Thursday, March 31, 2011

7th Sustainable Agriculture Conference

The 7th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference was held March 23 and 24, followed on the next two days by the Master Gardeners' Conference and preceded by workshops on small dairies, cheesemaking, and goat and sheep husbandry. The conference was sponsored by the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, the Alaska Division of Agriculture, the UAF Sustainability Office, the Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District, Western SARE, the Kenai Peninsula RC&D District, and the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. Below are some highlights of events and presentations at the conference.

Day One

The first session was an update on farming and gardening in Galena, given by Paul Apfelbeck, in which he described improvements in local methods of season extension and his website, Gardening at the edge of the treeline. The website has extensive links; information on specific vegetables, flowers, berries, and herbs; downloadable data sheets on the season's vegetables, flowers, berries, and "exotics"; a season gardening blog; and information on particular topics, such as warming soil, bottle heaters, compost, starts, and a root cellar. (Note: the website is still under construction, so a few pages are missing yet, but there is an impressive amount of information.)

Next, Emily Garrity of Twitter Creek Gardens in Homer gave a presentation on the history of her farm and how Twitter Creek and another farm in the area created a cooperative CSA for local residents.

Tim Meyers of Meyers Farm in Bethel gave a presentation on the large root cellar he built in 2010, describing its construction and performance over the last winter.

Charles Caster spoke briefly about his producer survey of Interior farmers; he got close to a 30% return on the survey and should have results available sometime in May or June.

After lunch, there were several sessions on funding possibilities and land sales, followed by a presentation on the new Alaska cheese regulations (see PDF on the state website), recommended parasite prevention practices for sheep and goats, cheese marketing in small-scale goat dairies, and raw milk regulations in Missouri. Pam Laker of Quackmire Farms near Fairbanks discussed her poultry operation (meat birds), and how she simplified her operation so that it would be easier on her back—less labor intensive.

A panel of speakers on food security and the future of Alaska agriculture was the last item of the day; Danny Consenstein, director of the Alaska Farm Service Agency; Mike Emers of Rosie Creek Farm; Susan Willsrud of Calypso Farm & Ecology Center; Tom Paragi of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game; Craig Gerlach of UAF Cross-Cultural Studies; and Amy Pettit of the AK Division of Agriculture were the speakers. Generally speaking, the panel was hopeful about the future of sustainable agriculture in Alaska, although they acknowledged some strong hurdles to overcome. Consenstein described the rise of small farms across the country, saying that some 40,000 large farms had gone out of business over the last five years, but around 140,000 small farms had started up in that same time. Small farms and sustainable agriculture is being recognized by the USDA as where more support should be provided, he said. Paragi talked about a study that he, Gerlach, and Alison Meadow had done examining the contribution of game to the Alaska red meat supply (published in an article in the current issue of Agroborealis--PDF). They estimate that about 15% originates in the state: 13% of our red meat comes from hunting, and about 2% is grown here (cattle, elk, reindeer, etc.). Willsrud said that while the trends are good and the potential for Alaska agriculture is great, it is a complex issue, particularly when the questions of access to food—and affordable food—for the poor or people off the road system are considered. Pettit described the growth in farmers' markets in the state: there were 13 in 2005 and now at least 30. We are in fact increasing production in Alaska in a sustainable way, which is good for the state. Gerlach pointed out that food security is both an urban and a rural problem, and is not only a matter of having enough food, but of having sufficient healthy, safe, and highly nutritious food that is appropriate to the traditions of the people who eat it. We need more farmers of all kinds, and to remove policy barriers that make it difficult to start farms. We need to engage more people to be on the land and to grow food. Reindeer have tremendous potential. Emers said how it was often difficult for him to see the big picture; he is a farmer and tends to focus on his farm's immediate needs. For him, a major issue is the practical question of how to keep costs low enough to earn money doing what he loves. Sustainable agriculture is the right thing to do, he said, but added that we don't yet have a true farm economy in Alaska. There is a big demand for local products, but the cost of supplying it at a price that people can afford is a significant problem for farmers in the state, especially because so much of the supplies and equipment must be shipped in from Outside.

Day Two

The first session on the second day was given by Petra Illig, who spoke about the market potential for the medicinal plant Rhodiola rosea. Illig is a founder of Alaska Rhodiola Products, a nonprofit farmers' cooperative established in 2009, whose mission is to develop and support a Rhodiola industry in Alaska. According to the website, there are around a dozen members so far.

Next came Jeff Smeenk, who works for the Cooperative Extension Service and also for the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, and has been doing a lot of potato cultivar research. He brought in potato samples. What was intriguing about many of them was that they were developed by saving potato seed (actual seeds, not so-called “seed potatoes,” which are tubers reserved for planting) and then selecting the plants that had tubers with qualities the researchers were looking for. The popular variety Magic Molly (a deep blue potato) was developed this way. Potatoes, he explained, are genetically quadriploid, and thus can have a boggling amount of genetic diversity in one plant. Planting tubers results in clones of the parent plant.

Mingchu Zhang, also of SNRAS, spoke about the use of compost and organic fertilizers on Aalska soils. The advantage of using compost, he explained, is that it holds nitrogen in the soil longer and continues to release it slowly over several seasons, thus reducing costs and extending the life of the soil.

The next session was on biodynamics, explained in a presentation given by Susan Kerndt of Wild Rose Farm, which is certified by the Demeter Association. Biodynamics was a precursor to organic farming, and is a sustainable agriculture practice in which one looks at the entire farm as an organism or a unified whole, and which builds the soil of the farm using manure and composting. She presented numerous photos of the farm's crops and compost-building. Demeter USA provides this description of biodynamic farming:
Biodynamic farming is a holistic and regenerative farming system that is focused on soil health, the integration of plants and animals, and biodiversity. It seeks to create a farm system that is minimally dependant on imported materials, and instead meets its needs from the living dynamics of the farm itself. It is the biodiversity of the farm, organized so that the waste of one part of the farm becomes the energy for another, that results in an increase in the farm’s capacity for self-renewal and ultimately makes the farm sustainable.…Biodynamic farming is defined by the Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard [PDF]. Sections of the Farm Standard include necessary elements of the farm organism, soil fertility management, crop protection, greenhouse management, animal welfare, and the use of the preparations.* Biological diversity within the farm landscape is emphasized, and requires that a minimum of ten percent of the total farm acreage be set-aside as a biodiversity preserve.
*The preparations referred to are described in more detail at the ATTRA website, as are links to research on the effectiveness of biodynamic agriculture.

