Wednesday, January 30, 2013

SNRAS alum joins Expedition Arguk

Jason Mercer is at home in the great outdoors.

Because Jason Mercer believes the Arctic is the canary in the coal mine, he joined Expedition Arguk, a team of five scientists and media experts who will hike and packraft 300 miles from the Gates of the Arctic to the Arctic Ocean this fall. (Arguk in Inupiat means to walk against the wind.)

Mercer, a 2007 UAF graduate with a degree in natural resources management, will be a natural interpreter on the trek. “Aside from simply being born and raised in Alaska, I have worked and studied all over the state for more than a decade, including in the Brooks Range, the Foothills and the Arctic Coastal Plain,” Mercer said. “These experiences provide an insight into what kinds of vegetation, wildlife and potential hazards we might run into along the route.”

At the present moment, Mercer is in a warmer climate, spending several months in Ecuador, taking Spanish classes and learning about the culture of Ecuador and Latin America. Beginning in mid-February, he will be working with a conservation organization focused on watershed health in and around Ecuador. The organization, the Ecuadorian River Institute, is based in Tena.

Mercer will be assisting ERI with some updates to their data management system, as well as participating in the inventory of illegal mining activities along some of the major headwaters of the Amazon. “But my trip isn’t all volunteer work and Spanish lessons,” Mercer said. “I will also be attempting to summit Volcano Cotopaxi followed by Mt. Chimborazo. Other activities include trekking, scuba diving, sailing and salsa dancing.”

As part of his graduate studies he will spend the summer performing hydrology field work in and around the Banff National Park area, in the Canadian Rockies. “This opportunity provides access to world class terrain, which I will take full advantage of, packrafting and hiking as much as possible in my down time,” Mercer said. “This will be the first summer I’ve ever spent away from Alaska. I can only hope the mountains and rivers of Canada will provide me solace while away from my homeland.”

Looking toward Arguk in the fall, Mercer said he decided to join the team because of concerns about climate change. “Every day studies, reports and news articles are published illustrating the impacts of climate change, as well as predicting further harm,” Mercer said. “In particular, high latitudes appear to be experiencing the swiftest changes in climate, with temperatures rising faster in the north. Despite innumerable warnings and strong evidence indicating human cause, political and economic pressure has produced a continuing resource boom, with the Arctic and its people suffering the consequences of these negative externalities.

"My team members and I are just normal people, with an abnormal amount of backcountry experience, and we see global climate change as a serious threat to the existence of our planet in its current form. The Arctic is the canary in the coal mine. And there is so little information about this vast, open land. My hope is that we can shed some light on this beautiful place for those who can’t see it for themselves.”


While Mercer’s formal education was in forestry, his background is in geographic information systems and remote sensing. He landed a position in the private sector before even graduating from UAF. For the last six years he has focused on the interaction between policy and science, with a particular emphasis on Alaska wetlands. “This focus has been interesting, because so much of Alaska is considered wetland, which means I’ve been able to see, feel and experience much of this great state for myself,” Mercer said.

He donates time to a number of causes including the Anchorage Waterways Council as a citizen environmental monitor, Planned Parenthood of the Greater Northwest Board of Advocates, United Way and Challenge Alaska.

When asked what he learned from his undergraduate studies with SNRAS, Mercer said, “Work hard, use your common sense, come prepared, but don’t be afraid to fail. That is, all our failures are just steps toward success. I couldn’t be adequately prepared for Expedition Arguk if I hadn’t pushed myself to figure out just what my limits are and then worked hard to get past them. That applies physically, mentally and emotionally. So, be creative, put yourself out there to be judged negatively or positively and think outside the box. But above all, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and stay positive.”

One of his goals for the expedition is to simply enjoy the beauty of the Brooks Range and North Slope.

“We’re hoping to find compelling, creative and unique ways to share the drama of the changing Arctic,” Mercer said. “With few exceptions, we don’t believe conventional media has been successful in conveying the importance of this issue to the general public. Thus we are aiming to implement a new strategy in the market of ideas surrounding this very important topic.

“We intend to make a number of video, photographic and written products, including an animation by our Media Producer Paxson Woelber. Paxson’s a fantastic artist and I’m really excited to see what he comes up with. We intend to showcase our work via our website, film festivals, public presentations, print media and social media outlets." Find Expedition Arctic on Facebook.

Variety trials: how to do it yourself

After 25 years, Professor Pat Holloway is no longer conducting vegetable and flower variety trials at UAF, but at the Greenhouse Conference Jan. 25 in Fairbanks she shared with growers how to take on such work themselves.

“The first thing I do is go to the library,” Holloway said. “I read books about plant explorers; maybe there is some obscure thing in the Tibetan mountains we could try.”

Holloway cautioned that she doesn’t rely on the latest books or newest topics. “Horticulture has a fashion statement, things are in and out,” she said. “I go back to 1833 and find plants that might be interesting to resurrect and bring back to the horticulture trade.”

