Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sustainable Agriculture Conference continued: turfgrass, growers' school, livestock

Conference Day 1, part 2 (see also earlier post):

Steve Brown gave a presentation on turfgrass airstrips and the research that UAF is doing on aviation turf. Damage to small airplanes from gravel kicked up from airstrips is a significant problem, but it turns out that some native Alaska grasses may have the answer. Red fescue is an agressive, sod-forming grass that grows well in gravel or on rock, and is so tough that it can prevent invasion by willow or alder (another problem with gravel runways in Alaska). Gravel is much cheaper and more practical than pavement, but turfgrass can be even better. Brown recommended grading the runway to encourage drainage and prevent puddling, removing cobbles, and taking random soil samples throughout the runway before seeding. Arctared fescue does better north of the Alaska Range, but grows taller. Boreal red fescue does best south of the Alaska Range, and flops over after reaching a certain height, so it doesn't need to be mowed.

Ross Coen and Donavan Kienenberger gave a presentation on the Alaska Growers School, a joint project of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. Food costs in rural Alaska are much higher, as much as 49% more than in urban areas for a family of four. While getting a greenhouse shipped out to a village and maintaining it can be expensive, it can still be more affordable to buy produce grown that way than to have it shipped (and more readily available). The ACEP is working on a greenhouse in Fort Yukon, where the waste heat from diesel generators can be captured. The heat these gensets produce is created anyway as a byproduct of electricity generation, and can extend the growing season. Many communities already use this heat to supply community buildings with heat, but may still be able use some of the heat to extend the season. "It's a use it or lose it situation," said Coen. While communities may not be able to grow hothouse tomatoes in January, greenhouse produce might still be possible year round or with a greatly extended season by using a secondary heat source, such as a wood-fired boiler).

Coen described the EPA's Climate Showcase Communities Program, which aims to reduce CO2 emissions, and Alaska's first project under the grant. Originally slated for Galena, this project is now planned for Fort Yukon, and will use a heat recovery system, thus reducing transport costs and solid waste as well as reducing carbon release. Local people will be trained as full-time employees for seasonal work, with potential for year-round employment.

The Alaska Food Policy Council gave a brief outline of its new strategic plan for the next three years, with its goals of:
  • Developing school-based programs and policies;
  • Strengthening the "Seven Percent" statute (AS 36.15.050) and the Procurement Preference for State Agricultural and Fisheries Products (Sec. 29.71.040);
  • Developing community level and comprehensive statewide emergency food preparedness plan(s);
  • Becoming a research aggregator and resource on food system issues;
  • Supporting existing local food system leaders, projects, events, and activities that support Alaska’s food system.
Brandy McLean of Triple McLean Farms gave a presentation on the livestock of her farm, which the family started in 2000, with chickens: black Jersey giants. Then came Rouen ducks, then geese, and most recent, Large Black Hogs. The McLean farm is in Delta Junction, and it can get quite cold, but the hogs, which seem to get along well with the birds, can handle extreme cold (65 below zero). The pigs are a heritage breed, which the McLeans are registering. They are slower to mature, taking about ten months to get to butchering size, and there are only around 1,200 in the US. The McLeans began with one boar and two sows. They make good moms, McLean said, and have great temperaments, being docile and adaptable. They have no barn, just a large pile of straw into which they burrow, and eat a mix of ground barley, soybean meal, and thrive on pasture. The hogs don't root, she said, and have two layers of hair.

SNRAS professor Jan Rowell gave an overview of the results of the Sustainable Livestock Conference held in October 2011. It is both possible and profitable to raise red meat in Alaska, Rowell began, yet less than 1% of the meat consumed in the state is locally produced. She and her fellow researchers needed feedback from producers and got funding to hold a conference. There were better than 80 attendees, 35 of whom were meat producers with another 9 in related businesses. The keynote speaker was Dr. John Ikerd. All farming in Alaska is done on small farms, and it is small farms that re at the vanguard of sustainable agriculture. Small farms embodied the principles of sustainability: ecological compatibility, economic viability, and concern for socially acceptable practice.

