to serve the global scientific community. Now, working with arctic sea ice at the International Arctic Research Center on campus, I am positioned to participate in a very dynamic era of polar research."

Agroborealis winter 2010/2011 issue out

The newest Agroborealis has been released! Issue 41 covers arctic marine shipping, climate change, food security, biomass fuels, and revegetation, among other topics. (To download a PDF of this issue, click here or on the cover image.) Articles are:

"AMSA: the future of arctic marine shipping" (staff report)
With more shipping traffic in the north and greater marine acces due to the retreat of arctic sea ice, the arctic states needed to develop a strategy to protect the maritime Arctic, its people, and the environment. The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment was commissioned in 2004 and resulted in several policy recommendations. A followup workshop held at UAF in late 2009 was held to find suitable ways to implement the recommendations in the Assessment.
"Changing the forest and the trees—is it climate?" by Glenn Patrick Juday
Sunspots, sun cycles, El Niños, La Niñas, atmospheric oscillations, greenhouse gases: climate change has begun to affect the boreal more than any other forest region. (This article is also available as a separate PDF pullout publication.)
"OneTree in the Tanana Valley," by Nancy Tarnai
OneTree: Take one entire tree and make everything you can out of it—including science and art education.
"Observing the trees: Forest Dynamics and Management," by Jingjing Liang and Tom Malone
The program monitors the growth and change in Alaska's forests, looking at forest health, characteristics, and regeneration.
"Alaska's food (in)security," by Deirdre Helfferich and Nancy Tarnai
Alaskans have become aware that their food security is precarious—and they're doing something about it. This article provides an overview of the Alaska Food Policy Council, Slow Food, community food and health organizations, CSAs and subscription agriculture, and school gardens and farm-to-school programs in Alaska.
"Leafhoppers and potatoes in Alaska," by Alberto Pantoja, Aaron M. Hagerty, Susan Y. Emmert, and Joseph E. Munyaneza
In Alaska, potato production accounts for 14 percent of total agricultural crop revenues, but the insect pests that can affect them are poorly understood.
"You are my Sunshine!" by Anita Hartmann
The author took up the challenge: to make a beer brewed with Sunshine Hulless Barley, developed by AFES and released in 2009.
"Reindeer market project makes history!" by George Aguiar
For the first time ever, reindeer are 4-H project livestock.
"Security of the red meat supply in Alaska" by Thomas F. Paragi, S. Craig Gerlach, and Alison M. Meadow
Red meat for Alaskans, like other aspects of the food supply in the northernmost state, is dependent upon Outside sources.
"Salmon and alder: gasification of low value biomass in Alaska" by Shawn Freitas, Andres Soria, and Cindy Bower
Converting Alaska-specific biomass into a volatile hydrocarbon mixture could offset fuel use in remote locations.
"Unlocking hydrocarbons from biomass" by J. Andres Soria
In the world of renewable energy, biomass is the sole source capable of producing hydrocarbons, the raw material needed for fuel, plastics, making the variety of products that maintain the economy.
"Carex spectabilis: a sedge for landscaping and revegetation in Alaska" by Jay D. McKendrick
Establishing groundcover on barren ground can be a challenge in Alaska; an indigenous sedge from St. Paul Island may provide a solution.
"Horace Drury: in memoriam" by Nancy Tarnai

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Food systems course: the booklist

SNRAS staff member and managing editor Deirdre Helfferich is taking a course this semester taught by Craig Gerlach, Comparative Farming and Sustainable Food Systems. This is a 400-level undergraduate class cross-listed in geography, natural resources management, and cross-cultural studies. Here's the description:
This exciting course explores the principles of food systems geography and food security, with cross-cultural examinations of dietary traditions, poverty, hunger, equity, and food access and distribution. What can be done about “real world” food, farming, and agricultural problems? Where is the contemporary agroecological system strong or weak with respect to restoration and renewability? How can we be better educated and more innovative in dealing with food production, distribution, access, and the promotion of ecosystem health? We will compare agricultural systems in the context of social, ecological, and economic sustainability. Alaska and other high-latitude food systems will be considered, including country food, wild game harvest, and rural to urban nutrition transition.
She will blog regularly on the course here and on her personal blog, sharing her impressions and information from the class.