Every now and then something weird pops up that proves successful. Holloway found Chinese medicinal herbs and showed them to the Herb Bunch, volunteers who take care of herb plots at GBG. “You can get good tips from oddball books,” she said.

Another important thing to recognize is the unique weather conditions of Fairbanks. “I remind myself every year of our climate,” Holloway said. Hardiness zones are inaccurate, she said. “Somebody from the lower 48 who doesn’t know anything about Alaska does them. There is a year-round cycle of how plants adapt to the environment. Refresh yourself on what this means.”

Another thing on Holloway’s mind is how snow affects plants. “Snow is your friend,” she said, “your dear friend. It makes an incredible difference.” (Snow keeps plants and roots warmer.)

Holloway’s advice for commercial catalogs is to look at the newest selling points and determine if the distributor is in-house or contract. “Breeder-owned catalogs are fun,” Holloway said. She recommended Dowdeswell’s Delphinium Ltd.

Society exchanges are also a good way to get seeds or plants. “The grandmama of them all is the North American Rock Garden Society.” She also likes the Alaska Native Plant Society and the Alaska Rock Garden Society. “It is worth a trip to Anchorage when they have their sale,” she said.

Other favorites are the Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association and The Chileman.

“Join organizations and attend conferences,” Holloway urged. “I encourage anybody growing new plants to join the International Plant Propagators Society.”

The American Peony Society is the official registrar for new cultivars and makes seeds available from top peony breeders in the U.S.

Botanical gardens are another avenue to pursue. Holloway said when traveling serious growers should visit botanical gardens and in most situations the workers will probably be willing to share plant materials, but she advised that people need to know the Latin names of plants and have knowledge about the plants they are interested in.

Another valuable source is the U.S.D.A. Germplasm Resources Information Network, which provides small amounts of breeding material to growers.

When Alaska lost its gene bank in June, Holloway stepped in to save materials to grow at the GBG, including rhubarb, red currant, black currant and gooseberries.

“There is nothing wrong with being a plant explorer,” Holloway said. “You have to do your homework and know your geography.”

Holloway warned the audience to be wary of bringing invasive plants to their gardens. “Know what you are growing and know the scientific names and life history so you can equate it to Alaska conditions. Respect private property, patent laws and public lands. Pay attention and destroy plants that are invasive.”

At the GBG, Holloway dealt with 3,000 plants a year and the worst invasive plants in that history were Siberian rocket, milk thistle and bladder campion.

Visit the Georgeson Botanical Garden website for more information.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Florida Tech honors Valerie Barber, SNRAS professor and former Olympian

Valerie Barber (center) back in her rowing days.

MELBOURNE, Fla. – Florida Tech will induct four members and one team into the university’s Sports Hall of Fame on Friday, Feb. 1 in the Hartley Room at the Denius Student Center on the FIT campus. To honor the Class of 2013, a profile will be posted daily at for five days. Today’s profile is former rower Dr. Valerie Barber.

Dr. Barber helped pave the way for women’s rowing at Florida Tech. Despite admittedly not knowing the sport of rowing when she arrived in 1974, she rowed all four years for the Panthers.

As a member of the women’s varsity eight, she rowed the seven seat to three state championships and two south region championships. The varsity eight also experienced success on the biggest stage, the Dad Vail Regatta. The Panthers won two silver medals and one bronze during her tenure. Also, Dr. Barber and a women’s four earned a fifth-place medal at the Head of the Charles in Boston in the women’s team’s first-ever appearance.

She says the highlight of her career came during her senior year in 1978. Dr. Barber helped form an eight composed of the top women’s rowers from Florida Tech, University of Central Florida and Tampa. They faced a boat from Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia, Pa., composed of women from the national team and past Olympians. Dr. Barber’s boat won by over two boat lengths.

Barber in 1978.

Dr. Barber had her sights set on joining the Peace Corps upon graduating with an oceanography degree from Florida Tech in 1978. However, her passion for rowing steered her to a different path. She made the U.S. rowing team and earned the five seat in the women’s eight. At the World Championships, Dr. Barber and Team USA finished fourth.

Two years later in 1980, Dr. Barber became a U.S. Olympian by earning a seat in the women’s four. She was scheduled to compete in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, but USA was one of 65 countries to boycott the games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Dr. Barber is now an assistant research professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences. She works in Palmer at the Palmer Center for Sustainable Living.

The Florida Tech Sports Hall of Fame will begin with a reception at 6 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 1 in the Hartley Room at the Denius Student Center on the FIT campus. The dinner and program will start at 7 p.m. Former women’s rower Dr. Valerie Barber (’78), men’s soccer players Eddie Enders (’93) and Fidgi Haig (’92), men’s tennis player Khalid Outaleb (’87) and the 1992 Baseball Team will enter as the Class of 2013.