Rowell described the 200+ written comments they needed to distill down, working from basic questions on production and education. Access to affordable, available land was a barrier. Information on how to start farming, the appropriate species and breeds for Alaska and the region, sustainable practices, the economic break points, local fertilizers, farm mentoring, and more were discussed. The university could assist with feasibility studies, enterprise budgets, cool tools, a redesigned curriculum, more distance delivery. The public's responsibility is in the area of organizing into stakeholder groups to affect policy. The conference organizing committee is working on a white paper (to be published in early summer) and hopes to keep the dialogue going through an Alaska Diversified Livestock Association planning meeting for October 2012, to bring in a speaker and serve as a venue to convene a first stakeholder meeting.

Phil Kaspari, Cooperative Extension agricultural agent for the Delta Junction area and associated with the Pesticide Safety Education Program, and a yak farmer, gave a talk on small pasture management, going over economics of scale and other questions: how much equipment do you need for a small group of animals? what does a farmer need to consider when thinking about a home herd vs. a commercial herd? do you want to increase production to meet market demands?

For reducing feed costs or labor, Kaspari described how using pasture could help. Considerations for a farmer included: creating a development timeline; making a farmstead grazing plan; thinking about the goals of the operation; looking at soil types and their pH; taking into account sensitive areas (such as surface water, steep slopes, shallow water tables, drainages); forage species; what type of fencing system; a livestock watering system; and so forth. Multi-species grazing affects pasture growth: sheep prefer forbs (weeds), goats prefer browse but will graze, and cows and horses especially prefer grass. Your animals will need different amounts of acreage depending on the kind of creature: 2.5-3 acres for a cow or horse without supplemental feed, .5 acre for a sheep, less for a goat.

Cool season grasses that do well include Kentucky bluegrass, creeping red fescue; smooth bromegrass, and timothy. Legumes are pH sensitive and have hardiness limitations. Yellow-flowered alfalfa and birdfoot trefoil need inoculum; bird vetch is invasive and hardy, but doesn't have much regrowth under grazing. Certain plants will show up on pasture that can be bad for livestock—especially if the pasture isn't properly managed—such as the death camas, a poisonous plant that will appear if the pasture is overgrazed. Others include: water hemlock, wild iris, larkspur/wild delphinium, common groundsel, European bird cherry/chokecherry, and lupine. Foxtail barley is palatable in early stage, but absolutely programmed to grow a seed head, and then not palatable to your animals.

For sustainable grazing, a good rule is that if you can see the animals' hooves, the forage is cropped too low and being overgrazed. Think "take half, leave half" for sustainable grazing. Basic methods include continuous grazing, simple rotational grazing, and intensive rotational grazing. Continuous grazing eventually wears out the plants and reduces the root growth of your forage. It's better to distribute the manure and rotate the grazing. Farmers can grow oats on the homestead corner to supply winter feed, using the manure buildup from the winter as fertilizer.

Farming equipment that may be needed for pasturage: brush mower, small brass seeder, manure spreader, fertilizer spreader, a pasture harrow to spread manure to reduce parasite loads, a sickle bar mower, and a dump rake. Contact Phil Kaspari for more information on details of rotation, equipment, costs, and so on.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Alaska students compete in Geographic Bee

Alaska students will compete in the National Geographic state-level geography bee Friday, March 30 at the Egan Center in Anchorage. More than 100 fourth through eighth graders from 21 Alaska school districts will participate. The contestants have prequalified by winning their schools’ bees and passing a qualifying test.

Questions during the bee span the world: “Which state has a climate suitable for growing citrus fruits, California or Maine?” “The North Atlantic current brings warm waters from the tropics to the west coast of which continent?” “To visit the ruins of Persepolis, an ancient capital of Persia, you would have to travel to what present-day 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 22-24 in Washington, D.C. The national winner receives a $25,000 college scholarship, a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society and a trip to the Galapagos Islands.