Willsrud spoke next, describing the value of farm to school education and of school gardens, and talking about Calypso Farm's EATinG and Schoolyard Garden Initiative programs. She described a bill which would help school districts throughout the state partner with nonprofits to develop school gardens for food-growing and science education.

There were several discussions after lunch on rhubarb and small fruits. Ruby Hollembeck of Delta, who has been promoting the growth of the rhubarb industry in Alaska, has linked to a thorough rhubarb website,, and created a blog, Rhubarb or Bust ( [corrected 4/5/11 per Ruby's comment, below]. She spoke about marketing rhubarb and that growers could not keep up with demand. Danny Barney, one of the Agricultural Research Service’s Germplasm Repository curators at the USDA’s Arctic and Subarctic Plant Gene Bank in Palmer, described the gene bank's collection of rhubarb, currants (Barney’s specialty), raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and other interesting edibles (as well as peonies), much of which is grown out in the fields at the Matanuska Experiment Farm. Papa of Papa's Greenhouse showed numerous photos of the myriad varieties of rhubarb and fruits he grows (including apples). He recommended not starting a career in farming at the age of 80—a little earlier might be better.

A panel on root cellaring that included Tim Meyers, Paul Apfelbeck, Pete Mayo of Spinach Creek Farm, and Michele Hébert of UAF went over how each built their root cellar and how well the cellars functioned. Problems encountered by the panelists or by members of the audience included condensation or slight bowing of walls due to soil pressure around the cellar.

Food systems course week six: soil, tillage, and more books

As the Comparative Farming & Sustainable Food Systems course has progressed, I have, predictably, gotten farther and farther behind in my reading. In part, this is due to the continuing snowstorm of papers, theses, articles, poems, essays, and miscellaneous book recommendations we keep getting from our professor, Craig Gerlach, and his teaching assistant, Bob Mikol (not to mention the occasional suggested piece from various students in the class). There is just no way to keep up. I'm keeping a couple of binders and printing out the various publications I get from them, and I keep finding new and interesting titles to purchase at Gulliver's. These include:

The Taste for Civilization: The Connection Between Food, Politics, and Civil Society, by Janet A. Flammang, and The End of Food, by Paul Roberts

Likewise, I've not been able to keep up with blogging on the class. Johanna Herron came in to talk to us about the Farm-to-School program set up by the state of Alaska (she's the program's only employee so far). The program covers school nutrition, local food systems, and education around food. Nancy Tarnai did an interview with her about her thesis project and about the program.

Last week, Mike Emers of Rosie Creek Farm taught the class, concentrating on soil, dirt, and some farming how-to. So far it has been very interesting. He told us about the phrase "organic farming," apparently coined by one Lord Northborne in 1940 in his book Look to the Land. Mike also told us about Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamic agriculture, or the view that a farm as a whole should or can be seen as an organism.

One thing Mike said sticks in my mind: "Farming is a manipulative process." It's all about managing sunlight, water, and soil, he said (and plants and animals, of course). Maintaining economic and ecologic sustainability is a matter of minimizing off-farm inputs to sustain the farm in perpetuity. That requires a lot of work, a lot of manipulation of the systems on the farm. He offered a list of useful books, bringing in well-worn and frankly battered copies of each of them:
He also recommended an article by William S. Cooter, "Ecological Dimensions of Medieval Agrarian Systems," published in Agricultural History.

Mike mostly concentrated on soil. He described four basic elements of soil that are important to the farmer: structure, soil organic matter (the key to how most organic farmers manage the soil), biology, and nutrients (including water). There was quite a bit of interesting info in this discussion, which explained a few things that I'd never quite understood, although I've been working with soil scientists here at SNRAS for a good decade and had seen some of the terms. Plants, Mike said, decompose into very small, complex particles that have negative charges, which attract cations of the nutrients plants need and hold onto water. The cation exchange capacity of soil is its ability to exchange positive ions of nutrients between organic matter and plant root hairs. Good tilth exists when there is good soil structure and high soil organic matter. Humus is compost broken down further into soil organic matter, very tiny pieces that are useable by plants. Most farms in the country, Mike explained, have very low SOM, about one half of one percent, because of erosion, soil compaction from heavy machinery, chemical contamination due to salt buildup from chemical fertilizers, and poor tilling practices that destroy soil structure.

The problem of poor tillage was broached in the movie The Plow That Broke the Plains. The culprits in poor tillage are (aside from a farmer's failure to understand the value of good soil structure) excessive use of the moldboard plow, the disc harrow, and the rototiller. Good soil has clods (little ones) that hold moisture and nutrients. Too much tilling breaks up these clods, and accelerates microbial action which then releases carbon and breaks down the soil organic matter. Rototilling, in fact, can turn your soil into powdery dust. Overtillage did just that (combined with drought years) during the Dust Bowl.

Mike described machinery that has been invented that doesn't destroy the soil structure, or at least not as much: the chisel plow, the articulating spader, and a couple of other gizmos. Mike liked a company owned by a pair of inventor brothers, I think this company in Pennsylvania.

We then went on to talk about green manure, fallowing, and cover crops, no-till methods which seem to require either herbicides or crushing implements to keep the off-season greeneries from becoming weeds later on. No-tillage farming results in more perennial weeds and it cools the soil---not an advantage in the north.

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 five: seven industrial agriculture myths
Food systems course: week four
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 the Ester Republic blog.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

SNRAS names outstanding students

The geography outstanding student for 2011, Lorna Curran (pictured at right), took an interesting sideroad to arrive at UAF.

Curran, raised in Cape Cod, Mass., is a pharmacist who answered an ad about coming to Alaska to work for Safeway. She had previously been here on vacation and decided to make a change and move here five years ago. She loves Alaska but wishes her family was closer. Curran began taking classes at UAF, dabbling in everything from arctic survival to drafting.

Once she took a class with SNRAS Assistant Professor Patricia Heiser she was hooked on one subject. “Geography appealed to me most of all,” Curran said. “Dr. Heiser encouraged me to declare it as a major.”

Curran works three part-time jobs while attending school full time. “It just works,” she said. “I have to do careful scheduling.”