The banquet will be streamed live online at

(Article provided by Ryan Jones, assistant athletic director for athletic communications, Florida Tech.)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Growers' meetings set by CES

The UAF Cooperative Extension Service will host informal meetings for Interior residents who grow or are interested in growing grain, hay or fruit. Sunshine barley seed will be available for sale at the grain meeting.

Grain growers will meet Jan. 29, hay growers on Jan. 31 and fruit growers on Feb. 5. All meetings will begin at 6 p.m. at 724 27th Ave., in the Fairbanks Community Food Bank building.

The meetings will give growers an opportunity to discuss common issues and upcoming workshops. For more information, call Steven Seefeldt at 474-2423.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Rural reindeer herders learn commercial meat techniques at UAF

Greg Finstad trims the fat off a reindeer carcass as George Aguiar observes.

Reindeer herders and producers from rural Alaska visited UAF this week to learn about commercial meat preparation.

Led by SNRAS Associate Professor Greg Finstad, the three-day workshop attracted producers from Stebbins and St. Michael in western Alaska. “We wanted to give them exposure to producing commercially inspected products,” Finstad said. “They already know how to field slaughter. They wanted to learn how to produce inspected meat.” The skills will help prepare the producers to sell meat to retail markets and restaurants.

The students traveled to Delta Junction to observe a reindeer slaughter at Delta Meat and Sausage. They also toured a private reindeer farm in the Goldstream Valley owned by George Aguiar. Aguiar, a research professional with the Reindeer Research Program, gave a lecture at UAF on reindeer meat production, microbiology, safe handling, meat quality and slaughtering. He addressed industry slaughterhouse procedures.

At Wednesday’s workshop, Finstad and Aguiar demonstrated how to cut the carcass into saleable pieces of meat. Herders are accustomed to traditional methods of meat-cutting, with the carcass on the ground and the people cutting the meat into chunks or slabs for soup.

Cutting from a hanging steer carcass, Finstad demonstrated how to prepare the prime cuts. Holding up some tenderloin, he said, “This will get you $30 a pound.” He cautioned that people tend to overcook the meat and that it should only be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees.

First though there was the trimming of the fat. The Natives asked for the fat to take home to make Eskimo ice cream. On a reindeer the fat accumulates on top of the muscles and is easily separated from the meat (unlike beef where the fat is marbled into the meat).

The students learned how to handle a carcass so it has the proper pH level, how to keep meat from spoiling and the correct aging techniques (not much is needed for reindeer).

For 20-year-old Daphne Katcheak of Stebbins, the workshop was an eye-opener. “Everything is so new,” she said. “It’s so different from where I come from where we do things traditionally.” She said she will go home with knowledge of management techniques.

“It takes a lot to really make it work,” Katcheak said. She hopes that one day Stebbins and St. Michael will have their own meat processing plants. “That would be so awesome to pass out food and sell it,” she said.

Her family’s diet includes a lot of reindeer meat. “It’s really delicious, better than beef,” she said.

Another student, Kathleen Herzner of the Davis family in Nome, said she learned what it takes to make operations as efficient as possible. “We will need the proper equipment and transportation,” she said. “We’ll be bugging out all the mistakes before we start.”

Herzner’s goal is to help build a reindeer empire on the Seward Peninsula.

“Now we know what the good cuts are,” said John Lockwood of St. Michael.

Ted Katcheak of Stebbins has been herding reindeer since he was a young child. “This has been a review of what I know and I have learned other information that is new,” Katcheak said.

One-third owner of Stebbins’ herd, Katcheak hopes his village can set up a meat operation similar to Indian Valley Meats, producing meat and byproducts. “We want to educate young Alaska Natives to become interested in agriculture and meat production.”

And he wants to see his village providing meat to stores and restaurants and even to export it to other countries. “Finland, Norway and Sweden do it,” Katcheak said. “We can do it too.”

The Reindeer Research Program is part of SNRAS's high latitude agriculture department.

Greg Finstad at left watches John Lockwood, Kathleen Herzner and Theresa Jack check the pH level of reindeer meat.

The meat was cut and wrapped by the end of the day.

Finstad shows how to cut up ribs.

SNRAS professor discovers Bison Bob on the North Slope

Dan Mann with Bison Bob

By Ned Rozell
As she scraped cold dirt from the remains of an extinct bison, Pam Groves wrinkled her nose at a rotten-egg smell wafting from gristle that still clung to the animal’s bones. She lifted her head to scan the horizon, wary of bears that might be attracted to the flesh of a creature that gasped its last breath 40,000 years ago.

In the type of discovery they have dreamed about for years, Groves and Dan Mann, both researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in summer 2012 found in the thawing bank of a northern river almost the entire skeleton of a steppe bison that died during the last ice age. (Mann is an assistant professor of geography with SNRAS.)

