Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Alumni spotlight: Eric Straley finds his niche in the Alaska woods

Eric Straley on Zarembo Island. (Photo by Matt Sprau)
For the past eight years, Eric Straley, 34, has spent his summers researching the forests from Ketchikan to Kodiak.

He and 19 co-workers live on an 86-foot research vessel, the "Maritime Maid,’’ and access the woods via helicopter to conduct field studies on public, private and Native corporation land. During the winter his focus is getting landowner and managers’ permission to access the forests.

Straley grew up in southcentral Pennsylvania's farm country and earned an associate's degree in forest technology from Pennsylvania State in 2001. “I grew up in the forests,” he said. “I was raised hunting and fishing and I always liked that.”

He arrived in Anchorage in 2005 to work for the U.S. Forest Service. When the service gave him the opportunity to continue his education, he jumped for it, first majoring in natural resources management with a forest sciences option and then switching to a B.A. in geography. “My major interest was GIS and mapping,” Straley said.

He finished his degree in December and recently headed back south. As a crew leader for the U.S.F.S., Straley is in charge of a team of four to six who work 10 days on and four days off all summer. He is also the safety manager for helicopter flights.

A typical summer day finds the crew flying to plots at 8 a.m., measuring trees and plants and taking note of species mortality and forest health. “Think of it as the nation’s forest census,” Straley said. The crew works 10 to 12-hour days. “It’s pretty intense,” he said. “But we don’t have cell phones or internet so it’s nice to focus on our work.”

A wonderful perk of his job is that he gets to see things that most people never get to see. Of all the places he has traveled, Cordova is one of Straley’s favorite spots. He also likes areas east of Juneau, the Wrangell Mountains and Yakutat. The most remarkable thing he has seen is the way glaciers have changed. “From 2005 to now there is an amazing difference,” he said. “It’s sad but from summer to summer you can see the difference.”

One of the challenges is the mosquitoes. “I just wear lots of bug dope,” Straley said with a laugh. “I refuse to wear a head net.” Another difficulty is living in close quarters with other people. “We live on top of each other. We are lucky to have such good people who are able to adapt to change on the fly and tolerate change.” Evenings on the boat find the crew playing cribbage and cards or reading.
During the winters Straley lives in Fairbanks, where he enjoys cross-country skiing, photography and reading about history.

The Forest Service has sent him to Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho and Nevada in the fall. “It’s a totally different forest experience,” he said. “Working in the redwoods was awesome.”
Straley’s goals are to stay in Alaska. “I will work extra hard to stay here,” he said. “I love aviation and want to keep doing this.”

About his education with SNRAS, Straley said re-entering the academic world after being out of a while was “like going from zero to 60 but I adjusted well.” He had to get used to being with younger students. “I like the university atmosphere up here,” he said. “If you have a bonfire and a beer you can make a lot of friends.”

His advice to other students is to be diligent about getting a degree. “Figure out what you want to do and work as much as you can in the field you’re interested in,” he said. “Try to get summer jobs in your field. Do something you like.”

Eric Straley stares down at the stump of a 540-year-old yellow cedar on Zarembo Island. (Photo by Eric Straley)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Students present research on soil temperatures, reindeer

Jennifer Lutze and Nathan Heeringa
Two seniors presented their theses April 19. Nathan Heeringa’s thesis was titled “The effects of terracing on soil quality of a Fairbanks area loess soil,” and Jennifer Lutze’s was “Performance and meat quality of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) fed a cereal grain ration or wheatgrass haylage during the fall.”

Heeringa’s theory was that the challenge of Fairbanks’ short growing season could be somewhat alleviated by planting crops on south-facing terraces. The terrace offers an earlier thaw and higher solar radiation. It also can reduce soil erosion and increase soil moisture retention and soil microbial activity.

However, the negative possibilities include loss of organic matter, an altered soil structure and reduced aggregate stability.