She has been on the dean’s list every semester and was chosen as the geography program’s Maxwell Scholar last fall. She is active in the Geography Club and volunteered to help with a robotics competition and GeoFest, an event held during Geography Awareness Week.

People who have influenced Curran are her parents and Dr. Heiser. “She has wonderful faith in my ability to do stuff, more than I have,” she said.

In her free time, Curran enjoys needlework, knitting, cooking, sewing and spinning.

Nicole Torre
Nicole Torre is the outstanding student for high latitude agriculture. Torre hails from Anchorage and said getting to UAF was a long journey. When she first started college at UAA, intending to study psychology, things didn’t work out and she left school for seven years.

She traveled a lot and then worked for musher Jeff King near Denali National Park. There she met her fiancé, Jeff Wells, a UAF student and the rest is history. “I knew I wanted to be outside and I started thinking about biology or natural resources,” Torre said.

Torre routinely makes the chancellor’s list and is interested in melding science education and outreach. “I would like to help bridge that knowledge gap,” she said. “Who knows what the future will hold? I definitely want to stay in Alaska and I would really like to have a job that combines the scientific, biological side of natural resources.”

Torre participated in a NASA Spacegrant project, compiling data on climate change for the Alaska Bird Observatory and Creamer’s Field Refuge. She worked a summer in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, gathering data on longspurs. Last summer she did songbird banding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. Her emphasis on birds happened by chance. “I really like birds but this kind of happened by default,” she said.

This summer Torre will return to Tetlin to do phenology work for the USFWS. She spent part of the winter in India where she paid special attention to natural resources issues. “It was interesting to see how they make it work with that many people,” Torre said. “Everything about it is one huge dichotomy. You’ll see a brand new BMW sports car next to a wooden cart.”

Reading the works of Jack London and Gary Paulsen affected Torre’s life decisions. “A multitude of people along the way have influenced me and brought me to where I’m at,” she said. Torre likes to go skijoring and cross-country skiing and would someday like to have her own kennel.

Cassie Wohlgemuth
Born and raised in Anchorage, Cassie Wohlgemuth grew up with an interest in nature and came to SNRAS with a passion for ecosystems and sustainability. She is the forest sciences outstanding student for the second year in a row.

Wohlgemuth has worked as a summer intern for the Division of Forestry, maintaining trails, measuring plots and tracking invasive weeds. Her student job has been working with soil samples and shrubs from Toolik for Syndonia Bret-Harte. She won the Richard E. Lee endowment scholarship of $3,000 and a $1,000 award from the Society of American Foresters. Her career goal is to work for the National Park Service. This summer she will work at the Wedgewood Resort, creating a resource management plan, which is her senior thesis project.

In her spare time Wohlgemuth enjoys cross-country skiing, snowboarding, swimming and hiking. She is involved with the UAF Dance Team and is a regular on the dean’s list.

She is looking forward to graduating in December and will likely pursue a master’s degree in natural resources. She is engaged to be married to Karlin Swearingen and is training to run the Equinox Marathon in September.

Teslyn Visscher
Teslyn Visscher, the natural resources outstanding student, grew up in Haines and intended to be a paramedic. A UA scholar, once she got to UAF, Visscher began looking more into degree options and chose natural resources.

“I can see myself staying in Alaska and working for an agency like the Department of Natural Resources or Fish and Game,” she said. She has already worked for Fish and Game, studying Steller sea lions off Prince of Wales Island.

Visscher is routinely on the dean’s or chancellor’s list and is active in intramural sports such as basketball, soccer and broomball. She loves cross-country skiing, snowboarding and camping. Last year Visscher attended Western State College of Colorado on the exchange program.

She credits her family with being really supportive of her.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Two years of working with birch culminates in two First Friday art openings

This piece created by Mary Maisch will be at the Well St. show. (Photo by Margo Klass)

What began with the felling of a birch tree in the forest nearly two years ago will result in two art exhibits on display throughout April.

UAF’s School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences OneTree project branched out from one birch tree to hundreds of local artists, scientists, teachers and students. Their work will be on display in two shows, one by professionals and one by students.

Expect to see unusual and endearing displays, all made from birch. Logs, cross sections, twigs, bark and leaves have become furniture, vessels, prints, fiber art and wall pieces. A highlight of the adult show is sure to be the “artist books” created in a workshop taught by Margo Klass.

The children’s exhibit will include a scientific display of birch branches experiencing leaf-out. The student work includes poetry, books, prints and weaving. Artists and scientists have been helping students in 13 schools gain a deeper appreciation for the forest as they worked with local materials and made observations about the natural world.

Both shows open April 1 for First Friday, with receptions from 5 to 8 p.m. The professional show, called Betula neoalaskana: Celebrating One Tree is at Well Street Art Co. Gallery, 1304 Well St., and the children’s show is at Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors’ Center, 101 Dunkel St.

At the student art show there will be several hands-on activities for students of all ages for First Friday, including leaf rubbings with artist’s charcoal made from birch and willow twigs and an interactive tree-aging game.

Janice Dawe, the UAF adjunct professor who coordinates the OneTree project, said the endeavor has been a “beautiful collaboration of art and science” and she is excited to have the shows available to the public. “It’s kind of a crazy idea, isn’t it?” she asked, “everything coming from one tree? All we’re trying to do is connect people with the forest resource base.”

Dawe said the people of Fairbanks have been very supportive of OneTree. “The community has really embraced it and made it its own,” she said.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Just in time for spring: CES presents new gardening publications

New gardening publications written by Jeffrey Smeenk (pictured at left), CES horticulture specialist and SNRAS assistant professor, and Tony Nakazawa, Extension economist, are now available.

Community Gardens in Alaska highlights the many benefits of community gardens in both urban and rural settings and offers basic information on how to plan and manage a community garden project including a list of supplemental resources.

Composting in Alaska explains the difference between hot and cold composting, how to build and manage a compost pile, and how to properly use feedstocks and bulking agents. It contains a variety of compost recipes, ideas for composting structures, a list of useful tools, and some FAQs.

Hoop Houses in Rural Alaska: Twenty Questions and Answers to Get You Started addresses common questions and gives information on the sizes and shapes of hoop houses, the cost of building and shipping, ease of construction, sunlight and heat requirements, and advice on what kind of production to expect.

Friday, March 25, 2011

SNRAS student uses spring break for volunteer experience

SNRAS student Shannon Pearce pulls weeds in Utah over spring break.