In adventurous work sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management, Mann and Groves have been boating down lonely northern rivers for 15 years looking for scattered bones of ice age mammals, always hoping to find a complete skeleton or mummy of a mammoth, horse, or American lion. In mid-June, on a familiar stretch of river that flows northward on Alaska’s North Slope, they rounded a river bend and saw the skull of a large bison trapped against a willow shrub.

Groves described the scene: “We were paddling downriver, battling through a nasty squall of hail and wind, thinking about our camping spot about a mile downriver,” she said. “When the hail was just breaking up, we saw the upside-down skull with the lower jaw still attached. The teeth were really white. They stood out.”

The pair landed their inflatable canoe at the base of the 60-foot bluff. Even before they stepped out in their rubber boots, Groves spotted other bones that told her this wasn’t an ordinary site. Though this ever-changing wall had yielded many bones over the years, those were scattered remains of ice-age creatures separated by meandering river action and the crumbling and re-forming of permafrost-cemented bluffs. Mann said their typical discoveries resemble “Pleistocene in a blender.”

“It’s really unusual to find bones that are still articulated (together),” he said. “We’ve never found anything this intact before. I think it’s really exciting when we find single lion bones.”

Groves and Mann spent the next four hours carefully removing soil from the skull. When Mann lifted it out, the spread of the steppe bison’s horns was 43 inches. The record Boone and Crockett modern bison has a horn tip spread of 27 inches. Fairbanks expert on Pleistocene animals Dale Guthrie estimated this bison, which Mann and Groves have nicknamed “Bison Bob,” was a 12-year-old male that weighed around 1,200 pounds.

After stowing the skull safely in the front of their canoe, Groves and Mann camped for the night. When they returned to the site, they saw more bones sticking out of frozen bluff sediments. Bones of each leg were still connected by ligaments. Reddish-brown hair clung to some bones.

“When I saw the fur, that’s when I really got excited,” Mann said.

The pair worked the bluff for the next three days, pulling up buckets of river water to thaw the pieces of their rare find. They ended up finding every piece of the animal’s skeleton except for a left shoulder blade.

With a few hundred bison parts attracting blowflies in their camp, Mann and Groves awaited a helicopter they had called to transport the bison to somewhere safer.

Shortly after their find, on a satellite phone they tried to contact archaeologist Mike Kunz, their longtime collaborator at the Bureau of Land Management. Kunz is interested in the ancient Paleoindians that once lived on Alaska’s North Slope and what might have caused both them and bison to disappear about 10,000 years ago. Bad weather kept Kunz pinned down at the archaeological site he was digging several hundred miles away, but a helicopter arrived near Mann and Groves and transported Bison Bob to a North Slope BLM camp. There, someone put the bones in a predator-proof case.

Bison Bob was soon on a flight to Fairbanks, where he now resides in a freezer at a temperature similar to the bluff in which he was entombed. Bison Bob was so well preserved, Groves and Mann think, because the bison probably got caught in quicksand 40,000 years ago. The river buried Bison Bob, and there he remained, his body becoming permafrost. Groves and Mann happened to float by just as Bison Bob was coming out of the crumbling bluff for the first time.

“It was a total fluke,” Mann said. “If we came by two days later, a landslide would have buried him.”

Familiar in cave drawings in Spain and France, the steppe bison lived during the ice age in Alaska on a grassy landscape with mammoth, musk oxen, horse, caribou, lions, wolves and two species of bears. Bison Bob was a Bison priscus, which evolved into the buffalo we know today, though Bison Bob and his kind were more than one foot taller at the shoulder and 25 percent bigger.

Though researchers and miners have found other steppe bison in Alaska — most notably Blue Babe, displayed at the UA Museum of the North — Bison Bob stands apart for the completeness of the skeleton (a lion had killed Blue Babe, and other animals scavenged the carcass, which was missing its pelvis and parts of its legs).

“This is the kind of thing we’ve always dreamed about finding,” Groves said. “There’s a lot of information you can get from an entire skeleton: Because he had hair on you can tell what colors he was; with teeth and horn sheaths and hooves you can do isotope analysis to tell what he was eating and how his diet may have changed over the course of a year. You even might be able to tell if he went south into the Brooks Range during the winter.”

The fleshy parts of Bison Bob will be useful to learn more detailed information about Bison Bob, Mann said.

“It’s got exquisite DNA in it,” Mann said.

When the researchers have finished with much of their analysis of Bison Bob, Groves said she would like to make casts of his bones and reassemble them for a display at the UA Museum of the North.

“Then people can see what a big bison looked like,” she said.

Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

SNRAS to host First Friday photography show

SNRAS graduate student Heidi Hatcher (pictured above) wants to share her photography with the public and will have the chance to do so at a First Friday show hosted by SNRAS. The event is set for Feb. 1 from 5 to 8 p.m. in O’Neill 305.