I've been working at SNRAS since 2001, and over the last decade have become more and more interested in food and agriculture issues. Partly this grew out of personal interest in gardening and environmentalism—the two interests merged for me when I first discovered the concepts of heirloom strains and commercially available organic seed in 1991—and partly out of my husband's and my enrollment with Calypso Farm & Ecology Center's CSA program starting in 2001. During the last 20 years I've read books on guerilla gardening, eating locally, heirloom varieties of garden plants and domestic animals, outré vegetables and fruits (at least, not well known in your average Alaska supermarket), chili peppers, the spirituality of gardening, urban farming, organic gardening, industrial meat processing, seed saving, and most recently, food policy and politics. I've never taken any courses or even workshops on gardening or farming or ecology—even though I've had the opportunity and there have been some mighty interesting looking classes here at SNRAS—until now.

Part of my work with the school involves the Alaska Food Policy Council, and I've been learning quite a bit about food systems. It has been quite fascinating; so, when I first learned that this class would be offered, I determined to immerse myself in the subject. (We'll be getting our syllabus the first day of class (this Thursday) but here's a draft (PDF) to give you a more detailed look at the course.) I haven't taken a 400-level class since 1998 (the year I graduated from UAF, with a bachelor's in foreign languages), and frankly, I'm finding the idea a little daunting. It's going to be a good class, and the booklist (both required and suggested texts) looks great.

Here are some of the ones that seemed especially intriguing (in order of publication):
I'm a book nut, so I'm buying quite a few of the suggested texts as well as the four or so required ones. I have the feeling I'm going to be short on sleep this semester…

Friday, January 14, 2011

Horticulture conferences set for Anchorage

Back-to-back conferences in Anchorage Jan. 26-28 will provide education and support for the Alaska horticultural industry.

The UAF Cooperative Extension Service will host the Alaska Greenhouse and Nursery Conference Jan. 26–27 and the Alaska Peony Growers Conference Jan. 27–28. Both events will take place at the Hilton Anchorage. SNRAS Professor Pat Holloway will present several times at the peony conference.

The 30th annual Greenhouse and Nursery Conference is geared to commercial operations, but home gardeners are welcomed. Sessions will cover heating greenhouses with a solar panel hot water system, berry production, greenhouse research, agricultural agency updates, a comparison of mowers and information about a potential new crop in Alaska, a medicinal herb called Rhodiola rosea.

Keynote speaker at the Greenhouse and Nursery Conference is Harvey Lang, the director of technical support for Syngenta Flowers, one of the largest wholesale breeders of hybrid flower seed in the world. Stephen Brown, Extension agriculture and horticulture agent for the Mat-Su/Copper River District, said Lang’s sessions on greenhouse production of hanging baskets and new flower varieties will be of particular interest to producers.

The fifth annual Peony Growers Conference will bring together information on research trials and varieties, and tips from growers. Julie Riley, Extension horticulture agent for the Anchorage District, said peonies continue to be a new crop of great interest among Alaska growers because the flowers bloom here at a time when they are not available to florists elsewhere in the world. More than two-dozen Alaska producers have planted tens of thousands of peonies in the past five years.

Riley said the conference will be relevant both to those who are considering peony production as well as seasoned producers.

“It will be a chance to rub shoulders with those who have planted peonies already and those who have recently cleared land,” she said.

Featured speaker Roy Klehm, of Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery in Wisconsin, will talk about growing tips and strategies and variety selections. Klehm, who is recognized as one of the world’s leading peony authorities, has selected, hybridized and introduced many peony varieties. Find the schedule and registration information here.

SNRAS student awarded Space Grant fellowship to study greenhouse lights

Geography major Nina Schwinghammer (pictured at right) has been awarded a $5,000 fellowship by the Alaska Space Grant Program. Under the tutelage of Professor Meriam Karlsson she will be testing Xenon high-intensity discharge (HID) and light-emitting diode (LED) lights in a controlled environment.

Schwinghammer will analyze biomass output to see which type of light produces better crop yields. Two identical growth chambers will be created and a light-inhibiting fabric will cover the frame to limit outside light sources. A reflective surface will be applied to the inner walls to promote reflectivity of light.

The crop to be grown will most likely be lettuce. Factors such as temperature, humidity, reflectivity, and nutrients will be identical for both test situations.

Schwinghammer, who hails from Juneau, works as a student representative for the Associated Students of UAF as the gardening sustainability coordinator and for Facilities Services designing an LED light system for a food-producing greenhouse.

Advisor Karlsson said Schwinghammer has a well-developed interest in local crop production, food security issues, and sustainability. “The project is timely and can be expected to generate information for immediate implementation in local greenhouse and controlled environment production,” Karlsson said.

Schwinghammer is well known at UAF not only as a serious student but for her excellent photography skills which she puts to good use for the student newspaper, the Sun-Star.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

John Fox announces retirement

After thirty-eight years on a college campus John Fox (pictured at left) believes students haven’t changed all that much. Of course there is more technology to work with but the human elements have remained fairly static.