What enticed SNRAS student Shannon Pearce to finally take a trip during spring break was not beaches touting fun and sun. Pearce, a married mother of three, spent her last spring break as an undergraduate the alternative way – volunteering with Plateau Restoration, a nonprofit agency in Moab, Utah.

Pearce, who works in the Wood Center’s student orientation office, overheard people from the UAF LIVE (Leadership, Involvement, Volunteer Experience) program talking about the alternative spring break trip and her ears perked up. “When I heard it was a conservation project I wanted to go,” Pearce, a natural resources student, said. “I thought it was the perfect opportunity.”

The theme of the trip was “alternative spring break; get your hands dirty,” which appealed to Pearce. She has worked past summer jobs at the Georgeson Botanical Garden and knows all about getting her hands dirty. Because of her family obligations Pearce hadn’t had the chance to do much field work as a student and thought the week-long expedition would help fill that void. Her husband Ian was completely understanding about the trip but it was harder for her children, Madyson, 11, Hudson, 9, and Navee, 7. Pearce kept in touch by calling home every day.

After a long flight with several layovers, Pearce and 12 other UAF students arrived in Moab to team up with three more colleges for the project. They tackled invasive species such as Russian thistle, re-planting native species. They also worked on trail restoration and hiked and pulled weeds in Arches National Park. Alongside the Colorado River, they painted cottonwood trees to protect them from beavers. In the Castle Valley they removed more invasive species and planted native species in a burn area.

On the one free day, the volunteers were treated to a rafting trip on the Colorado River.

Pearce was duly impressed with the scenery, especially the rich blue sky and the red rocks. “It was so beautiful it took me a few days not to think it was a picture,” she said.

Lasting impressions of the trip include camping out for a week. “The biggest thing I came away with was the area,” Pearce said. “I’ve never been to the Southwest. I’m used to green and snow. The desert ecology stuck with me.”

She described the journey as a fantastic experience. “I was happy to represent the university and learn leadership qualities and live with 12 people dealing with these projects. It was a good experience, period.”

Pearce will graduate from UAF soon and go on to graduate studies in ecological sciences and engineering at Purdue University. She hopes to eventually earn a doctorate and teach.

Alaska students to show off geographic knowledge at state bee

Alaska students will compete in the state Geographic Bee Friday, April 1 at the Egan Center in Anchorage. One hundred fourth through eighth graders from 20 Alaska school districts will participate. The contestants have pre-qualified by winning their school’s bee and passing a qualifying test.

The kinds of questions posed during the bee are:
Which city is located on a peninsula, Cincinnati, Ohio, or Dover, Delaware?
The International Red Cross has its headquarter in a city that shares its name with a large lake on the border between Switzerland and France. Name this city.
The city of Bangalore, located west of the Eastern Ghats, is a fast-growing technology hub in what country?

Preliminary rounds in the morning will determine the top 10 finalists who then compete in the afternoon for first place. The winner will represent the state at the National Geographic Bee May 24-25 in Washington, D.C. The national winner receives a $25,000 college scholarship, lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society and an all expenses paid trip to the Galapagos Islands.

For additional information on the National Geographic Bee please visit National Geographic.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Learn the art of tapping birch trees

A birch tapping class will be offered Saturday, April 16 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer. All equipment will be provided and the fee is $10.

The workshop is sponsored by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and UAF Cooperative Extension Service. To sign up, contact Valerie Barber at 907-746-9466.

Conference to highlight sustainable agriculture

The Sustainable Agriculture Conference March 23-24 in Fairbanks will cover a variety of topics, from novelty potato research to raising dairy goats.

The UAF Cooperative Extension Service will host the seventh annual conference at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge. Speakers include producers, researchers and representatives of agricultural agencies.

Special guest speaker Lorrie Conway, who runs a licensed raw milk dairy in Washington state with her husband, Shaun, will talk about how raising dairy goats and making cheese can be successful on a small family farm. Speakers also will address various considerations of running a small dairy, including raw milk regulations, cheese and meat regulations in Alaska and sheep and goat parasites.

Other topics will include agriculture funding programs, organic fertilizer research, school gardens, community-supported agriculture in Homer, the Alaska rhubarb industry, small fruits and berries and raising chickens in Interior Alaska. Panels will discuss food security, root cellars and employment strategies for small Alaska farms.

Two preconference workshops will take place on March 22. Lorrie Conway and Susan Kerr, a veterinarian and county Extension director from Washington state, will lead a goat and small dairy workshop from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Princess. The Conways will teach goat cheesemaking from 3 to 6 p.m. in the Hutchison Institute of Technology kitchen.
Preconference workshops are $35 and registration for the two-day conference is $75 or $55 for one day. Preregistration is requested for planning purposes.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Week five: seven industrial agriculture myths