The show will emphasize Hatcher’s wildlife and adventure shots. “I’m going to cover Alaska for this show,” Hatcher said. “It will have a natural resources theme.”

While attending middle school in North Carolina, Hatcher took a black and white film photography class, which got her hooked on photography for life. Hatcher Photography began in 2004 when she sold prints at local craft fairs near Appalachian State University. Her work was showcased in several art galleries near Boone, N.C.

Since arriving in Alaska in 2010 to pursue a master’s degree in natural resources management, Hatcher has found endless sources of beauty and adventure to photograph.

“Photography is so fun,” Hatcher said. “I love comparing images and getting neat shots. My goal is to share the experiences and beauty I see out in the world.

She was sharing her work at a campus holiday bazaar last fall when Martha Westphal, SNRAS administrative coordinator, saw Hatcher’s work and invited her to do a First Friday showing.

Everyone is welcome to attend the show, and refreshments will be served. During the same timeframe on Feb. 1, the Biology and Wildlife Grad Student Association is also hosting a First Friday Art Walk in the Irving Building next door to O’Neill. Visitors are encouraged to stop by both shows. Parking is free after 5 p.m.

For more information, call 474-7188.

New year: more trees for OneTree project

Chris Pastro (left) and Celia Jackson plant birch seeds.

OneTree volunteers held a planting party over the past weekend to prepare another round of birch seedlings for classroom studies. OneTree folks sorted and planted birch seeds in the Arctic Health Research Greenhouse.

By Sunday afternoon, 500 planters were ready to do a few weeks of growing in the greenhouse before they are delivered to 18 K-12 classrooms in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.

The project is a continuation of OneTree’s work over the past four years. The outreach project of SNRAS’s forestry department has reached thousands of students with its focus on science and art involving birch trees. School district art teachers are very involved in the project, developing and teaching curriculum centered on the OneTree concept.

When the seedlings arrive, students will observe them for the remainder of the school year. The seedlings will be forced into dormancy over the summer and return to classrooms in the fall. Schools involved include Randy Smith Middle School, Anne Wien Elementary School, Salcha Elementary School, Badger Elementary School, Watershed Charter School, Hutchison High School, Tanana Middle School and Barnette Magnet School.

Students record the growth of each tree and compare soil and light conditions. They take scientific notations related to everything from tree growth to weather data. Students are focused on the same protocols whether kindergarten or 12th grade, with activities modified for each grade.

Eventually the trees will be planted in the community on Arbor Day 2014.

Janice Dawe, coordinator of OneTree, said this will be a prototype year for the project. Because funding came through after the school year began, Dawe decided to stick with teachers who were already involved in the program. “Three or four new teachers found their way to us,” she said. “In the future we will open it up much more.”

Many of the teachers are enrolled in a continuing education class called OneTree: From Seed to Tree that is running from January to May. The NRM 595 course involves 11 classroom teachers who are learning about science and art education techniques related to birch tree studies.

Randy Smith Middle School teacher Chris Pastro has been faithful to OneTree since its inception. “My students learn new observation skills and we integrate art,” she said. Her students have been researching three types of soil to see the differences in germination and growth rates.

From October to December Randy Smith Middle School teacher Mike Geil’s students experimented with temperature and water factors for scientific comparisons. They grew seedlings in a 68 to 70 degree room and a 75 to 76 degree room, and they experimented with water treatments in both groups. The seedlings are now at the Arctic Health Research Greenhouse to get a boost on growing before they travel to Carri Forbes’ life sciences classes at Tanana Middle School. Later they will be put into dormancy and then come back out on Earth Day for further monitoring of leafout and budburst.

“It’s all learning by doing,” Dawe said. “A lot of questions have been generated.”
Bryant Wright (left) and Eric Schacht helped with the seed planting.

Jan Dawe looks at birch seedling in the Arctic Health Research Greenhouse.

New SNRAS/AFES research will help improve livestock production in Alaska

Cows were fitted with rapid-collection Global Positioning System (GPS) collars which collect data on one-second intervals. (Photo by Norm Harris)

Yes, Alaska is big but that doesn’t mean the state has expansive cattle ranches like Montana or Wyoming. The majority of Alaska’s livestock is raised on small chunks of land.

With that in mind, UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences Associate Professor Norman Harris has launched a new research project at the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer. The goals are to define an animal unit appropriate to Alaska’s environment and to quantify the effectiveness of techniques to distribute grazing activities in small pastures.

“Many ranches have 20,000 acres but that is not what we have in Alaska,” Harris said. “Here 10 acres is considered a big pasture. I wanted to study how to get better distribution of animals on a small pasture.”

The five-year project began this year and Harris has conducted feeding trials to determine how much forage and haylage the animals consume. Nationally, a 1,000-pound cow with or without a calf will consume 600 to 800 pounds of forage (dry weight) in a month and Harris wants to see if that is comparable here.