His objectives were to determine whether soil disturbance caused by terracing increases or decreases the quality of a Fairbanks area loess soil in the short term and to provide benchmark data on changes to soil quality resulting from soil disturbance.

Heeringa took an inventory of native plants on his study area, then prepared six one-square-meter plots (three on the terrace and three on the undisturbed hillside). He took samples of soil cores and bulk density. He also examined a 10-centimeter-square surface organic layer.

He installed gypsum block, temperature data recorders and a rain gauge. Each week he removed vegetation within the plots. Soil samples were processed in preparation for lab testing of texture, pH and electrical conductivity. The bulk density was calculated.

Heeringa analyzed the carbon and nitrogen in the surface organic layer, the total carbon and nitrogen in the soil, the total inorganic nitrogen, as well as extractable phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients.

He learned that the terraced soil was warmer in May, June, July and August, but by September it switched and the terraced soil was cooler than the control plot. The ambient air temperature was significantly higher on the terrace than the hillside and the terrace soil held more moisture than hillside soil.

Disturbance neither increased nor decreased overall soil quality in the short term. Bulk density was the only significantly different physical characteristic. Nitrate was the only significantly different soil nutrient. Soil temperature and moisture proved variable.

Based on the results of this study, Heeringa recommends terracing south-facing slopes in interior Alaska and would recommend future study to collect data over multiple growing seasons and growing degree days.

Jennifer Lutze said reindeer meat is a good source of protein for Alaskans and is perceived as a healthier alternative to beef. Reindeer are currently being raised primarily on grain fed rations. Reindeer fed barley were shown to have a greater saturated fat content than range fed. If haylage is used the meat quality is closer to range fed but it was unknown how this affects animal performance or meat quality.

In her literature review, Lutze learned that human diets have changed dramatically, adding high amounts of saturated fats. Diets have changed as meat production has changed. Venison has lower lipid content than beef.

Pre-slaughter reserves of glycogen are influenced by the finishing diet in animals, Lutze noted. Ultimate pH values in reindeer are shown to reflect their nutritional status and physical condition. Meat that contains high ultimate pH values also tend to have a significantly shorter shelf life.

In her research, Lutze fed grain rations to seven control steers, while the seven treatment steers' diets were supplemented with wheatgrass haylage. Leftover grain feed was collected daily and haylage weekly. The animals had unrestricted access to water and mineral blocks.

The reindeer were weighed weekly at the same time of day then slaughtered and processed at Delta Meat and Sausage. Differences in the control and treatment groups’ ultimate pH values and carcass temperatures were found to be insignificant.

The total change in bodyweight by week and the difference in feed efficiency were shown to be significant. Lutze concluded that this type of feed regime is not likely to be cost efficient.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

SNRAS student brings home award from Press Club

James Shewmake
James Shewmake, a SNRAS graduate student, earned an award for editorial writing April 20 at the Alaska Press Club annual meeting in Anchorage.

Shewmake, who writes for the Alaska Commons blog, was awarded second place in the Leslie Ann Murray editorial writing competition. His piece was titled Invisible Enemies: Science vs. Religion.

Shewmake will receive his master's degree May 12 at the UAF commencement ceremony. His thesis was: "Spatial Resilience and the Incorporation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Mapping Sitka Herring."

Monday, April 22, 2013

'Grumpy old Alaskan' has heartfelt feelings for Boston post-marathon

By Greg Finstad
SNRAS associate professor and marathon runner

(The following is an account of the April 15 events in Boston, Mass. Greg Finstad was a runner in the Boston Marathon.)
Greg Finstad running in Fairbanks

The noise was so loud I couldn’t hear Andy talk unless he spoke next to my ear. Andy Holland, another Fairbanks marathoner ,and Alison Meadows, an ex Fairbanks runner, and I were in a bar not far from the finish of the Boston Marathon partaking in post-race recovery fluids and rehashing the day's run.