Fox, who has been teaching forestry at UAF since 1973, will retire in May. He is pleased with the way his career and life have played out. “It worked out great,” he said. His favorite class to teach has been a graduate level course in biometeorology. “It kept me sharp,” he said. “The students are interested and motivated.”

Fox has also taught environmental ethics and watershed management for many years.

His research has focused on hydrology, modeling, and landscape-level management. One of the first projects he got involved in was assessing water levels at Harding Lake and he has continued that research to this day. “The work is mostly done,” he said. “I’ll be writing updates and making them available.”

The research at Harding Lake has been comparable to working on a detective story, Fox said. “We examined how the lake works and why it went lower. It was fun looking for clues.”

SNRAS Dean Carol Lewis said, “John is a scholar and a gentleman. He has taught the widest array of classes of any of our faculty and done so with an excellence that provided him the honor of being a much deserved recipient of the Usibelli award for excellence in teaching in 2009. He has contributed in so many ways to the school and the experiment station and UAF from the Forest Sports Festival to involvement as advisor in the NCAA athletic program. We can certainly replace his position, but we can never replace John Fox. I wish him well as he exits the formal academic train, lingers in the woods for a while, and begins to explore new intellectual paths in strike his fancy, to quote his own closing words in his letter informing me of his imminent retirement.”

Forest Sciences Department Chair John Yarie said Dr. Fox was one of the first forestry faculty in the school. “He was key in developing the environmental ethics course. He has also led the effort to gain and maintain national accreditation for the UAF forestry program from the Society of American Foresters.”

Yarie said he will remember Fox’s good nature, friendship, and high quality of teaching. “And the times when we won the crosscut sawing competition” in the Forest Sports Festival.

Fox is very dedicated to students, Yarie said. “He was able to ask them questions that made them think and possibly challenged their past assumptions.”

What does retirement hold for Fox? He will continue his academic pursuits and spend time with his family. No major travel is on the agenda but the Fox’s might spend more time at their cottage in Connecticut. “And there is a growing honey-do list at home,” Fox said.

Asked if he wishes anything had been different, Fox said, “I have no regrets about Alaska or Fairbanks or the university. I wish I had published more but I will continue with that after I retire.”

(Above photograph of John Fox: UAF photo by Todd Paris)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

2010 ice storm: Tree damage requires immediate study

By Glenn Patrick Juday, Professor of Forest Ecology and Director of the Tree Ring Lab, UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, and researcher at Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest since the 1970s.

Alaska experienced a historic warm weather anomaly Nov. 22-24, 2010. Much of the Alaska boreal region and even parts of the Arctic experienced a steady rain, which totaled nearly 10 percent of the annual water budget at Fairbanks International Airport. At one point the freezing level was at 6,000 feet elevation, an exceptional mass of warm air for the Arctic only a month from the winter solstice, and unprecedented since at least the mid-20th century. During much of the rain/ice event the precipitation was not supercooled water, which freezes on contact, but ordinary rain. But as the freezing level varied during the course of the storm, many locations received freezing rain that led to the buildup of an ice layer on tree branches. Even during the ordinary liquid rain period some cold surfaces with high mass (the ground, tree trunks, etc.) quickly froze the water that touched them and formed a frozen layer.

On Dec. 16 I traveled with Brian Charlton, research technician for Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest to look at the effects of the rain/ice event. We drove Bonanza Creek Road to the base of the bluff and out the ridge road. I took 140 pictures. Some trees were coated with 0.5 to 1.0 cm of ice on what were the uppermost fine branches of the crown. Snapped upper branches are widespread. Some snapped tree tops can be seen, but mainstem breakage is relatively light to moderate for such an event. Some large tree boles are heavily ice coated. The Bonanza Creek Road is heavily obstructed, although not blocked, by bent tree crowns.

Overall, at this point we can say that the event was (1) widespread, (2) spatially patchy and variable, (3) disproportionate in its effect on tree species.

(1) Widespread. The weather system that caused the late November rain was general across northern mainland Alaska, from Anchorage to at least the south slopes of the Brooks Range (Bettles station), and from eastern interior Alaska (Eagle station) to western Alaska stations such as Nome. Damage to trees can be seen (patchily) from Fairbanks to well beyond BCEF to the west. Reports are still being collected, but there is no reason to believe that the effects were confined to a small area.

(2) Spatially patchy and variable. Within the transect examined (Parks Highway/Bonanza Creek Road) patches of one to several acres of severe tree bending and snapped tree tops are common, but larger areas of heavy to light ice coating with only light amounts bending are present. While a majority of the forest landscape contained trees with only snow and light ice in tree crowns and branches, damaged trees are well distributed within the region. In general, damaged trees are more severe and widespread the higher the elevation.