His subjects are five dry heifers, predominantly Angus beef cattle. Harris has outfitted them with global positioning system (GPS) collars that track each animal’s position every second as they move around the pasture. Harris can tell what the cattle are eating by the places they visit. “We can see what the patterns are,” he said.

With an eye on his computer, Harris is able to tell if the animals are grazing, walking or resting. Each position is time stamped, allowing the researchers to see how the patterns change over time.

This could give producers information about what types of grass to plant. Should the animals need to be encouraged to move to other areas, techniques such as burning or fertilizing could be used to accomplish that.

“We want to find out better ways to raise livestock in Alaska and increase our red meat products and food security,” Harris said. He hopes this research will help more people start raising animals, which could help the state’s economy and improve Alaskans’ health.

While Harris began the project with cattle, he will eventually add horses and sheep to the study. Then he would like to include some type of alternative livestock, possibly yak.

The research is funded by the Hatch Act formula funds, which benefit agricultural research at state Agricultural Experiment Stations.

GPS data for four cows (different colors) showing three distinct activity patterns: 1) clustered points indicate resting/ruminating, 2) a line with space between points indicates walking/running, and 3) a sinuous line with closely spaced points indicates grazing.

Dan Hall watches as Beth Hall, research technician, weighs forage remaining at end of previous day's feeding while Jim Ericksen, herdsman, fills container with fresh haylage to be weighed out for current day's feeding. (Photo by Norm Harris)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

GIS graduate class now available on YouTube

For the first time, SRNAS is offering a course via YouTube. Professor David Verbyla (pictured at right) is teaching NRM 638, GIS Programming, on the popular video-viewing site.

To prepare for this new endeavor Verbyla took the iTeach Weekends course offered through the Center for Distance Education. "There were professors from music to justice, all sorts of folks," Verbyla said. "It was a good, diverse group of professors."

He was driven to change the way the course is offered because many who take it are GIS professionals who have to leave their jobs during the time it is offered (Mondays from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m.). Also, with this level of GIS it is best to learn a little bit at a time, then try it out. "This will be more hands on," Verbyla predicted.

The course will still be available on campus for face-to-face help with GIS scripting, or students may attend some classes and take others at the YouTube site.

Verbyla, who has been teaching at SNRAS for 20 years, is excited about the flexibility the class will offer his students, but said he chose a graduate level course because lower level offerings need the human touch, and instant help when they stumble. "If there is just a period out of place it can drive  students crazy," he said.

"This should serve the students who can't take the course face to face," Verbyla said. "Some of them have had to leave their jobs at Eielson Air Force Base and drive here. This will make it easier for them." There is also great potential for people who live in rural Alaska to take the class.

This particular course is geared for GIS professionals, private consultants, graduate students and undergraduates in the geospatial option of the geography degree. The students learn how to write programs for GIS processing in a more efficient way and scripting tools targeted for the less sophisticated users, allowing the programmer to customize menu-driven things for the user. They use open source (free) Python modules for the first half of the semester, and then use ArcGIS for scripting the second half of the semester. Video sessions can be stored to a memory stick and mailed to any registered students who have a slow internet connection.

The course starts Jan. 28 and has weekly scripting assignments.

"I’m hoping to expand my pool of students beyond the traditional classroom," Verbyla said.

  Email Verbyla at

Monday, January 14, 2013

Farm to School grows across Alaska

A student from Airport Heights Elementary enjoys a strawberry after visiting Glacier Valley Farm in Palmer. The farm visit was a project funded by the 2012 Alaska Farm to School program.
(Photo by Shaine Nix and Emily Becker)

Two years ago, Alaska’s Farm to School Program was just getting started. In 2012, the program reached over 20,000 students.

How is that possible?

According to FTS Coordinator Johanna Herron, the success is due to collaboration with other agencies and the willingness of school nutrition professionals to incorporate Alaska-grown food into school lunches.

“We became a central place to go to for information,” Herron said. “I have 400 people on my listserv. We act as a clearinghouse for national information and we build connections between youth and the food system.”

From Sitka to Bethel, Farm to School has touched the lives of students in a variety of ways. A few examples from 2011-2012 include:

In Nenana, a kitchen garden provided over 650 pounds of produce for the school and a workshop on making sauerkraut from cabbage was held.

In Hope, a hot lunch program was developed with student-grown vegetables and edible flowers. The students held a harvest potluck and used indoor garden boxes to grow produce during the winter.

In Bethel, a taste testing of turnips, cabbage and local eggs was held to promote healthy eating. Students made veggie breakfast burritos and used locally harvested potatoes, rutabaga, celery, carrots and onion to make stew.

In Sitka, local fish is served to 700 students in two schools. The Sitka school lunch program serves locally harvested fish twice a week and introduced stream-to-plate curricula, fostering a connection to the local fishing culture.