A short while ago from outside the bar I had called my wife to let her know I had finished the Boston Marathon and was fine except for a few muscular reminders I was too old to be running 26.2 miles. While we were talking we heard a flurry of sirens of emergency vehicles and my wife commented “That doesn’t sound good.” She was right!

The bar was full of gold sport jerseys or aquamarine blue warmup jackets, the official colors of Boston Marathon issued shirts and jackets. The mood was one of celebration. The majority of the bar patrons had just finished the Boston Marathon or were there to support runners of one of the most exclusive and traditional running events in the world.

While Alison, Andy and I were conversing with shouts and hand signals, I happened to glance up at a television which was tuned to CNN news. To my astonishment, an image of the finish line flashed up on the screen, which was around the corner, filled with chaos and emergency vehicles with a newsbreak that there had been explosions. The noise level in the bar dropped, people crowded around the TV sets or were fixated on their cell phones. There was no official word yet on what had happened, but many of us immediately suspected a terrorist event. Simultaneously, everyone in the bar, myself included, began making phone calls to family and friends to let them know we were OK or to find out status of fellow runners or friends. Andy, always the social networker, quickly ascertained most of the Fairbanks runners were OK.

I had started running and competing in races about 10 years ago. Thirty pounds heavier and puffing to walk the dog, my daughter had shamed me to get in shape by first jogging and then running. To my surprise I took to it and became fairly proficient and began entering local running races. To make a long story short I wanted to culminate my short, but sweet running career by participating in the exclusive Boston Marathon.

The Boston Marathon was first run in 1897 patterned after the marathon race in the revived 1896 Olympic Games held in Athens. The run was to accompany the new Patriots' Day holiday in Massachusetts to symbolize our long march toward freedom by duplicating the route of Revolutionary War Patriots on their way to battle. After 117 years the Boston Marathon still embodies the rise and struggles of America with men and women of all races and religions formed into one cohesive populace moving forward, one painful step at a time, in the direction of a more perfect democracy. We may never know, but the Boston Marathon may have been targeted because of this symbolism and to shake our celebration of freedom in America.

I have run other marathons, including the Equinox, New York, Chicago and others, but for me there is no other race quite like the Boston for two reasons. First, it is one of the most prestigious (the Super Bowl of running) running races in the world and I have to say gives one special bragging rights. For one that started running competitively so late in the game I consider qualifying and running the Boston Marathon as accomplishing a major lifetime achievement. Secondly, there are the unparalleled Boston spectators, or should I say supporters. Bostonians seem to take special pride in coming out and supporting the runners. They do more than cheer you on, they sincerely believe it is their responsibility to support and be there for you along the way. There are thousands of children lining the route wanting to give runners a high five as they go by. It gives a grumpy, old Alaskan special pleasure to give a kid a run-by high five and his eyes go wide and fist pump the air as he looks to his parents like he had just touched a sports star.

This year my legs started to cramp up at mile 14 and I had to occasionally stop on an uphill or downhill section to work out a muscle cramp. I have ALASKA monogrammed on my shirt to give supporters a tangible moniker to cheer for instead of the usual go “gray-haired guy with exceptionally white legs.” The crowd would encourage and compel and some would actually plead for me to continue running again. Dozens of people would loudly cheer when I did start up again only to be picked up and encouraged on by the next group. A star athlete is often interviewed by a sportscaster after being on the winning World Series or Super Bowl team. The sportscaster would usually ask “How does it feel to have won?” and the star athlete would usually umm and aah and respond “unbelievable, unexplainable, can’t find the words.”

I know what it feels like to play and win the Super Bowl. The people of Boston are the reason why. For 26.2 miles they are there for me (and 24,000 other runners), to support, to encourage and to celebrate a mob of men and women of every color and culture struggling to finish a difficult task the best we could.