Phil Loring started writing articles on this theme for me in the Republic, but he hasn't finished the series yet. Now I find myself studying this same topic in my Comparative Farming and Sustainable Food Systems class. The myths are those described in Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. They include:
1) Industrial agriculture will feed the world.
2) Industrial food is safe, healthy, and nutritious.
3) Industrial food is cheap.
4) Industrial agriculture is efficient.
5) Industrial agriculture offers more food choices to consumers.
6) Industrial agriculture benefits the environment and wildlife.
7) Biotechnology will solve all the problems of industrial agriculture.
The section on these myths in Fatal Harvest has been reprinted on Alternet; I've linked to them above, but here's the short rebuttal:
  • Myth number one is a classic case of misdirection: it implies (as typically presented) that somehow the problem of hunger is one of a failure to produce enough food, and the answer is that industrial agriculture is the only means whereby we can produce sufficient food to feed all 7 billion of us (or the anticipated 9 billion by 2050). Actually, people go hungry because of politics, economic shenanigans, poverty, and landlessness. Industrial agriculture actually increases the incidence of hunger by raising the cost of farming (by a huge factor), by forcing farmers off their land, by focusing on high-profit export crops rather than food crops for local consumption. The World Bank and other international financial institutions have promoted policies that have supported industrial export agriculture, for example, and have caused hunger through free-market and globalization policies.
  • Myth number two was thoroughly debunked for me by Food, Inc., although the movie didn't go into why this folderol is accepted. Part of the reason, as pointed out by the authors of Fatal Harvest, is that industrial food is very very consistent: it looks clean and wholesome. But looks can be deceiving: from the poisonous chemicals it's grown and treated with (as pointed out by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring) to the concentrated, empty junk of modern processed food (as described in Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock, and many other authors since), industrial food is really, really bad for you.
  • Myth number three is something you can believe only if you ignore the staggering health, environmental, and human costs of industrial agriculture—a technique commonly known as "externalizing costs," and an everyday part of our modern economic thinking. It is, of course, insane to think that actual costs (not those that are mere ticks or sheafs of the paper/exchange medium) can simply be shunted aside and not counted. They show up, somewhere. It is monumentally selfish and dangerous to all of us for a few business owners to shove those costs upon us for their short-term gain. Industrial agriculture is very, very expensive, and that pleasantly consistent-looking food costs us a bundle, even if we don't pay it at the cash register. We pay for it at the doctor's, in the price of gas, in our taxes, in the length (or shortness) of our lives, in the moral cost of cruelty to animals and extinction of species and varieties, in the human cost of culture destruction, etc. Farming the old-fashioned way is a labor-intensive business, and industrial agriculture, being far more mechanized, thrust a whole lot of people out of work.
  • Myth number four is partly a product of myth number three: industrial agriculture looks efficient if you don't have to count all the costs (such as destroyed, contaminated, eroded, lost topsoil, for example), and if you don't count the fact that agriculture is supposed to produce food, rather than a commodity. Industrial agriculture is very good at producing huge amounts of commodities on large amounts of land. It isn't very good at producing a lot of food per acre, though. Gardens, and small, diversified farms are much more productive per acre. Even Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations simply outsource their land and other input needs to external sources. It really isn't a very efficient or good use of resources. (See this PDF report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.)
  • Steve Hannaford, in his book Market Domination! the impact of industry consolidation on competition, innovation, and consumer choice, thoroughly explores the phenomenon of pseudo-variety, and exploded myth number five in an article he wrote for the Republic about the problem, using beer as an example. Minor variations in content and major variations in packaging do not food differences make. Another particular problem is the disappearance of heirloom varieties of food plants. Food that can handle the conditions or requirements imposed by the industrial food system (such as long shipping distances, rough handling, uniformity of appearance and flavor, resistance to pesticides, fast growth, precisely timed harvest, etc.) loses the myriad choices that varieties adapted to a wide range of needs and microclimates offer. All those small, comparatively skinny chickens, for example, that lay small but tasty eggs and have small breasts and grow sort of slowly, but have a penchant for insect pests and chickweed. Soft-skinned tomatoes that bloom and ripen throughout the summer and have peculiar shapes and interesting stripes and spots. And so on. This variation is not adapted for industrial conditions, and so isn't sought. As smaller, diversified farms are forced out of business through land acquisition, fewer crops are grown, and more of only a few varieties. This has lead to disaster in the past and very likely will again if we keep to our present myopic course.
  • Myth number six is a mix of chutzpah and nonsense. I was boggled when I heard this particular one, but a major part of this claim is that industrial agriculture is supposed to be more productive per acre than other forms of agriculture (such as organic or sustainable agriculture). I looked into this, however (some months ago, actually, before I took the class), and industrial agriculture is NOT more productive. Gardening and diversified farming are, in fact, far more productive of food. According to a new study by Jules Pretty, et al. in Environmental Science and Technology, "crop yields on farms in developing countries that used sustainable agriculture rose nearly 80% in four years." That alone, however, doesn't refute the idea that industrial agriculture is more productive. An excellent and well-sourced article in Grist magazine reveals the truth: industrial agriculture requires massive inputs that degrade agricultural, environmental, and human systems in order to get high productivity for a limited number of foods. Industrial agriculture is comparatively sterile, and uses resources up, rather than building them up. It most decidedly does NOT benefit the environment.
  • Myth number seven, that biotechnology will be, essentially, a panacea, really depends on how it is used and if its use doesn't simply cause more problems than it solves.Biotechnology as applied to food is typically used to a) patent varieties, b) create pesticide, herbicide, or disease resistance, c) create greater productivity in crops, or d) create genetic and cosmetic uniformity and/or predictability (in other words, to reduce biodiversity). Sometimes it adds nutritional value (as in "golden rice"). It creates industrial foods, crops or varieties that are adapted to industrial needs. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, or BIO, has a Frequently Asked Questions page on agricultural biotechnology that provides quite the interesting contrast to the concerns I keep finding about biotech crops. While BIO answers concerns in a very even-handed tone, it does not address the basic assumptions about how agriculture should be conducted, and the philosophic underpinnings that differentiate agroecological principles from industrial ones. The site reiterates some of the basic assumptions about what the problems of agriculture are (such as, people are hungry because not enough food is grown, and biotech will help grow more food), rather than looking honestly at the results of our current agricultural system (such as inequitable distribution of food, hunger caused by poverty, farmers unable to grow food because they've been forced off their land by economic or political causes) and asking if they are really what we want or need—and then determining if biotechnology can address thoseneeds. Another site, AgBioWorld, is even less connected to what the issues are, and is a good example of completely missing the point. This site does a lot of answering the more emotion-laden worries, the pig-in-a-poke or straw man arguments, rather than providing answers to genuine, fact-based concerns. Skipping through a plethora of articles and scholarly pieces on biotech, I did find one that talks about the issue of patent law and policy and their effect on how well (or if) biotechnology is used to benefit, say, poor small-scale farmers. It's an 87-page PDF, but talks about the unintended consequences of US patent law and policy on, among other things, researchers "applying biotechnology to the solution of developing-country food security problems."
In a blog post I found on, a few more "advantages" were listed:
  • longer food shelf-life or availability (also known as the Twinkie phenomenon or the winter tomato)
  • less constraint in number of croppings per year (again, not counting the true cost of using up the soil, water, etc.)
  • greater availability of human labor (read: more unemployment)
  • faster time to market (and what does it mean if the market is halfway around the world as opposed to down the road?)
Sustainable Table has a long list of concerns that deal in large measure with profound philosophical and quality of life issues that are only partly addressed by the agricultural industry. It seems almost that holders of these two viewpoints are talking past each other rather than to each other.

