Monday, February 28, 2011

SNRAS grad student loses sleep, finds fun on Yukon Quest trail

Emily Schwing interviews musher Ken Anderson at the Dawson checkpoint. (Photo credit: Rick Massie and the Yukon Quest)

A SNRAS graduate student recently concluded the “incredible adventure” of reporting along the Yukon Quest trail for KUAC public radio station.

The 1,000-mile, grueling sled dog race has long attracted Emily Schwing’s attention. She has dreamed of covering the event for years and finally made it come true. “It was an opportunity I asked for and got,” she said. “I learned so much about dog mushing.”

Prior to the race in February 2011, Schwing had barely been exposed to the world of mushing. After spending days on the trail with yipping, energetic, loyal dogs, she decided adopting a husky as a pet might be in her future.

“I learned about the people who mush,” she said. “I learned big character lessons and I got to see parts of Alaska that not many people see. “I would not trade this experience for anything.”

Schwing, who grew up in Utah, got her start in radio by volunteering at a public radio station in Salt Lake City. She had taken time off from school at Carleton College to be a ski bum, but her father had other ideas. “Dad said I had to do something, so I went to the local public radio station to stuff envelopes; fifteen minutes later I was an intern. I even got to interview Walter Cronkite.”

Thanks to her dad, Schwing found her niche. She made it even more hers when she began focusing on science reporting at the public radio station in Petersburg and for Deutsche Welle in Germany. When Schwing decided to pursue a master’s degree to help her understand science she chose SNRAS’s forest sciences program. Her research focuses on carbon balance in the deciduous boreal forest.

“People don’t realize their whole lives are touched by science every day,” Schwing said. “So much science goes into life. But science can be daunting. Being a scientist is cool but to educate people in science is even cooler.”

On the Yukon Quest trail, Schwing was along for the food drops prior to the race, was in the starting chute in Whitehorse, worked most checkpoints, and saw it all to the end on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks. Along the way she got stuck on Eagle Summit, endured challenging weather (52 below zero), and had the time of her life. “It was not stressful but it was emotional,” she recalled. “Everyone was super sleep deprived.”

And she lost eight pounds. “I don’t know how,” she joked, explaining that she found a new snack along the trail that one of the handlers insisted she try: candied bacon. “It’s awesome,” Schwing praised. “It’s like a cross between bacon and cinnamon rolls.” The story she posted about the novelty food was one of the most popular among her listeners.

Overall, Schwing said she will always remember the race and will cover it in the future if possible. “I made good friends who are extremely interesting people. This is an incredibly unique race. The challenge is beyond most people.”

Mushers, she said, have the strength and fortitude to push themselves on the race. “That’s what I will remember. They are pretty cool. And the dogs are truly athletes. They are so willing to serve their humans.”

Schwing found the perfect medium in radio. She is not interested in television or newspapers but she has her own blog.

She credits her parents with being her biggest fans. “They think I’m crazy but they love it. They are the best family.”

In her spare time Schwing loves telemarking in Utah or cross-country skiing in Alaska. She plans to be at the White Mountains 100 in March. Previously she has covered the race as a reporter, but this time will be a participant. Her goal in the race? Simply to finish.

Schwing’s advisor, Professor Dave Valentine, would like to encourage more students to combine journalism and science. “A key focus of the university is improving science literacy and getting more scientific journalists would be a wonderful thing,” he said.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

EPSCoR helps OneTree continue collaborations, education

Artist and guest instructor Margo Klass, left, and North Pole Middle School math teacher Diane Day share a teachable moment at a birch book-making workshop, an extension of the OneTree teacher training course.

When OneTree got its start in the summer of 2009 in the woods near Fairbanks no one could have predicted the number of people who would be touched by it and the ways that outreach would occur.

“It’s become a beautiful collaboration,” said OneTree coordinator Jan Dawe.

Now, thanks to a $30,000 grant from EPSCoR, the project will reach even more students and teachers. The integrative faculty development grant makes it possible for OneTree to work with classrooms showing what tree rings reveal about tree anatomy and climate. This spring Dawe and her colleagues will reach out to fourteen classrooms with the project’s new focus area.

Since its inception OneTree has been engaging K-12 students in science and art. The concept was that one birch tree cut down in July 2009 would be used for instruction, as well as art and craft creations. Subsequently, seventeen more trees were added. Hundreds of students and dozens of teachers in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District have participated in OneTree.

The students explore plant anatomy and physiology, the scientific process, and annual events in a birch tree’s life through experiments dealing with budburst, growth rate, and germination. On the art side, artists and K-12 students take the materials from the tree to create leaf rubbings, prints, sculptures, weavings, ledgers, books, containers, musical instruments, and more. These creations will be exhibited to the public throughout the month of April at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center and the Well Street Art Co.

Jan Dawe at a OneTree hands-on workshop.