(3) Disproportionate effect on tree species. Where heavy ice coating occurred, Alaska birch are disproportionately bent or snapped compared to spruces or aspen, and by a large margin. Canopy dominant white spruce, within the area examined, are relatively free of obvious major damage, but breakage and bending can be observed. Some areas of light to moderate aspen damage occurred.

The November 2010 ice storm killed and severely damaged trees across a large cumulative area. Growth of surviving damaged trees will be reduced for years to come. The ability of trees to defend themselves against insect attack has been reduced. In the recent past major insect outbreaks, which further kill and damage trees, have occurred following such mechanical tree damage under appropriate weather conditions. Foresters need a quantitative estimate of the amount of tree death, reduction in tree growth, and insect and disease events that will follow this event, particularly now that biomass energy projects have created a significant demand for wood. Measurements can also assist forest health, wildland fire, and wildlife habitat management.

Two major research facilities particularly suitable for the needed work are available in the Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest, a state-owned property leased by the USDA Forest Service in the process of being transferred to the University of Alaska. (1) The Densmore Tree Regeneration Installation (DTRI) is one of the oldest and largest forest regeneration experiments in boreal North America, and was established by direct appropriation from the Alaska Legislature in 1985 following the Rosie Creek Fire. Measurements of effects in DTRI will represent forests managed for wood production. (2) Effects of the ice storm in forests of natural origin can be measured in the network of seven hectare-scale Reference Monitoring Stands (RMS) covering the main Interior Alaska forest types. In a cooperative project with USGS the RMS and DTRI were geo-registered at high precision in 2007 and 2008, and enhanced monitoring activity was carried out in the hectare reference stands, including digital photos at permanent photo points three times yearly and close scale aerial photos. These will allow the effects of the ice storm to be definitively identified compared to all other changes. Finally, the UAF Tree Ring Laboratory has an extensive set of tree growth measurements that allow the background level of tree growth to be determined, so the departure from “normal” conditions can be quantified.

My goals are to measure the level of tree death and damage and establish new reference stands in damaged areas as needed, measure tree growth in 2011 and 2012 and calculate the quantitative effect of the ice storm in reducing growth, and to monitor damaged stands for insect and disease problems in 2011 and 2012.

I believe that we need to be able to document the effects of this powerful and potentially decisive warm weather anomaly. Environmental change in our part of the world is unfolding and in fact accelerating and in my opinion this event is simply a requirement for research to adapt.

(Above photos of the icy trees in Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest were taken by Glenn Juday.)

Related reading:

November ice storm could put trees in Alaska in peril for years, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Jan. 9, 2011, by Jeff Richardson

SNRAS professor leads Google Earth conference

SRNAS Assistant Professor John Bailey (pictured at left) has been instrumental in organizing the Geological Society of America Penrose Conference being held in Mountain View, Calif., this week.

Bailey, a research professor with the Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning, helped plan and coordinate the conference, titled "Google Earth: Visualizing the Possibilities for Geoscience Education and Research," and he is leading several sessions.

The conference, being held Jan. 4-8 at the Google Inc. headquarters, is focused on broader dissemination of Google Earth-based educational materials throughout the geoscience community and on coordinated involvement of Google engineers and the Google Earth education team in the development of Google Earth-based geoscience education and research tools. Wish lists from solid-earth scientists to Google engineers are another factor, along with design of a central website and dedicated server for uploading and downloading Google Earth-based visualizations, educational modules, and user-support materials.

Attendees will visit local geologic sites in the Bay area for hands-on demonstrations of field equipment relevant to Google Earth (GigaPan, LIDAR, etc.).

Monday, January 3, 2011

New job available for agriculture training expert

A new UAF Cooperative Extension Service position training rural Alaskans in food production techniques is open until Jan. 10.

A project funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program is providing funding for this position for up to three years to develop new curriculum (Alaska Growers School) that will be delivered primarily to Alaska Natives of the Tanana Chiefs Conference region and to other villages.

Part of the course will be adapted from the Alaska Master Gardener online curriculum and part will be created in collaboration with eight Extension agents. The person will be responsible for promoting timely curriculum development and adapting the curriculum to various distance delivery methods.

The position will be based primarily in downtown Fairbanks at the TCC building, however, travel to remote villages will likely be required.

This is not an entry-level position. The successful applicant needs extensive experience in training, a variety of distance course delivery methods, independent project management, timely report writing, and knowledge of Alaska agriculture.

The job closes Jan. 10. For more information, please visit this link and search for position number 925072. For more information, contact Heidi Rader or Karla Welty at 907-474-2401.