This year’s bee will feature the Giant Traveling Map of the Pacific Ocean. The map, measuring 26 feet by 35 feet, gives students an interactive experience through content and activities that enliven the study of geography. Designed for kindergarten through eighth grade, the map will be on loan to the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska Geographic Alliance in March and April via National Geographic’s Giant Traveling Maps program, which is managed by National Geographic Live, the public programming division of the National Geographic Society.

For additional information on the National Geographic Bee please visit www.nationalgeographic.com/geobee.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sustainable Agriculture Conference Day 1: mushrooms, flour, and warmed soil

The Sustainable Agriculture Conference and Organic Growers School was held March 14 and 15, with preconference workshops on March 13 on running a farm business and on growing mushrooms. A clear theme that ran throughout the conference presentations was food security. Over and over again, speakers talked about how Alaska is at the end of a long food importation chain—but need not be. Alaskans could do for themselves, they said, and throughout the conference showed just how that was being done.

The keynote speaker was Glenn Coville of Wild Branch Valley Farm in Craftsbury, Vermont. Coville described how he grows oyster mushrooms and other fungi for the commercial market, taking the audience through the construction of his growing rooms and racks, the composition of the growing medium for the mushroom spawn (wood chips vs. grain such as oats, barley, or spelt), his lab room, common problems, marketing, use of the old mulch, mycofiltration, and mycoremediation.

The spawn lab is where he prepares batches of mycelium, inoculating the spawn medium (grain, straw, or wood chips) with mushroom spores or a tissue culture (the method he uses) that, given a clean moist environment, will grow into mushroom mycelium that will sprout in the grow rooms into fruiting bodies (mushrooms). It is important that this lab area be clean and sterile so that bacteria or competitor fungi don't take over the medium prepared for one's commercial crop. Coville showed the items needed and the process required for successful spawn preparation: a pressure cooker or retort, a timer, a laminar flow bench to filter the air for your clean room, a bag sealer, scalpel sterilizer and alcohol, gar medium, a small refrigerator for culture storage, petri dishes to keep your cultures viable. Coville described soaking grain, inoculating it, and putting it into bags or jars to start the growth of the mycelium.

The grow rooms are bedded with clean, shredded straw (not hay). The straw is chopped, wetted, let sit to germinate any mold spores, then put into a tank, heated, fluffed up to cool it down, and the spawn added in. (Mycomasters.com uses hydrogen peroxide to moisten the medium because it inhibits spore germination from competitors but not mycelium growth, he noted.) Wood chips also work well, but tend to get too wet in Vermont. Mushrooms can be grown outdoors, depending on the climate. Garden oyster mushrooms will grow well outdoors on wood chips. He puts the growing medium thus created into recycled, clean grain bags or plastic bags (transparent ones are nice, he said, because you can see what's happening through them). He pokes holes in the bag which release carbon dioxide, and the mushrooms grow out through those holes on racks in his grow rooms.

Things to control are: flies and maggots; mold and other competitor fungi; humidity; carbon dioxide; and light. Air filtration for the grow rooms helps reduce infestations. If the grow rooms are kept at high humidity the mushrooms will be heavier but the quality will be lower, he cautioned; a dry mushroom means a better quality mushroom. Cleanliness is very important to chefs. About 80% humidity works well. Mushrooms need indirect light, he said, but not a lot. The more light, the darker the color of the mushroom. Used mushroom mulch is good in the garden.

Mushrooms are used for mycofiltration, in which a web of mycelium is established through which runoff travels. The mushroom mycelium paralyzes and digests bacteria in the runoff. Similarly, mycoremediation is a method used for degrading environmental contaminants. The enzymes that mushrooms and other fungi produce to break down lignin and cellulose also break down organophosphates, nerve gases, and other deadly poisons.