A key component of the project has been the monthly workshops for teachers that Dawe and guest instructors have been leading. A recent one featured book-making by Fairbanks artist Margo Klass. She is the lead curator for the OneTree art exhibit that will be at Well Street Art Co., where each of the eighteen trees will be represented by its own book.

Art teachers are involved in other ways, creating art projects around the theme of OneTree. They even held an exhibit of their own individual OneTree projects at teh Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in August 2010. The show was curated by Karen Stomberg, the school district's art coordinator and director of its art center.

Pearl Creek and Woodriver Elementary Schools have an artist-in-residence, Jesse Hensel, OneTree's lead art educator. In May he will be working at Talkeetna Elementary School, where teacher Karen Mannix has single-handedly started a full OneTree project.

At the Watershed School in Fairbanks, sixth graders mentored second graders in taking leaf measurements as part of Generation OneTree, an intensive experiment led by Zac Meyers, OneTree's lead science educator.

One teacher who has taken OneTree to heart in extraordinary ways is Chris Pastro, language arts and extended learning program teacher at Randy Smith Middle School. She has been instrumental in implementing OneTree into her classroom since the beginning and remains dedicated to all aspects of the project.

It seems the options that OneTree provides are endless, or as Dawe says, “They are open ended.”

That OneTree is “kind of a crazy idea” Dawe doesn’t hesitate to admit.

“All we’re trying to do is connect people to the forest resource base. Then all these people came up with all these ideas."

Dawe explained the unusual approach OneTree brings about:

Usually (outside of OneTree), a woodworker starts out with an idea, and looks for just the right piece of wood (in a wood pile or lumber yard) of a certain size and quality for a project he or she has in mind. But for someone who agreed to make a OneTree book for the exhibit, you may not get assigned a tree that has that quality of wood. Instead, you get whatever material is available from that tree (could be bark, branches, seeds, and/or wood) and you have to figure out what you can make from what that tree provides you.

This difference in approach has totally changed the project that a couple of artists had in mind. Both of these artists say they are much more excited about the project the tree suggested to them, then the original one they were thinking they would make, before they saw their tree. OneTree didn't set out with this as an objective of the project, but it's a nifty outcome--that the limited raw material has forced some artists to re-imagine what they wanted to create, and that they prefer that re-imagined project to the one they originally envisioned!

“The community has really embraced OneTree and made it its own,” Dawe said.

OneTree is part of SNRAS’s Forest Sciences department, where Dr. Dawe is an adjunct professor. It is also sponsored by UAF's Wood Utilization Research and Forest Products programs.

(Photos courtesy of Tanya Mendelowitz)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Food systems course week four: Food Inc.

Week four of the food systems course has again been chock-full of readings, ideas, and a movie: Food Inc.. I've heard about the film, which came out in 2008, but I'd never seen it. It's put me off feedlot anything: pork, poultry, beef. Yick.

I took notes during the film, which we watched on Feb. 8. The movie concentrates on food safety (or lack thereof) and the sort of indentured servitude in which farmers and factory workers are trapped in the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, CAFOs, or factory farms/industrial farms that are where, horrifically, most of our meat is raised. It also goes into the influence of fast food and supermarket chains (in particular, McDonald's and Wal-Mart) on the way meat is produced–their incredible purchasing power makes a big difference.