In Fairbanks, the J.P. Jones Community Development Center established garden plots for children and partnered with the Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District to offer agricultural lessons and farmer visits. The summer program culminated with an all-Alaska meal for the children and the local urban community.

In all the myriad of projects and activities Herron has been involved in, some memorable moments stand out. “One of my favorites was when I was on a conference call with two Delta farmers and a Fairbanks school nutritionist and heard it happening,” Herron said. “I thought yes they are buying barley flour and cabbage. All the planning paid off. We were making it happen.”

Another special memory was when she helped conduct a carrot taste test at a school and the children were surprised that carrots can grow in Alaska. “Working with kids is my favorite thing,” Herron said. She gets many thank you letters from school children she has visited. “Having that connection with kids is what it’s about for me.”

Herron expressed surprise at the leadership role Alaska Farm to School has taken. It was used in a national case study for policy and other states have called Herron to get information for their legislators and school garden food safety guidelines she developed.

Stacey Sobell, western regional lead for the National Farm to School Network, said in an e-mail: “While Alaska joined the world of Farm to school in earnest in just the last couple of years, it has done so with tremendous gusto. Under the enthusiastic leadership of Johanna Herron, Alaska is now recognized as a national leader in Farm to School, producing models that have been shared with and emulated by other states across the country.”

Herron said people are always interested to hear that Alaska has Farm to School. “They think if we can do it they can do it,” she said.

The vastness of Alaska is one challenge for the program, as is the variety of the bounty. “We have tried some things from other states that haven’t worked,” Herron said. “We have had to make it our own.”

Working with the state education department’s Childhood Nutrition program, UAF Cooperative Extension Service and Health and Social Services’ Obesity Prevention Program has been integral to the progress Farm to School has made, Herron said. Those partnerships have been essential to all that has been accomplished.

Another vital component is the school district food service professionals. “I’ve never met one who doesn’t want what is best for the kids,” Herron said. They have been so receptive to the program that Herron is on the agenda for their statewide conference in Anchorage later this month. She will bring farmers together with the school nutritionists for a panel discussion. “This will get the right people in the room,” Herron said.

Amazingly, Farm to School has touched all of the state’s school districts in some fashion, with grants awarded to 33 districts. “That’s a lot of engaged people,” Herron said.

She believes strongly that getting local food into schools is only the first step. The other part is educating the children about food, and she credits teachers with helping to do this. “We provide them materials that work and tools for engaged teachers to take advantage of,” Herron said.

Farm to School is a three-pronged program, Herron explained: economy, environment and education. “Those are our three Es.”

Farm to School is a national program run by the U.S.D.A. Department of Agriculture. Here it is coordinated through the state Division of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources.

Contact information:

Johanna Herron
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Johanna Herron visits with Ben VanderWeele at the VanderWeele Farm in Palmer. Connecting with farmers is a favorite aspect of Herron's work for Alaska Farm to School program. (photo courtesy Alaska Farm to School)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

SNRAS and CES hire new executive officer

Michelle Pope will join the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and UAF Cooperative Extension Service as executive officer, beginning Jan. 28.

Pope is currently the director of the payroll and benefit accounting department for the University of Alaska. She was born in California and grew up in a military family, spending her early years in the Boston area before the family settled in Georgia. She has a bachelor of arts degree in business administration from Mercer University and an MBA from UAF. She has worked for the statewide office since 2003.

Prior to coming to Alaska, Pope was director of finance for an allergy clinic in Alabama. She and her husband of 22 years, Jeff, have two sons.

Pope said she has been seeking a position with UAF so that she could have more impact on the main purposes of the university--education and research. “I want to feel like I am contributing and be closer to the action,” she said.

Her goals for the SNRAS/CES business office are first to get up to speed and meet the basic needs of faculty and staff. “My future goal is to make the business office customer friendly and work hand in hand with the units to do what they need to do. I want to be proactive and have the business office help everyone in the unit. Another goal is to increase our funding sources.”

Pope described her management style as giving her staff the resources they need to do their jobs. “My role is to help them do their jobs to the best of their abilities,” she said. “I will be looking for opportunities to better the process, to make it easier and more effective. I look at the big picture and see how things can be improved and I will be soliciting ideas from the staff.”

In her role at the statewide office, Pope has learned to deal with issues in a variety of environments around the state. “I’m good at bringing the different needs together to accomplish something,” she said. “I have the perspective of seeing different sides of an issue and finding innovative solutions to problems. I don’t have the constraints that something has to be done a certain way.”

In her spare time, Pope volunteers with the Midnight Sun Council of the Boy Scouts where she trains leaders and she also does a lot of work for the Lathrop High School ballroom dance team. She enjoys reading, traveling to new places and making crafts.

“I’m excited about the new position,” she said.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Agriculture meetings to jumpstart summer season

By Steve Seefeldt
The last half of winter has started, the holidays are over, and even though it seems like we will never see growing green plants out our windows again, this is the time to meet to discuss future plans.