Coville recommended as a resource for would-be mushroom growers the site Fungi Perfecti: this is a comprehensive website and company founded by Paul Stamets and family.

The next speaker was Bryce Wrigley, of the Alaska Flour Company. Wrigley described his family's decision to start a flour mill. They already grew grain, going from a minimum-till system to a no-till system this last year (the kids moved away so he and his wife no longer had the whole family to bring in the harvest). They knew they could grow what people needed (Alaskans use 135 lbs of grain per year, he estimated), and although Alaska's food insecurity was daunting, with 95% of our food imported, it also represented an opportunity. The family analyzed the market for specialty flours, visiting other flour mills, in Idaho, such as Pendleton Mills and Lehi Mills, both of which processed far more than the Wrigleys could. They decided to contact an equipment broker, which helped considerably: "the best contact we made," Wrigley said.

They constructed a 20' x 30' grain-cleaning building, bought packaging (flour bags), and purchased a truck and hauled up the equipment from Idaho after having it shipped there (it was cheaper than shipping it all the way up). The equipment included an accumulator, bag sealer, bagger that could fill by volume or weight, their stone mill, and a sifter. They had to get building insurance, truck insurance, content insurance, product liability insurance, and get a commercial policy. Their electrical useage was also an important consideration.

Their marketing included a Facebook page, which, Wrigley pointed out, made people feel a part of the process, something they wanted to encourage. He described how it took a while to come up with a suitable logo. "Simplicity is cheaper," he said: fewer colors and a less intricate design meant less cost on labels, which can add up when you have to buy 15,000 bags at a time.

Alaska needs to create a food system, Wrigley emphasized, but this requires several things: resources, market opportunity, and a favorable business climate. We have, he said, regulation overload. Our regulations and policies need to be overhauled and re-examined, evaluated on whether they stand in the way of creating a functional, healthy food system or support that aim. Enduring quality is an important feature, too: people will try it if it says Alaska on it, but the quality must be sufficient to keep them buying it. Alaska can be competitive on artisan flours, but unlikely to have the best deal on all flours because of volume pricing.

The Alaska Flour Company grows and mills Sunshine hulless barley, a variety developed at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, selling sifted barley flour in 5 and 10 lb resealable poly bags and 25 and 40 lb paper bags. They intend to plant 200 acres of barley and 200 acres of Ingal wheat (also developed in Alaska) in 2012 (up from 2010's initial 20 acres of barley), and hope to take in grain to mill from other farmers. Wrigley had several different treats made from his flour for conference attendess, with small bags of flour and "Cream of Barley" cereal for sale. (This writer can attest to the tastiness of the poppyseed cake and the cream of barley!)

Several presentations on recordkeeping, farm management, and grants for farmers followed.

Then John Dart of the Manley Hot Springs Produce Company described the history of his farm. The original farm was started in 1902 and was the first patented farm in the Interior, growing vegetables since 1907. Because Manley Hot Springs is so remote, the bathhouse business isn't really viable. Charles Dart, John's uncle, was a botanist, and brought grapevines to the springs. In 1987 fuel was cheap, and the farm produced tomatoes, peppers, melons, and cucumbers, growing 16,000 lbs of greenhouse tomatoes that were sold to Paul Gavora's supermarket in Fairbanks. Now fuel is expensive, so hothouse growing year-round isn't practical any more.

John Dart's farm is to the east of the Karshner Creek valley, terraced on a southeast-facing slope. Dr. Diana Solie helped him do exploratory slim hole drilling to check the depth to bedrock and the soil temperature. The soil temperature is warmer there due to the hot springs. They hit hot water. John worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to determine the proper width of the terraces. Because the water is high in chlorine, it promotes corrosion in steel or iron, so John uses plastic, concrete or an alloy pipe. He has a 70-foot water-pumping windmill tower. The farm uses bottom heat with a continuous perimeter and high tunnels, moving heat where it is needed with buried pipe. He expects to grow sweet corn and harvest asparagus this year.