Here's a few items I jotted down:
  • In the chicken ranches of the south, debt by the large-scale chicken meat sellers like Perdue or Tyson is deftly put onto the farmers, who (a) don't own the chickens (b) but must raise them to the specifications and requirements of the meat company and have no control over how their business is run. The farmer, who earns maybe $18,000 a year, ends up in major debt (in the realm of $100,000 to a half-million) because each chicken house costs a huge amount and the equipment, feed, and antibiotics (a necessary part of the operation) are also expensive--but the price the farmer gets for the meat is pretty much dictated by the company.
  • The movie described the way the hog industry had dramatically changed, following the pattern in the poultry and beef industries.
  • It went into the tactics of companies for dealing with regulation: infiltration of the agencies responsible for oversight by former lobbyists and former or future employees of the industries they are supposed to regulate, the reduction of funding for agencies, and the demonizing of government regulation and promotion of "personal responsibility" and "self-policing." The most interesting former employee (of Monsanto) was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who worked as a lawyer for the company and later wrote the Supreme Court majority opinion that allowed Monsanto to prosecute farmers for seed patent infringement when their crops had been contaminated by Monsanto's Roundup-Ready GMO crops (the farmers have to prove they didn't steal it). Thomas didn't recuse himself, obviously. (He didn't recuse himself in the Roundup-Ready alfalfa case, either.)
  • The film spent quite some time on the case of Moe Parr, who ran a seed-cleaning company and was being sued by Monsanto for, essentially, assisting in theft. He was driven out of business, eventually. (Monsanto has a reply to Food Inc. here.)
  • The movie talked about Kevin's Law, that was introduced in response to the death of a little boy, Kevin, from a hamburger contaminated with a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria. Kevin's Law, simply put, would give the USDA the power to shut down meat packing plants that have too many health infringements, among other things. And guess what? it keeps dying in committee, even though it gets introduced every year since 2005. The ironic thing was that I had thought that it had been passed, and that we had protection like this already. The interviews with his mother were both very interesting and moving--not schmaltzy, even though it dealt with the very personal loss of her son. She and her mother have gone on to be very active politically for foodborne illness research and prevention.
  • Another interesting aspect of the tactics used in the meat-packing industry was the undermining of unions, the hiring of illegal or new immigrants (but it's the immigrants who get hauled off to jail, not the managers or officers of the companies), and effect of NAFTA in driving Mexican farmers out of work and off their land because of cheap, subsidized corn from the US. The film made mention of Upton Sinclair's 1906 book, The Jungle, and how this led to the meatpacking industry's strength for many years as one of the safest, best-paid, and generally good industries in which to work in the US due to union effort and the public's appalled reaction to the horrors Sinclair described. Now, however, the meatpacking industry is back to being unsafe, and has lost much of the gains made during the middle of the 20th century.
  • In one of the funnier ironic moments of the movie, an engineer and efficiency designer for one of the companies involved in the meat processing industry was glowingly describing their control room, where they could monitor and adjust the speed and activities of the machinery moving and treating meat in plants across the country. He said, with obvious pride, that it was "a marriage between technology and industry"--but apparently, I observed, not a marriage with agriculture.
  • A stomach-turning moment for me came when they showed how a percentage of ammonia-treated beef is mixed into hamburger as a means of sterilizing the meat so that harmful pathogens don't survive. Again, a prideful manager spoke about how the percentage of meat in the industry that had this stuff in it should be up to 80% by 2010. I wondered about the effects of that ammonia on me when I eat the burger. I'm afraid I'm not buying hamburger any more unless I know this crud isn't in it.
In contrast to the industrialized food system, the movie interviewed Joel Salatin, an author and farmer and a wonderfully outspoken, biting, funny man. There were several good bits in the interview, but his point that growth in market share is not an end in itself was important. He doesn't want to get big—he'd no longer be farming.

And that, I think, was the essential point of the movie: that the consolidation and overmechanization of food/agriculture operations had made them into an industry, a means of making money—and they really have nothing to do with actual food or human beings anymore, resulting in an industry that isn't safe, isn't producing food, subsidizes disease, and has no connection to the land, plants, people, and animals it is supposedly about.
—Deirdre Helfferich

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

Previous posts in this series:

Food systems course: week three
Food systems course: week two
Food systems course: week one
Food systems course: the booklist
New course: sustainable food systems

Cross posted at Ester Republic blog.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

MapTEACH continues educating rural teachers

Assistant Professor Patricia Heiser (center in blue jacket) helps MapTEACH workshop participants interpret air photos in relation to permafrost during a field trip Feb. 7.
(Photo by Sidney Stephens)

After being immersed in high-tech geography instruction Feb. 7-8 teachers from rural Alaska took the knowledge back home to share with students and their communities.

MapTEACH, a hands-on education program for middle and high school students in Alaska, is focused on understanding the local landscape from multiple perspectives and on learning to make and use computer-based maps of scientific, cultural, and personal significance, hosted the workshop, part of an ongoing series. Seven teachers from the Yukon Koyukuk and Yukon Flats school districts participated.

The geography and science teachers hailing from Hughes, Allakaket, Huslia, Venetie, and Fort Yukon got to review and practice GIS skills and air photo interpretation as applied to permafrost. They also studied the significance of place names in local communities and practiced using Google Earth.

Each teacher will prepare a unit and present it as part of the Geography 593 coursework.

MapTEACH's principal investigator is Sidney Stephens, an instructor with SNRAS's geography department. MapTEACH emphasizes the integration of geoscience, local landscape knowledge, geography and geospatial technology, drawing upon the combined expertise of teachers, education researchers, remote sensing specialists, geoscience professionals, Native elders, and others with traditions-based knowledge.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Alumni update: Erin Kelly in Juneau

Erin Kelly got to see friends young and old on her last visit to El Salvador.

SNRAS alumn Erin Kelly recently settled in Juneau where she is now employed by a nonprofit called SAGA. Kelly was UAF's first student to graduate with a master's degree earned in conjunction with Peace Corps service (May 2009).

Kellly loved her assignment in El Salvador so much that she has been back twice since completing it. Last fall she lived with a friend in El Salvador for a month. While there she got to visit with her Salvadoran friends, spend time with students, and distribute donated reading glasses.

Her new job in Juneau as Southeast education coordinator tasks her with overseeing the educational and community service activities of SAGA AmeriCorps members. Her responsibilities involve preparing and implementing training modules in the areas of education and community service for AmeriCorps team leaders who will lead crews of AmeriCorps members on work projects all over Alaska this summer.