Fairbanks seems to be the place to be for agriculture meetings these first few months of the new year. Three statewide and three local meetings will be held in Fairbanks.

The first statewide meeting is the Alaska Greenhouse and Nursery Conference, Jan. 24-25 at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks. The conference will feature speakers who will talk about vegetable grafting, mycorrhiza, pest control, hydroponics, LED lights, new plant development, and starting and selling businesses. More information is located here.

The second statewide meeting is the Alaska Peony Growers Winter Conference, Feb. 14-15 at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and Conference Center. This conference will feature six out-of-state and 32 in-state speakers and will cover all aspects of the expanding Alaska peony business. On Feb. 13, new and intermediate growers' schools will be offered as well as a tour of the Arctic Health Research Greenhouse on West Ridge and peony tissue culture research that SNRAS horticulture professor Patricia Holloway is organizing. See details here.

The third gathering is our annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference, March 13-14, at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge. A preconference on March 12 will feature talks on rainwater catchment systems and low-cost methods of sustainable agriculture. There will be several speakers with national reputations and many speakers who are growing food sustainably in Alaska. Topics will include composting, pest control, food safety, fiber production, tourism and statewide updates.

All three meetings come with registration fees, which cover the costs of the meeting space, outside speakers, and meals and snacks. Register online.

Not to be left out in this flurry of statewide meetings, there are three more local meetings at the Tanana District Cooperative Extension Service office at 724 27th Ave. (in the southwest corner of the Fairbanks Community Food Bank building). These free meetings are meant to be meet-and-greet affairs with little in the way of an agenda.

The first will be a grain growers' meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 29. This is for anyone who is interested in growing grains in the Fairbanks area. There will be Sunshine hulless barley for sale ($1 per pound; payable by cash or check). The second will be a hay growers' meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 31. There are quite a few hay growers in the Fairbanks area, many I have not met, and it will be good to meet and discuss issues related to growing hay for sale. Fruit growers will meet at 6 p.m. Feb. 5 to discuss this coming year’s plans and an upcoming set of workshops on grafting. Contact Steven Seefeldt at 474-2423 or Ronda Boswell at 474-2450 and let us know if you are coming to these local meetings.

This new year could see a continued expansion in all things agriculture. Several groups are actively working to increase the local food supply and access to local foods. Many more people are making commitments to buy more locally produced foods, while others are attempting to start their own farms or expand their gardens. Regardless of your plans, the UAF Cooperative Extension Service is here to provide information.

Steven Seefeldt is the Tanana District agriculture and horticulture agent for the Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He can be reached at 907-474-2423.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Agriculture leader passes away

Clair Lammers in his apple orchard In August 2011. He loved to share information about growing fruit in Fairbanks.

Longtime Fairbanks resident and pioneer Clair Joseph Lammers, 77, died Dec. 24, 2012, while visiting family in Washington. He was affectionately known to local foodies as "the apple man," because of his amazing ability to grow fruit at his farm, Clair's Cultivations, off of Chena Hot Springs Road.

Following is his obituary from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Lammers was born June 6, 1935, in Hartington, Neb., to Rudolph "Rudy" C. and Rose (Arens) Lammers. He graduated from Holy Trinity High School in 1953. He married Vivian Arens on June 12, 1956, in Bow Valley, Neb.

The Lammers moved to Fairbanks in 1964, where he worked as an X-ray technician at the Fairbanks Clinic. During the mid to late 70s, he worked as a Teamster, supporting the construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

He later worked as a cement truck driver for Fairbanks Sand and Gravel, from which he retired in 1990. His final career was as an apple orchard cultivator and nursery curator. His goal was to develop a viable apple orchard in the Interior to provide fresh fruit. He pursued this dream with determination and commitment, leading to the development of many hardy apple strains. His desire to develop a commercial orchard was one of many objectives and accomplishments he achieved in life.

He will be deeply missed and fondly remembered for his unyielding love and commitment to his family. He lived his life with a big dream and worked hard to make it a reality.

He is survived by his wife, Vivian; his sons, Steve and Scott; son and daughter-in-law, Todd and Colleen; and son and daughter-in-law, Joe and Mary.

He has nine grandchildren; Stevee, Chad, Isaac, Sydny, Sarissa, Bayly, Jozy, Eli and Myley; and his siblings; Cyril, Vivian, Angela, Joan, Jeanne and Mark.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 4, 2013, at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. A reception will follow in the parish hall.

Further reading:
When the apples bloom in Fairbanks, think of Clair Lammers, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Jan. 7, 2013, by Dermot Cole
Lammers' apples a fall tradition, UAF, Aug. 30, 2011, by Nancy Tarnai
Man is Interior's Johnny Appleseed, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Sept. 5, 2004, by Diana Campbell