After a panel discussion on getting started in agriculture and a presentation on injury prevention through proper bending (deep bending from the lower hip, straight back), more presentations were made: Steve Brown spoke on turfgrass airstrips and Ross Coen talked about the Alaska Growers School program.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Outstanding students named

SNRAS has selected the outstanding students for the year, Erik Soederstroem for geography, Kelsey Gobroski for high latitude agriculture and Ryan Jess for humans and the environment.

Each student will receive a tuition credit award and will be honored at the UAF student award breakfast April 28.

Erik Soederstroem, 25, grew up in Ostersund, Sweden, and came to UAF on a cross-country skiing scholarship. Climate change studies are what attracted him to Fairbanks, and throughout his time here the crucial thing he has learned is the importance of geography. His English has also improved tremendously. “Now it feels natural,” he said.

After he graduates in May with a bachelor of science in geography, Soederstroem plans to return to Sweden and ski professionally for a year while he decides where to begin his graduate studies. “Geography is such a broad field,” he said. “It opens a lot of paths.”

Soederstroem enjoys traveling and playing the guitar.

Kelsey Gobroski, 22, hails from Anchorage. After graduating from high school as a UA Scholar, she searched for a program that would fit her needs close to home. At first she was interested in landscape architecture but then she fell in love with plant science.

Gobroski minored in journalism and Russian. Her high latitude agriculture studies have emphasized the importance of inter-disciplinary teamwork. “I gained knowledge about a lot of topics so I know who to go to when there is a problem I don’t understand,” she said.

As a student, Gobroski worked as a Sun-Star reporter, and with the OneTree program, the IAB Geobotany Center, the UA Museum of the North Herbarium and the Forest Soils Lab.

She intends to become a science journalist. “I want to help the general public understand that it’s important to know about the ecosystem they live in ,” she said. “I enjoy discovery so much.”

Her goal is to become a better storyteller so people can relate to scientific concepts. Her college years have taught her the importance of seeing difficult projects through to the end.

Gobroski has traveled to Russia five times on humanitarian missions. She enjoys hiking, drawing and writing for her blog.

Ryan Jess, 27, grew up in several states across the U.S., moving every few years due to his father’s job. He attended three different high schools and graduated in Florida in 2003. He considers Utah and Montana home.

Jess was studying at Brigham Young University when he came to Alaska for a summer job. After meeting his future wife, Sara, he transferred to UAF where he found SNRAS the perfect fit. “UAF is a much smaller school, much more personal and had every quality I was looking for in a university,” he said.

The most important thing he learned is how to learn, he said. “Aside from any specific information, the thing I value learning the most is the ability to think critically and analyze issues objectively.”

His goals are to find a career with a state or federal agency, settle down and start a family. Down the road he would like to pursue a master’s degree in natural resources management.

In his spare time Jess enjoys spending time with Sara, hunting, fishing, traveling and visiting family and friends.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sustainable ag conference set for March 14-15

The Sustainable Agriculture Conference March 14-15 in Fairbanks will cover a variety of topics, including funding opportunities, farmers markets and large black hogs.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service will host the eighth-annual conference at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge.

Two preconference workshops will kick off the event March 13. John Collins of Alaska Farmland Trust will present a business-planning workshop for individuals interested in starting a farm. A mushroom workshop, led by Glenn Coville of Craftsbury, Vt., will include a short presentation on his organic mushroom operation, followed by a hands-on segment on cultivating mushrooms in straw.

Conference topics will include Alaska’s only flour company, the history of plant varieties developed in Alaska, pasture management, innovative farm contraptions, a peony growers update, beekeeping, growing grass on gravel runways and more. Local food efforts will be addressed with presentations from farmers markets, schools and universities, and a panel with restaurateurs and farmers.

The Alaska Community Agriculture Association will host its annual meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. March 14, following conference activities. This group of Alaska farmers, gardeners and community members promotes sustainable local food systems.