"I think this job is going to be a great fit for me," Kelly said. "I am really excited to be working with a bunch of like-minded people at SAGA. To top it all off I will also have the opportunity to visit our crews while they are working on projects all over southeast Alaska."

SAGA's mission is to improve lives, lands, and communities in Alaska through service learning.

Further reading:
"Mastering the Peace Corps, The toughest job you'll ever love," Aurora Magazine, Fall 2009, by LJ Evans

Student worker needed at Cooper Landing

The U.S. Forest Service is seeking to hire a student to reside and work at Broadview Guard Station in Cooper Landing this summer. The individual will be the contact person for visitors and help with chores, maintenance, and groundskeeping. He or she will also assist visiting scientists with field and lab work by keeping detailed records.

The successful candidate must be willing to work in a remote location and endure inclement weather and areas populated by wildlife. To qualify the applicant must be accepted or enrolled in a degree-seeking program and have good academic standing (GPA minimum 2.0).

If interested contact Ken Zogas at 907-743-9469.

Friday, February 11, 2011

SNRAS researcher begins project in Mali

Shauna BurnSilver has left the cold for a few weeks, to begin a new study in Mali. Her traveling companion is her son Silas.

After intensely examining subsistence life in remote areas of Alaska, Shauna BurnSilver is turning her attention to challenges surrounding water resources in Mali, Africa.

A postdoctoral research scientist with SNRAS, BurnSilver succinctly sums up her life’s work: “It’s looking at the interactions between people and the environment.”

For three years she has been working with Associate Professor Gary Kofinas and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on the “Sharing Project,” funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The project documents the social side of subsistence. “It’s about sharing and cooperating after hunting,” she said. “It’s gifting and trading and the relationships that take place with subsistence.”

While numerous studies document the harvest aspects of subsistence this was the first time UAF scientists have looked at the deeper meanings. “Subsistence is so much more than hunting,” BurnSilver said. “It’s what happens once the harvest gets to a village and how it supports so many people.”

With that work to conclude soon, BurnSilver is leaping into new territory, but it is not entirely unfamiliar. She served in the Peace Corps in Mali 1987-1989, and after traveling through Asia returned to Mali as a Peace Corps agricultural trainer. She went back in 1996 to study strategies for how trees were used in farmland, part of her graduate research.

When this recent opportunity to return arose she was more than pleased. BurnSilver is part of an interdisciplinary team of scientists who will study water resources in the Gao area of northern Mali. The National Science Foundation-funded work will focus on hydrology, ecology, and sociology. “We will look at the ephemeral and perennial water resources in a dynamic coupled system,” BurnSilver said. UAF is one of four institutions involved, along with South Dakota State University, Colorado State University, and Universite de Bamako.

The area to be studied experienced a severe drought in the mid-1980s, causing major changes in the landscape that created a lake where water sources had traditionally appeared and disappeared. This changed the structure not only of the landscape but of the nomadic people who populate the area. Suddenly they became agro-pastoralists. “The pools became permanent and the people became more sedentary but still continued to move their animals around,” BurnSilver said. There are two ethnic groups, the Fulani and the Songhai, who use the area.

“I will tackle the human-ecological questions,” BurnSilver said. “What do these changes mean to the people?”

BurnSilver departed Fairbanks Feb. 9 to help launch the four-year project. “We’ll begin the collaboration face to face,” she said. She’ll travel to Mali at least three times this year. For the first trip she has a traveling companion, her five-year-old son Silas. Another researcher is bringing her children too. “It’s a really good set of circumstances,” BurnSilver said. And it’s not Silas’s first time to Africa; he went to Kenya when he was eleven months old.

To prepare him for the trip the BurnSilvers have read Silas many stories about African village life and a globe is a fixture on the kitchen table. They have explained to Silas that people will be speaking different languages that he doesn’t understand. He already comprehends poverty, his mother said. His geographic knowledge isn’t slacking either. “When his teacher asked him if he was going to Africa, Silas said he was going to Mali, a country in Africa,” BurnSilver said.

Mother and son endured a nearly twenty-three hour flight to get to Mali but took many books and movies along for the flight.

BurnSilver is ready to deepen the collaborations with her co-principal investigators and get the foundational planning for the project done.

Her work in Alaska can be compared to the upcoming research. “There is a commonality in groups of people strongly engaged in subsistence for their livelihood,” she said. “They live close to the resources they depend on. The issues here are equally true for these transhumant pastoralists in Mali. I want to understand how these groups are grappling with big issues of land use changes and economic development.”

Challenges are plenty, but BurnSilver is optimistic. There are logistical issues, transportation problems, weather concerns, and even security risks. “They are all part and parcel of what I love about doing this,” BurnSilver said.