The bombings that took place on April 15, 2013 in Boston were particularly disturbing for me and should be for the rest of the country. Not that I was near the finish line when it happened or my post-race celebration was cut short; rather the bombs were not meant for a hard target, instead they were intended for the families of Boston; my support group. Having always lived in the western U.S., I had always heard that East Coast people were crusty, forceful and particularly uptight. From my Boston experiences I had found the locals to be crusty, forceful and uptight, but you knew that no matter how difficult the times lay ahead they would be the ones to encourage, to support and to stand by you all the way to the finish line. I hope that I can measure up and reciprocate the support I have been shown by the people of Boston. After the bombings local people would identify me as a marathon participant (must be the Post Race Grandpa Shuffle) and they apologized for the horrific events and demonstrated concern that runners would not come back to run future marathons.

I had not intended to run the 2014 Boston Marathon. But now I am. I have to give back the support the people of Boston have shown me. It’s the least I can do.

Spring means sap will flow...eventually

Kimberley Maher demonstrated drilling for sap. At right is Roy Churchwell, doctoral student.
Kimberley Maher’s enthusiasm for birch sap was very apparent Saturday. While teaching two free workshops on spring tapping, Maher lauded the merits of sap, but indicated making syrup out of it is a waste of time for her.

When the sap starts flowing each spring Maher collects it and drinks as much as a gallon a day. “When I drink sap I feel great,” she said. “It’s invigorating; it’s delicious and it’s good for you.”

In Asian countries, birch sap is used homeopathically to improve skin and digestion. It has been used for hundreds of thousands of years, Maher said. “Birch is an iconic figure, culturally and mythologically,” Maher said. It is associated with Venus, the goddess of love, and in Sweden, engagement rings are made of birch. “In the original Cinderella the godmother was a birch tree,” Maher said. “Magistrates in England carried birch limbs to show their power.”

With birch, the timing for tapping depends on temperature. It’s a different story with maple but for birch it requires two to three days in a row of 50-degree weather for the trees to break dormancy. Normally, the sap is flowing by the third week of April but this year it will be later.

While maple sap has been studied copiously, birch has not. “There is not a lot of knowledge how this tree works,” Maher said.

Birch sap is 99 percent water and 1 percent fructose and glucose sugars. Maher harvests ½ gallon to two gallons per tree each day during the tapping season and has gotten as much as five gallons per day from the best trees.

“I try to be as gentle with the trees as possible,” Maher said. If interested in harvesting sap, visit Maher’s blog for more information. She cautioned against tapping without adequate knowledge as the trees could be damaged. "Tap responsibly," she urged.

The workshops were sponsored by UAF Cooperative Extension Service and UAF's ethnobotany program. Maher is completing her doctoral studies with SNRAS.
Products made with birch sap were on display.
Kimberley Maher showed birch products.
The birch is on the left and the aspen is on the right.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Janice Dawe named research assistant professor

Janice Dawe
Janice Dawe, who has been an adjunct forestry professor for seven years, has been named a research assistant professor of natural resource education and outreach.

Dawe said the year she was born Edgar Anderson wrote a book, “Plants, Man and Life.” When she read the book at age 13 Dawe “imprinted” on it. “Anderson really shaped my academic and intellectual interests,” she said.

Another influence on Dawe was poet Robinson Jeffers. Quoting him, she said, “For what we love we grow to it, we share its nature.” To Dawe, this is the essence of place-based inquiry both for children and adults. “We love our boreal forest home,” she said. “In studying the science and art we become more connected to this place.”

While at Beloit College, Dawe researched the evolution of potatoes and became intrigued with chromosome work. She earned a master’s in botany at UAF, where she studied cytotaxonomy, using chromosome number change as a tool to understanding species change and evolution during the Pleistocene.

Dawe earned her Ph.D. at the Institute of Botany, University of Vienna in 1989. Her research focused on using more advanced chromosome techniques to delineate taxonomic groupings within the grass genus Festuca. She examined breeding relationships among Festuca, Vulpia, an annual grass, and Lolium, a perennial ryegrass.

“I’m a nontraditional scientist,” she said. When her children were young she tried to stay home with them but got pulled into directing the Alaska Boreal Forest Council.