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 four
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, March 16, 2011

CSA fair at Noel Wien

The Community Supported Agriculture (Meet Your Local CSA!) fair at Noel Wien Library on Sunday, March 13, was a well-attended success. Farmers offering anywhere from 15 to 180 shares met with prospective members, providing brochures with information on the CSA model and particulars on membership with their farms. Different farms have different prices, different produce, and different share terms; a few, like Arctic Roots Farm, offer member discounts on farm produce purchased, while most, like Rosie Creek Farm, give their members a set amount of groceries provided as a share of the harvest (that share being purchased outright at the beginning of the season). The growing season was estimated to be from 14 to 18 weeks (June to September), depending on the farm and the summer weather, and a full share anywhere from $450 to $600. Some farms offered half shares, flower shares, herb shares, tomato shares, late-season storage vegetable shares, or other options.

Two farms, DogWood Gardens and Basically Basil, included items such as totes or cookbooks with their shares. Gretchen Kerndt of Basically Basil explained that it was simply easier and cost about the same to provide a cookbook to shareholders (From Asparagus to Zucchini, A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce; see description here) as to write up a newsletter and xerox recipes each week.

Member education and community building are important features of the CSA farming model, and this was reflected in the informative displays that the various farmers brought to the event. A slide show played continuously throughout the event, showing scenes from different farms and CSA pickups, while each farm's table had information on types of crops grown, samples of local honey or potatoes, photos of the farm, staff or family members, and the like. John Dart of Dart-AM Farms had traveled the farthest to be at this event, from Manley Hot Springs, and has members from Manley to North Pole (this farm's growing season is the longest of all there, due to the springs: 20-22 weeks!).

Calypso Farm & Ecology Center of Ester, one of the larger farms, with about 80-100 shares available, is a nonprofit and heavily involved in educational efforts, and has helped (to date) six local schools establish gardens and farmstands that are part of the educational curriculum at each school. Feedback Farm, on Chena Hot Springs Road, is one of the smaller farms, offering 15 to 20 shares. Their whole family (parents and three children) was present at the fair.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Log cabin construction class set for May in Palmer

The result of the last workshop is on display at the Matanuska Experiment Farm.

SNRAS is offering a log cabin building workshop May 16 to May 31 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (with one day off after every 5) at the Matanuska Experiment Farm, 1509 Trunk Road, Palmer.

Robert W. Chambers, world-recognized authority on handcrafted log home construction, will lead the sessions on how to build with green logs. Basic procedures and techniques will be described and practiced to help even the novice get started with a project.

Cost is $1,200 for a ten-day class on building log walls and $500 for a four-day class on building roof trusses. The cost to take both classes is $1,400. Contact Valerie Barber, director UAF Forest Products Program, 907-746-9466. The workshop is sponsored by SNRAS and UAF Cooperative Extension Service.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Support agriculture research for Alaska

By Carol E. Lewis and Fred Schlutt Jr.

Thought about food lately? Maybe three times a day (or more)?
Thought about what would happen if our food supply was interrupted?

There is a quote by Benjamin Franklin, “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” We would paraphrase: “When the food is gone, we will know the worth of food.”

Alaska’s food supply is not secure.

Food security includes not only availability of locally produced foods but also a mix of imported and exported food products. Most states and regions in the U.S. have a reasonable balance of locally produced, imported and exported foods. Alaska imports nearly all its food and is increasingly dependent on imported food. If this trend continues, Alaska’s expanding population will require increased food imports during a time when energy plays an ever-increasing role in their cost.

Producing more food in Alaska is possible with help from university research, the Cooperative Extension Service and university/business partnerships. While Alaska currently does not depend on in-state production there is no reason why it cannot. Lands are productive for crops and livestock, and the growing season can be extended with modern season extension technologies.

State funding for a special project could make a world of difference in the state’s dismal food security outlook. This joint project between UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and UAF Cooperative Extension Service addresses food security by focusing on animal agriculture (reindeer, elk, bison, muskoxen, yaks, cattle, sheep, goats, hogs and poultry) and controlled environment vegetable production (controlling the length of the growing seasons and using local materials to manufacture soil). The proposal, which is before the Alaska Legislature via the University of Alaska budget, includes $300,000 a year over a five-year period for research, education and outreach.

We will focus on community development of local food production, including food science, food technologies, processing and human nutrition as well as production technologies, food preservation, and processing and storage for year-round consumption. Cultural considerations of food self-reliance, nutrition and appropriate crops and livestock for Alaska’s diverse climate and geography will also be addressed. The close linkage of the Cooperative Extension Service, the Experiment Station, and the School will give us the opportunity to look at ways to help our farmers produce high-quality products to take the place of imported fresh, frozen and canned supplies, will potentially provide business opportunities for processing and distribution, and will train students who, when they graduate, will be expert in bringing research and technology to users.

While there are hundreds of food security components we could have focused on, we chose two that are specific to our arctic environment and that we consider cutting edge agricultural research that will prove useful to Alaskans at this time.

Why should you care? This type of important research and outreach affects the very food that will appear on your plate tonight.

While many people proclaim the virtues of local food via T-shirts or bumper stickers, are they willing to truly support a project that will make Alaska-grown food more abundant and accessible? Food insecurity for Alaskans is a grave concern, but can only be addressed if we choose to make it a priority.

Alaska needs locally grown food. Are you willing to help by letting your legislators know you support this important project?

Carol E. Lewis is dean of the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Fred Schlutt Jr. is director of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service and UAF vice provost for outreach.

Professor helps predict amount of wood you'll burn

According to a 2010 U.S. Forest Service publication, Wood Energy for Residential Heating in Alaska: Current Conditions, Attitudes, and Expected Use, (Valerie Barber of SRNAS is an author) 61 percent of Fairbanksans use wood to heat their homes, at least in part.

Associate Professor John Fox is one of those.

What began as a personal interest, figuring out how much wood he needed, ended up in a printout, Cords of Firewood Needed. He first presented it at a wood burning workshop held recently at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center. “I thought it would be a handy stand-alone handout,” Fox said. There was a big turnout for the event, which caused Fox to believe there is a lot of interest in the art and science of woodburning.

The handout should be useful to everyone using wood for primary or supplemental heat, particularly if they are new at it. “People need to know how much to get or to buy,” Fox said.

The research is based on birch and spruce, the most available types of wood in the Interior.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Want to learn something this summer?

Looking for summer educational opportunities? UAF Summer Sessions might have the answer. Students can count on SNRAS participation in Summer Sessions.