“I can’t wait to get back to Mali.”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Food systems course: week three

Week three of the Comparative Farming and Sustainable Food Systems class proceeded on in fascinating detail. We've been talking about sustainability and the design of food and farm systems. Sustainability can be thought of as the interactions of cultural, economic, social, institutional, and energy components in a system that have positive effects on the present, without compromising the future. The design of such a system has an end of healthy ecosystems and healthy communities, creating wellbeing for people and their environment in both the short and long term. Cultural are distinguished from social components in that the former have to do with identity (traditions, value systems, language), while the latter have to do with institutions and systems of organization (political structure, systems of control and distribution).

One of the topics that came up during the course of discussion was the food price spikes we're seeing lately and the resultant riots around the world. The professor handed out an article on this from the January 15 New Zealand Herald:
The food riots began in Algeria more than a week ago, and they are going to spread. During the last global food shortage, in 2008, there was serious rioting in Mexico, Indonesia and Egypt. We may expect to see that again, only more widespread.
The article talks about poverty, climate change, world population, global consumption patterns, floods, drought, imports, local crop failures. Interestingly, it does not talk about commodity speculation in grains and other foodstuffs. I recalled a story written for Harper's Magazine by Frederick Kaufman about the food riots of 2008 and what led up to them: he specifically focused on the role of companies like Goldman Sachs and the issue of commodities futures in wheat and corn in the food crisis. The title says it succinctly: "The Food Bubble: How Wall Street starved millions and got away with it." (PDF)
Investors were delighted to see the value of their venture increase, but the rising price of breakfast, lunch, and dinner did not align with the interests of those of us who eat.
I did a little searching on the web and found the letter from Steve Strongin on behalf of Goldman Sachs in response to the article, Kaufman's reply to that, and an interview with Kaufman by Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now!

The economics of sustainability has to do with full costing: what's known as the triple bottom line or the related integrated bottom line. We talked about economy of scale (Mike Emers of Rosie Creek Farm is helping to teach the class, and he spoke about this): maximizing your inputs (money, equipment, time, labor, etc.) for the most efficient and best levels of use for what you have—a balancing of costs and benefits. Each size of operation has an economy of scale that best suits it. Craig Gerlach brought up "neighboring," a term I hadn't heard before. This is a practice where neighbor farmers will work in common to help each other. For example, community harvesting: farmers in a particular locale showing up at one farm to help harvest that farmer's fields, then moving on to the next farm in a given area, and so on, until all of their fields are harvested. Bringing in the harvest is an old tradition, as is barn-raising. Farmers may also share equipment.

in a food system, how do the local, regional, and global food systems link and interact? How do the scales of agriculture affect diversity in ecology, society, culture? We talked about the size of a farm affecting its ecological diversity: monoculture tends to be the rule on the extremely large farm. Gerlach hastened to point out that the modern industrial standard of monoculture and resource exploitation could be replaced with a restorative system, using organic and rotational methods, on the very large as well as the small farm, and that diversification of crops can be done over time as well as land area.

"Nature is the model."

This led us to talking about the plains vs. the prairie, and the idea of place-based development of breeds and farming methods. Gerlach mentioned the work of Wes Jackson, who became concerned about erosion of topsoil in the US (famously in the Dust Bowl of the thirties, but still continuing), and ended up founding an organization called The Land Institute. Most grains we use are annuals; we till the land, sow the seed, harvest the crop, and then plow under the stubble. The institute describes the situation and their mission this way:
No method for perpetuating agricultural productivity exists. Our goal is to improve the security of our food and fiber source by reducing soil erosion, decreasing dependency upon petroleum and natural gas, and relieving the agriculture-related chemical contamination of our land and water. Our specific research is an innovation for agriculture, using "nature as the measure" to develop mixed perennial grain crops as food for humans where farmers use nature as a standard or measure in making their agronomic decisions. Over 75 percent of human calories worldwide come from grains such as wheat and corn, but the production of these grains erodes ecological capital. Our research is directed toward the goal of having conservation as a consequence of agricultural production.
The classic documentary, The Plow that Broke the Plains, brought the problem of tilling and erosion to public attention in 1936. The sound is pretty bad on this, but it's an interesting piece.

"A healthy, well-integrated community needs to be integrated with its food," said Gerlach, and I agree. That means the consequences of agricultural economics have to be connected to the consequences of agriculture. Food, economics, human happiness: you can't rip off one sector without hurting the others.

—Deirdre Helfferich

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

Previous posts in this series:

Food systems course: week two
Food systems course: week one
Food systems course: the booklist
New course: sustainable food systems

Cross posted at the Ester Republic blog.

Produce growers gather in Palmer

Alaska-grown potatoes are sure to be a star at the produce conference. (Photo by Jodie Anderson)

The Alaska Produce Growers Conference Feb. 15-16 in Palmer will provide vegetable and fruit growers with the latest research and recommendations.

Conference organizer Stephen Brown, a Palmer agriculture and horticulture agent for the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, said this year’s conference will also include information on Rhodiola rosea, a high-value medicinal plant that is harvested wild in Siberia. Brown said a relative of the plant was discovered in Hatcher Pass and Alaska growers are experimenting with growing it. An Alaska producer who planted 100,000 of these plants in Anchorage believes they can be grown profitably on a small amount of acreage, said Brown.