“I’ve always had an abiding interest in community,” Dawe said. “Community is where it’s at.”

She took that love of community to heart when she tackled the OneTree Alaska project in Fairbanks in 2009. The program, which was started through Assistant Professor Valerie Barber’s Wood Utilization Research project, sought to demonstrate all the artistic and useful things that could be made from one tree. In July 2009, a birch tree was cut in the Nenana State Forest. By chance, four teachers were there that day and decided to bring the forest to their classrooms. When more teachers expressed interest in joining the project that fall, it was necessary to get more materials for scientific and artistic endeavors with students. Luckily, Dr. Barber required 16 saw log birch trees from Nenana Ridge for a milling study and the treetops provided just what was needed for OneTree’s work in the schools.

Hooking children on science through art is a natural offshoot of OneTree, Dawe explained. “Art serves as the invitation to explore STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) skills in a natural way,” she said.

Dawe gives much credit to dedicated teachers for helping OneTree grow like wildfire. The beauty of the program is its ability to reach teachers who love science and those who may be hesitant about teaching it but realize the value of it to their students. She explained there are four core instructional methods:

  • Integrative curriculum.

  • K-12 professional development.

  • Peer teaching.

  • Community collaborations.

Boreal Alaska – Learning, Adaptation and Production, which OneTree is part of, brings together research, education and outreach, Dawe said. BAKLAP is a two-part program to upgrade Alaska forest research facilities and management practices to improve the value of Alaska’s forests in meeting the rapidly expanding demand for wood biomass energy in a changing environment and to improve STEM teaching and learning outcomes by developing a model integrated K-12 curriculum based on hands-on experiences with the Alaska boreal forest through inquiry science and art. Dawe is co-principal investigator of BAKLAP and director of the K-20 STEAM Education component.

As the program evolves it will continue to take the concepts of phenology, citizen science and forest product development on a small scale into classrooms. Students learn how to take natural materials and work with them, creating things both useful and beautiful. Also scheduled are a Forest Entrepreneur Camp, Tapping into Spring (birch syrup project), community workshops, retail outlets and more teacher courses.

Dawe was excited to report on a Generation OneTree birch plot planted in June 2011 by a Scout troop. An ecology class used it as a lab this fall and in May six middle school field trips will kick off the development of the plot as a long term citizen science tree growth and phenology training site.

“BAKLAP is helping us define the strengths and opportunities of the project and helping us focus on them,” Dawe said. “The future will see much more development of the strands the teachers and we have been working on in the past few years.”

Dawe working in the woods.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fairbanks hosts state FFA convention

FFA state officers
Alaska FFA members from across the state will gather at the 37th annual state FFA convention April 24-27 in Fairbanks.

FFA members involved in agricultural and natural resource education will compete in leadership and career development events, participate in a service project and attend workshops. Participants also will compete in the Canon Envirothon at Chena Lake Recreation Area. The convention will be held at the Regency Hotel and Moose Lodge.

Around 100 members will attend from North Pole, Delta Junction, Effie Kokrine Charter School, Kodiak, Palmer, Homer and Midnight Sun chapters. Students will compete in events such as floriculture, agricultural mechanics, prepared and extemporaneous speaking, veterinary science and job interviews. The event winners will have the opportunity to compete at the national FFA convention in Louisville, Ky. During the Envirothon, students will test their knowledge about soils, wildlife, aquatics, forestry and other environmental topics.

SNRAS Professor Meriam Karlsson is judging the floriculture competition and George Aguiar, SNRAS research professional, is judging at the Envirothon.

Students will also have the opportunity to attend workshops led by National FFA Southern Region Vice President Wiley Bailey. Bailey travels throughout the country leading personal growth and leadership training seminars for FFA members.