One course in particular always fills up and often overbooks. Professor Chien-Lu Ping’s Soil Geography Field Study has already attracted ten students who have registered for the ten-day field trip. The course examines permafrost-affected soil along the Elliot and Dalton Highways from Fairbanks to Deadhorse. Students review soil-forming factors of the subarctic and arctic regions, including parent material, vegetation, climate, topography, and time.

Soil classification, wetland delineation, and land use interpretations of cryogenic soils are taught. NRM F380 is a prerequisite.

Students provide their own camping gear and must be fit for field work, long days, and able to walk on uneven or rocky ground through the forest. The fees are $700 and registration must be completed by June 28.

Other SNRAS courses this summer include two geography classes, Expedition Earth: Introduction to Geography and Geography of Alaska, taught by Dave Veazey. The first teaches the essential concepts and approaches of geographic study, exploring physical, political, economic, and cultural geography of major world culture regions. The second focuses on the regional, physical, and economic geography of Alaska with special consideration of the state’s renewable and non-renewable resources and plans for their wise use. The 101 class meets Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 9:50 a.m. July 6 to Aug. 11. The Alaska class meets Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 11:50 a.m. July 6 to Aug. 5.

Professor Pat Holloway will give a lecture for Summer Sessions on June 29. The topic is “All About Alaska Blueberries.”

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Meet your local CSA!

Have you been interested in community supported agriculture but not known whether there was a farm near you offering this type of program? Or have you wanted to compare different farms' prices and offerings, or simply wanted to find out more about CSA operations? Now is your chance! Eight Fairbanks-area CSA farms will be holding an informational fair at the Noel Wien Library this Sunday afternoon. You can sign up for a season share or membership, meet the farmers and ask them questions, and find out more about farming in the Tanana Valley and about this community-building economic strategy that has been sweeping across the US and Alaska.

Noel Wien Library, Sunday March 13, 1 to 3 pm

20 Mile Farm
Arctic Roots Farm
Calypso Farm & Ecology Center
Dart-AM Farms
Demeter's Wild Rose Farm
DogWood Gardens
Feedback Farm
Rosie Creek Farm

Monday, March 7, 2011

Test kitchen gives boost to food production

Food researcher Kate Idzorek in the CES test kitchen.

Would-be entrepreneurs filtered through the UAF Cooperative Extension Service test kitchen Saturday, March 5, learning more about how to start small food production businesses at the facility's open house.

For questions about canning tomatoes, marketing hot sauces, or operating a catering service, Food Research Technician Kate Idzorek had the answers. CES helps small business operators who want to start a food-related business get their foot in the door by:

  • renting the test kitchen for $20 per hour
  • working with the UAF art students to design labels or logos
  • coordinating with the Small Business Development Center
  • ensuring that Department of Environmental Conservation requirements are met
  • generating nutrition labels

"It's a way to produce and market and sell local food," Idzorek said.

The kitchen contains two standard commercial ovens, a commercial refrigerator and freezer, three-compartment sink, hand-washing station, prep station, and ample counter space. The kitchen is located in the Extension state office.

As a CES service, Idzorek prepares nutrition labels for local food products.

SNRAS Research Professional George Aguiar was on hand Saturday to explain his work on reindeer meat. The test kitchen is a very valuable tool in his work and his graduate research, he said. The Reindeer Research Program uses the kitchen for consumer taste tests, including sensory and color tests. "Having a DEC-approved kitchen makes our work possible when we are dealing with the public for taste tests," Aguiar said.

Friday, March 4, 2011

SNRAS agriculture partner faces closure

Proposed federal funding cuts would close the U.S.D.A. Agricultural Research Service in Alaska, causing a severe blow to Alaska agriculture. SRNAS is closely affiliated with ARS.

If Congress approves the proposal it means 24 jobs would be eliminated, as well as several positions for graduate students. The proposal calls for cutting $42 million to ARS; ten sites have been targeted for closure, with Alaska being one of them.

Known as the Subarctic Agricultural Research Unit, the Alaska ARS has made much progress in understanding and developing management strategies to minimize negative impacts of invasive weeds and to prevent introductions of invasive plants on state and federal land as well as agricultural fields in Alaska. Because of large outbreaks of grasshoppers in both agricultural fields and natural rangelands in Alaska in the 1980s and 1990s and more recently, grass bug infestation of Alaska’s largest crop, forage grasses, work was begun by SARU in 1999 to better understand the life cycles, population dynamics, and nutrition of these insects in Alaska. This work has led to better understanding of how food sources, climate change, and other factors affect these insects and has led to recommendations for management of their populations in Alaska.

The Arctic and Subarctic Plant Gene Bank in Palmer is managed by ARS and is the nation’s primary repository for peonies, rhubarb, currants, mints, and several arctic and subarctic species used for land reclamation. While some of this material could be transferred to other locations in the U.S., many of these plants are especially well-suited for the Palmer environment. Thus, loss of the Arctic and Subarctic Plant Gene Bank would result in severe detriment to these plant collections.

The ARS Aquaculture Group in Kodiak studies ways to add value to seafood by-products (such as waste fish oil, fish viscera, bone, skins, and the like). Scientists there, working collaboratively with other scientists in and outside of Alaska, have discovered ways to use fish wastes as valuable soil amendments and to convert what were once considered waste products into valuable specialty foods.

The Agricultural Research Service in Alaska works very closely with scientists at both UAF and UAA. For example, most food consumed in Alaska is currently imported, making Alaska particularly vulnerable to disruptions in food supply. ARS scientists work closely with university scientists to study ways to better manage potatoes, grains, vegetables, and other food crops to allow enhanced production of food in Alaska. Much of the accomplishments in agricultural research would not have been possible without this collaborative effort. SNRAS researchers have consciously tried to complement but not duplicate expertise already in ARS in Alaska. Thus, the University of Alaska does not have any weed scientists or agricultural entomologists, both critical disciplines for Alaska.

Anyone who would like to see ARS remain in Alaska may contact their legislators in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Farewell to the West Ridge Greenhouse

A contract worker begins dismantling the West Ridge Greenhouse on March 2.

Pane by pane the West Ridge Greenhouse, a SNRAS facility located at the corner of Sheenjek and Koyokuk, is being dismantled and removed to make way for the Life Sciences Facility.

The work was scheduled to begin last week but was postponed due to heavy snowfall on Feb. 21.