The grower, Anchorage physician Dr. Petra Illig, received an Alaska Division of Agriculture Innovation Grant to grow the plant and has founded the Alaska Rhodiola Products Cooperative. Illig will lead a rhodiola-growers information meeting during the conference.

“This is maybe a new cash crop for Alaska,” Brown said.

Kwesi Ampong-Nyar ko, a research scientist from Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, will talk about research and the commercialization of Rhodiola rosea in Alberta.

Conference speakers will include experts from the university and state and federal farm agencies and producers. Presentations on Feb. 15 will highlight issues of interest to potato growers. Ashok Alva of the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Washington state will talk about the best management of irrigation and fertilization for high yields and quality potatoes. Other topics will include updates on potato disease control, potato research, and an Alaska field guide to potato pests. A series of farm safety and health workshops also will be offered.

On Feb. 16, speakers will talk about Rhodiola rosea, composting with fish products, weed research, small fruit growers, a sod-harvesting business, vegetable processing and farming off the grid.

SNRAS speakers include Assistant Professor Jeff Smeenk speaking about potatoes Feb. 15 at 11 a.m. and instructor Jodie Anderson discussing composting with fish products Feb. 16 at 8:30 a.m.

The Palmer Community Center at 610 S. Valley Way will host the conference. A schedule and registration form may be downloaded here. For more information, contact extension’s Mat-Su/Copper River District office at 745-3360.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Into herbs? You can help the botanical garden!

The Georgeson Botanical Garden needs excited, dedicated individuals to design and care for its herb beds.

The Dorothy Truran Herb Garden, a popular feature of the GBG, is cared for by a group of volunteers called the Herb Bunch. Each bed in the garden is adopted, with the caretaker proposing a theme. GBG provides the plants and the volunteer designs the bed, plants it, and weeds it. GBG takes care of watering and data sheets.

At the end of the season the volunteer will harvest the herbs, perform any taste testings they like, and provide GBG with the results.

Contact Katherine DeCristina at 474-6921 if interested. GBG is a program of the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fairbanks area organic farm needs interns

Farm managers Christine and Brad St. Pierre have a great time working at Rosie Creek Farm
(photo by Professor Glenn Juday)

Rosie Creek Farm is seeking self-motivated and hardworking individuals who are serious about farming as a profession and life to work as interns for the summer of 2011. Prior farm experience and education in sustainable agriculture are preferred.

There are only three positions available so candidates will want to contact Mike Emers at the farm soon. "You will learn how we run the farm from farm planning and budgeting through harvest and everything in between," Emers said. Interns live on the farm in individual cabins and receive a monthly stipend. They also have the opportunity for harvest bonuses at the end of the season.

Interns not only help run the farm, they also attend formal and informal classes on all aspects of farming.

Rosie Creek Farm has received research grants from the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and the state of Alaska. Emers works closely with UAF and USDA researchers on sustainable agriculture methods. This year he will be working on studies examining weed control methods and soil fertility in organic systems. There will also be a study examining season extension in high tunnels.

To apply, visit here.

Student/outdoor enthusiast sought for summer job

UAF students enrolled for fall semester 2011 may be eligible for a job at the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge near Tok this summer.

The Tetlin Refuge is looking for an energetic, friendly, and responsible individual to assist with the operations and maintenance of the visitor center, campgrounds, trails, and other facilities near the Alaska/Canada border.

The individual will work primarily at the center greeting visitors, sharing information on the refuge, and providing information on travel and visitor opportunities around Alaska. Personal knowledge of Alaska is required. The person will also develop and present evening campground programs, give trail walks, and assist with other education and outreach projects.

Housing is provided. It is preferable for the employee to have a vehicle.

The deadline to apply is Feb. 28. If interested contact Heather Johnson at 907-883-9417.

Farm Forum set for Feb. 26

Delta Junction will host its annual Farm Forum Saturday, Feb. 26. The Delta FFA Chapter and the 4-H Club, DJ Saddletramps will act as masters of ceremony and assist with several aspects of the program.

The welcome address will be delivered by Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels with the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Meghan Lene, Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District, will discuss her phosphorus and potassium fertilizer trials. Todd Hayden of Kaya, Inc. will present information on Fort Greely’s biofuels proposal. Bob Bishop, export/logistics manager at Larson Farms, will deliver information regarding lab-tested disease-free seed potato exports. Gary Sonnichson will give a canola update. The Natural Resources Conservation District's Catherine Hadley will report on the Environmental Protection Agency's fuel storage regulations.