Preconference workshops are $35 and registration for the conference is $55 per day or $75 for both days. Preregistration is requested for planning purposes. See a full conference schedule, register online or download a registration form at www.uaf.edu/ces. For more information, contact Tanana District program assistant Taylor Maida at 907-474-2422.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Giant traveling map brings Pacific Ocean to Alaska schools

Students across Alaska will dive into the wonders of the Pacific Ocean with one of the world’s largest maps of the world’s largest ocean. The map, measuring 26 feet by 35 feet, will give these student explorers a fun, interactive experience through rich content and exciting activities that enliven the study of geography. Designed for grades kindergarten through eight, the map will be on loan to the UA Geography Program and the Alaska Geographic Alliance in March and April through National Geographic’s Giant Traveling Maps program, managed by National Geographic Live, the public programming division of the National Geographic Society.

The brightly colored, smooth vinyl surface of the map will allow students at over 20 Alaska schools from Bethel to Anchorage to Juneau and points beyond to explore some of the unexpected geography at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean: from the deepest place on earth, the Mariana Trench, to the world’s tallest mountain, Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, which has its base on the ocean floor. Most of all, students will experience the Pacific as a living entity, with active volcanoes giving birth to new islands, deep sea vents supporting new life forms, phytoplankton blooms providing over half of the planet’s fresh air, and the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living structure in the world.

Teachers are provided with a set of fun, content-rich activities to help students interact with the map: “Cities in the Sea” invites students to explore the extraordinary biodiversity of four reef ecosystems; “The Deep & the Dark” simulates for students the depth of the Mariana Trench and fifteen other ocean floor trenches; and “Ocean Commotion” allows students to travel the ocean surface along the paths of eight major currents, finishing in the middle of the Pacific garbage patch, where they learn about human impacts on ocean health. Also accompanying the maps are lavish photo cards of animals and plants, hand-held models of volcanoes, and colorful coral reef replicas.

National Geographic’s Giant Traveling Maps program was introduced in 2006 with a map of Africa. Since then the program has expanded to include maps of North America, Asia and South America and now the Pacific Ocean. The maps reinforce National Geographic’s commitment to increasing geo-literacy through teacher professional development, K-12 curriculum, live events and academic competitions.


Wednesday March 7, Nenana City Public School, Nenana
Monday, March 12, Kongiginak School, Kongiginak
Tuesday, March 13, Gladys Jung Elementary, Bethel
Wednesday, March 14, Gladys Jung Elementary, Bethel
Thursday, March 15, Gladys Jung Elementary, Bethel
Tuesday, March 20, Larson Elementary, Wasilla
Wednesday, March 21 Palmer Junior Middle School, Palmer
Thursday, March 22, Machetanz Elementary, Wasilla
Tuesday, March 27, Goldenview Middle, Anchorage
Wednesday, March 28, Ravenwood Elementary, Eagle River
Thursday, March 29, Eagle River Elementary, Eagle River
Friday, March 30, Alaska State Geographic Bee, Egan Center, Anchorage
Wednesday, April 4, Family Geography Night, Immaculate Conception School, Fairbanks, 5:30 - 7 pm
Monday, April 9, Montessori Borealis, Juneau
Tuesday, April 10, Yakoosge Daakahidi Alternate High School, Juneau
Wednesday, April 11 Harborview Elementary, Juneau
Monday, April 16, Kaleidoscope School, Kenai
Tuesday, April 17, Soldotna Elementary, Soldotna
Monday, April 23, Kenny Lake School, Kenny Lake (with iGlobe)
Tuesday April 24, Glenallen School, Glenallen (with iGlobe)
Wednesday, April 24, Glenallen School, Glenallen (with iGlobe - evening science night program)

For information, contact Wanda Tangermann, UA Geography Program, 907-474-7494 or wrtangermann@alaska.edu.

Further reading:  Giant map makes for fun lessons in Juneau schools, By Sarah Day, Juneau Empire, April 13, 20123