The greenhouse, built in the early 1970s, had a long history of being the site of SNRAS research for everything from roses to hydroponics. It was used for classroom instruction in plant propagation and for growing transplants for the Fairbanks Experiment Farm and Georgeson Botanical Garden. Many students conducted research projects in the greenhouse. SNRAS researchers have said a fond farewell to the old greenhouse and are anticipating a new one on the southwest corner of Arctic health Research Building. In the meantime they are making do this spring and summer growing seasons by borrowing space from other greenhouses on campus.

“We’ll make it work,” said Professor Meriam Karlsson. “I know we have a new greenhouse coming.”

Every inch of the 3,600-square-foot greenhouse that can be reused will be. Most of it will be stored at the experiment farm and re-assembled at a later time. The parts that are not useful will be recycled or disposed of.

The new $4.8 million, 4,500-square-foot greenhouse will be constructed by Ghemm Co. Inc. of Fairbanks. Design Alaska did the architectural design. It will be attached to the western edge of Arctic Health Research Building. About 1,000 square feet will be dedicated to growth chambers (similar to a big refrigerator where temperatures can be controlled for the plants).

The facility will feature an energy curtain that can be pulled down at night in the winter. “Every modern greenhouse has this,” Dr. Karlsson said. “It will also have better greenhouse controls so we’ll have better ability to program the temperature, lights, humidity, and integrate the environmental variables with plant growth. This will open up all kinds of opportunities. There is a lot of interest in greenhouse production. This will be a place to come and see all the modern equipment and have educational opportunities.”

Fairbanks is a wonderful place to do greenhouse research, Karlsson added. “It’s where research should take place. The greenhouse manufacturers will be excited. If we can run a greenhouse in Fairbanks it will work anywhere.”

A groundbreaking for the new greenhouse is set for April 22 and the completion date is fall of 2011.

Out with the old, in with the new...

At a March 1 open house for Life Sciences Project Manager Cameron Wohlford announced the 100,000-square-foot building will be open by the fall of 2013. The building will be used for 60 percent research and 40 percent teaching and should be reasonably energy efficient. Features include eight flexible labs, a support space for freezers, and a 150-seat auditorium.

“This is a cool deal,” Wohlford said. “We don’t get to build buildings up here often.”

He did say there are going to be major impacts to parking on West Ridge throughout the process. The Life Sciences website will keep interested parties informed of changes and closures. Also, the north entrance to Arctic Health will be closed all summer due to a revamping of the courtyard for a Center for Alaska Native Health Research project.

The Life Sciences groundbreaking is March 30 at 4 p.m.

SNRAS researcher teaches gardening in Dillingham

Will zucchini be a good crop to grow in Dillingham? Students will find out this weekend!

Forty people in Dillingham will learn the basics of practical gardening March 4-6, thanks in part to SNRAS researchers. Hosted by UAF Bristol Bay Campus, the workshop is a one-credit, hands-on course taught by Jodie Anderson, Jeff Smeenk, and Rae Belle Whitcomb. Local Dillingham gardeners will serve as mentors.

Anderson hopes that the event brings together local gardeners, gardening experts, and aspiring gardeners to exchange information and celebrate local food production for families and communities in southwest Alaska. “It’s in the spirit of self-reliance and sustainability,” Anderson, a SNRAS instructor and director of the Alaska Community Horticulture Program, said.

Participants will learn how to plot a garden and decide what vegetables to plant, seed starting, transplanting, tuber planning, lighting/heat improvement, and composting basics. Soil improvement is another important topic, along with how to research vegetable information and seed varieties on the internet. At the end of the weekend, everyone gets to take home seeds and supplies to start a garden.

The workshop is sponsored by SNRAS, the Bristol Bay Campus, Bristol Bay Native Association Workforce Development, and the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. A composting workshop is planned for April.

The community is becoming very enthusiastic about gardening. An article published in the Bristol Bay Times on Jan. 31 states, “Inch by inch, row by row, gardening is on the grow in southwest Alaska.”

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Study illustrates shifting boreal forest ecosystem in Alaska

A new study released in the scientific journal Ecology Letters offers one of the first confirmations of a wholesale shift in the boreal forest ecosystem due to climate change.

UAF researchers are among collaborators on the study, which compared tree-ring data to satellite images. The study found that tree growth declined across most of the current area of Alaska boreal forest but increased in a smaller area on the cold margins of the forest.

“This is one of the first extensive analyses of annual growth and climate response of black spruce in Alaska,” said Glenn Juday, professor of forest ecology with SNRAS and a co-author of the article.

Scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center and three other institutions based in Alaska and France conducted the study. UAF scientists were instrumental in the project, which involved one of the largest and most widely distributed samples of tree-ring data ever analyzed in Alaska: 839 trees, including 627 white spruce from 46 stands and 212 black spruce from 42 stands.

“The tree rings tell us for sure what’s happening on the ground, and the satellite data covers the whole region,” said Juday. “Recent temperature increases have reduced tree growth over most of central Alaska, and increased growth in places where the temperature used to be too low for optimum growth, such as the Western Alaska tundra margin. Summer temperatures in central interior Alaska are now almost too warm for white spruce to survive.”

The study is the first time the two sets of data were compared, Juday said. “Every tree ring sample was compared to the satellite data and they mostly agreed. It’s particularly impressive that the tree ring and satellite data agree so well. This gives the final piece of assurance that this is real.”

According to lead author Pieter Beck, a postdoctoral fellow at Woods Hole Research Center, the results offer evidence of the biome shifting in response to climate change and indicate that some ecosystem models may be missing changes happening in the circumpolar region.

“While the findings contrast with some recent model predictions of increased high latitude vegetation productivity, they are consistent with longer-term projections of global vegetation models,” Beck said.

Scott Goetz, a senior scientist at WHRC, proposed the study and co-authored the manuscript.

“Most people don’t think of high-latitudes forests as being drought stressed and they are not, in the traditional sense of having soils dry up and blow away, but their growth is negatively impacted by hot dry air masses and those have increased in recent years,” he said. “This paper shows those drought impacts are captured in both the satellite and the tree ring record.”

Researchers from SNRAS who worked on the project were Juday, Valerie Barber, Patricia Heiser, and Emily Sousa. Claire Alix, a former affiliate with SNRAS now at the Panthéon Sorbonne Archéologie des Amériques, Steve Winslow, former SNRAS graduate student, and Jim Herriges with the Bureau of Land Management participated in the study and co-authored the paper.