A potluck luncheon will begin around noon. Main meat dishes, scalloped potatoes, and rolls will be provided through donations.
Guests are asked to follow this schedule (according to last name) when choosing a dish to bring:
A-F = Desserts
G-L = Pasta or Rice
M-R = Salads
S-Z = Vegetable or Fruit

The Division of Agriculture will open the afternoon session with an update from Director Franci Havemeister. Local Fairbanks grocer Jeff Johnson will present on his business Homegrown Market. Kate Idzorek with UAF Cooperative Extension Service will talk about the flavor of barley flour.

Rex Wrigley with the Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District will present the district’s annual report; followed by the SDSWCD speech winner and cooperator of the year.

Ag-related businesses and special interest groups will provide information and answer questions during the forum.

The DJ Saddletramps will be hosting the second annual 4-H round-up/open house to be held at the high school. Contact Dani Markham at 322-8367.

The 2011 Delta Farm Forum is co-sponsored by UAF Cooperative Extension Service, Delta District, 895-4215, and the Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District, 895-6279.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Food systems course: week two

The second week of my Comparative Food Systems class has readings in Anna Lappé's book, Diet for a Hot Planet, going over Hamm's seven principles for a healthy food system, reading an article by Jack Kloppenburg and others on the foodshed, an article on rural Alaska food systems by my professor, Craig Gerlach, and researching definitions of "food system." In the meantime, I've been working on the Alaska Food Policy Council's introductory paper on food policy and the Alaska food system, so these two projects dovetail quite nicely. It adds up to a lot of reading—interesting, definitely, but a lot of pages.

So, to start: Lappé makes the argument that not only is small-scale, diversified organic farming that caters to a local market sustainable and good for communities, this type of agriculture is climate-friendly because it: produces fewer comparative greenhouse gas emissions than industrial farming; requires less energy inputs from fossil fuels; improves the soil; and actually sequesters carbon in the soil rather than releasing it. Her description of the energy-intensiveness of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations is horrific—and never mind the inherent cruelty of them, she hasn't even gotten into that so far. She does talk about the unhealthiness of the modern diet in terms of the amount of processing food undergoes: highly processed foods, like Pringles or Pop-Tarts, use a huge amount of energy and resources—and they're just not that good for you.

Lappé describes seven principles of a climate-friendly diet:
  1. Reach for real food (food that has fewer ingredients and isn't processed or transmogrified a lot is likelier to be less climate-destructive)
  2. Put plants on your plate (eat less meat—most modern meat is grain-fed, which is energy-intensive; if you eat meat, eat meat that is raised humanely and sustainably, because these practices, like grass-fed beef, produce less greenhouse gas emissions—grain-fed cattle produce more methane than grass-fed cattle!)
  3. Don't panic, go organic (industrial chemicals require large energy inputs; nitrogen fertilizer produced through the Haber-Bosch process, for example—and then there's all those petrochemicals used for pesticides)
  4. Lean toward local (less shipping, for one)
  5. Finish your peas…the ice caps are melting (food waste is a waste of energy resources; institutional composting makes use of food waste and reduces land-fill emissions)
  6. Send packaging packing (the throwaway society wastes humongous amounts of resources; I think we should institute a law like that in Germany, where the producer or seller of packing must take it back from whoever they sell it to. For example, the customer buys a box of chocolate, but returns the box to the store—the store has to take the box, no charge. Then the store can return their collected boxes to the supplier of the chocolate—and the supplier can't charge them. The cost to the retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers has reduced extra packaging dramatically in Germany. Lappé has not mentioned this law so far in my reading.)
  7. DIY food (grow and cook your own food: better for you and lots less processing—and therefore lots less energy intensive)
Hamm's article, assigned last week, was also interesting but a bit less easy reading than Lappé's book. (My editorial eye kept twitching—he'd have had red ink all over his paper had I gotten to it before publication.) His operating principles for a healthy food system are that it would:
  1. insure community food security for all residents
  2. be community based
  3. be locally integrated
  4. be reasonably seasonal in nature
  5. present primarily opportunities rather than problems
  6. connect health across the layers of the system
  7. be diverse
This is, of course, not at all what our current food system looks like. Our current food system is highly energy-intensive, unseasonal, deters connectivity between the different layers of the food system, is almost completely disassociated with local communities, is rarely distributed or minimally distributed within a community, and is rife with pseudo-diversity and ultra-processed crud disguised as foodoid items.

You can tell where I'm coming from, can't you?

A concise definition of "food system" comes from the San Francisco Food Alliance's 2005 San Francisco Collaborative Food System Assessment (PDF), which says
A food system describes the cycle of growing, distributing, eating and recycling our food, and all the factors that affect it.
Short and sweet! It's "all the factors" that are the hairy part, however: natural resources and environmental systems, social and cultural systems, political systems, economic systems, technology, research, education, etc. That encompasses a lot of things: disease, hunger, political will, costs, food safety, commodities trading, water rights, the Green Revolution, agribusiness, organic certification, heirloom seeds, and so on. This in turn brings up ideas like food democracy and equity, food sovereignty, fair trade, self-reliance, guerilla gardening, etc.

Kloppenberg's article, "Coming in to the Foodshed," takes the metaphor of the watershed and applies it to food. How does food move through the landscape, the community? One quote from it struck me:
Provided with an apparent cornucopia of continuously available foods, few consumers have much knowledge of the biological, social, or technical parameters and implications of food production in the global village.

Of course, much of the power of agribusiness ultimately depends on farmers and consumers not knowing. If we do not know, we do not act. And even if we do know, the physical and social distancing characteristics of the global food system may constrain our willingness to act when the locus of the needed action is distant or when we have no real sense of connection to the land or those on whose behalf we ought to act. Ultimately, distancing disempowers. Control passes to those who can act and are accustomed to act at a distance: the Philip Morrises, Monsantos, and ConAgras of the world.
(My emphasis added.) In short, it pays the big guys for the public to be uniformed or misinformed.

The thing that I am discovering about an examination of food systems and sustainable farming: food is political, and food politics are radical—because the nexus of the issue is about self-determination, freedom.

Kloppenberg, Hendrickson, and Stevenson go on (and bear in mind that this article was published 15 years ago) to talk about "foodshed work." They describe it so (again, my emphasis):
  • A foodshed will be embedded in a moral economy that envelopes [sic] and conditions market forces. The global food system now operates according to allegedly "natural" rules of efficiency, utility maximization, competitiveness, and calculated self-interest. The historical extension of market relations has deeply eroded the obligations of mutuality, reciprocity, and equity that ought to characterize all elements of human interaction. Food production today is organized largely with the objective of producing a profit rather than with the purpose of feeding people. But human society has been and should remain more than a marketplace.
  • Community Supported Agriculture also serves as an illustration of our expectation that the moral economy of a foodshed will be shaped and expressed principally through communities.…We imagine foodsheds as commensal communities that encompass sustainable relationships both between people (those who eat together) and between people and the land (obtaining food without damage). …[B]uilding the commensal community means establishment or recovery of social linkages beyond atomistic market relationships through the production, exchange, processing, and consumption of food. …Finally, the standards of a commensal community require respect and affection for the land and for other species. It is through food that humanity's most intimate and essential connections to the earth and to other creatures are expressed and consummated.
  • The dominant dynamics of the global food system actively erode both moral economy and community. We agree with those who believe that this destructiveness is an inherent property of the system, and that what is needed is fundamental transformation rather than simple reform.
All this makes having a garden at home look like a revolutionary act. And maybe it is.

More later on Gerlach's article, "Rural Alaskan Food Systems: Problems, Prospects, and Policy Considerations," written for the Alaska Food Policy Council in August 2010.
—Deirdre Helfferich

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

Cross posted at the Ester Republic blog.

See previous posts on this course:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Report from Honduras: SNRAS student in Peace Corps

SNRAS Master's International student Benjamin Rance is currently serving in La Jagua, Honduras, with the Peace Corps.

Rance sent his first update from the field recently:
My main focus in my community has been working with the Junta de Agua, the Waterboard. The community´s water project is not a secure and reliable way to provide the community with water, and the water quality is horrible. Most people in town get sick every month or so, but they are already accustomed to that and do not want to change the water source they have. On Feb. 1-4 I will be attending a Waterboard training held by the Peace Corps and I will be bringing the president of the Waterboard with me. He is a young man and doesn't have much leadership experience, so this will be a great opportunity for him. I am hoping to work on organizational things, such as planning meetings, having rules and agendas, and community responsibility.

Other projects that the community has been interested in are improved stoves and the construction of new pilas, or water storage places, for houses. I have been researching the different types of improved stoves, as well as the costs for constructing a pila or water tank.

The majority of my time in these first four months has been spent trying to gain the trust and confidence of the community, as these two things are going to be crucial to having successful projects in the future. I have spent a lot of time talking, drinking coffee, and just getting to know my community. Cultural interaction is a large part of the Peace Corps goals and should be given as much attention and importance as physical projects.

I am also planning with other Peace Corps volunteers in the area to have a Health Day in my site, as many of the kids frequently get sick due to unhealthy tooth brushing or wound treatments because many do not wear sandals when they run around. This will hopefully take place by the end of February.

That is the extent of my project work that I have done here. As far as my service relating to Native Peoples and Protected Areas, it is starting to look like I will be focusing less on that and more on water security and health issues affected by inadequate access to water. It is still early, and most Peace Corps staff tell me that volunteers really start to focus their efforts in their second year of service.

Rance is one of several SNRAS students enrolled in the Peace Corps Master's International Program. While serving in the corps he is also earning a master's degree in natural resources management. He has done course work at UAF before his assignment and will do more after his two years in Honduras. To discuss MIP options at UAF contact Associate Professor Susan Todd.

Any SNRAS associates interested in mailing letters or packages to Rance in Honduras, please contact Nancy Tarnai for information.