The Alaska FFA Association is part of the National FFA Organization (formerly the Future Farmers of America). For the past 37 years, Alaska FFA has provided students across the state with hands-on education opportunities in an effort to produce the next generation of leaders in the agricultural and natural resource industries.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

SARE conference workshops: low-cost sustainable farming

Don Bustos, Santa Cruz Farm
president, Western SARE
(505) 514-1662

In the afternoon of the pre-conference workshop day, March 12, Don Bustos & Camille Trujillo of Santa Cruz Farm started out their talk with a round of introductions to get a sense of who was there and what their interests were. The results were interesting: people had come from all over the state, (including a couple of kids with their own agricultural ambitions) and ranged from students from the UAF Office of Sustainability, to farmers, to gardeners gone wild, to CES and other agency, business, and nonprofit representatives. People's interests included farming, strong communities, sustainability, self reliance, food cooperatives, community gardening, soil & water conservation, economic development, biodiversity preservation and sharing, restorative agriculture, and more.

Bustos started out by describing how, when they first took off in New Mexico, their plane lost an engine, so they had to turn around and land. After the adrenaline settled down they decided they would go ahead and continue anyway, although they'd lost a day off their time in Alaska—but they really wanted to come north, and it was worth it. (And no more engine trouble!)

Santa Cruz Farm is at 5,800 foot elevation, with solar energy as the only power source. It's near Esposito, with the farm in the same family for 32 generations. It is a vegan farm, meaning there are no animal inputs to the soil (no animal manures or meals as fertilizers), and it is about 80 miles from nearest farm using RoundUp-using farms or other GMO farms. It is an AFSC Certified Organic farm, certified through the New Mexico Dept. of Agriculture, USDA. It is also regularly inspected by the Sante Fe Farmers' Market. These inspections are worth it, Bustos assured his audience, when it comes to getting funding later for projects, or for marketing your products. The farm works with the American Friends Service Committee, the Farmer-to-Farmer Training Program.

New Mexico and Water
To understand the way Bustos currently operates his farm, he explained that a bit of historical background about New Mexico was in order. Water is historically very important, and modern times are no exception. The acequia, or water conduits, are a network of community-operated water chutes that, Bustos said, were the first form of democracy in North America. The acequias were first established in the late 1600s, and predate the solidification of Western water law's prioritization of water use (the "Doctrine of Prior Appropriation"). This means that instead of water being seen as an individually owned commodity, the community also has shared rights and responsibilities to manage, use, and protect the water. Commissionados act as mediators, with area farms having a "one farmer, one vote," system.

In about 1700 the Espanola Valley's acequia system was dug with a land grant established from Spain. In 1846 the US came in and the land grant system taken over. Now the acequia system land is slowly being taken back, purchased piece by piece. A requirement of the process is that the land must be used for food, and the acequias reestablished.

Northern New Mexico has strong community and long tradition of protection of water. However, urban areas have political clout, and the commodification of water is becoming a strong force in water politics.

Operating the Farm
Santa Cruz Farm uses a water catchment pond for its winter crops (the acequia are closed off now during winter months, and the area is in drought); about 8 to 10 feet deep. There is also a well, but it has dried out (the water table has dropped 60-80 feet in the last 30 years or so); they redug it once.

The farm gets its seeds from various companies: Peaceful Valley, High Mowing, etc., and chooses what to grow based on cooperative marketing ideas for value added and high value crops, planning ahead by several years to get a good return. Don Bustos cultivates only about 3.5 acres of his farmland; he found out he could make more money that way, rather than farming 100 acres, as he used to, by a careful choice of crop and planning ahead for his marketing. More acreage, despite more crops, actually cost more: there was better profit on a smaller farm. The most profitable and least stressful was at the three-acre level they have now, he said, and staff included only one and a half-time plus a few seasonal workers. An interesting sidenote that Bustos offered: a row that is too long has a psychological effect: "if it's 80-100 feet it's okay, but 120 feet or longer makes me and the people working for me tired," so he found he had more productive workers with shorter rows.

Some of Bustos' income comes from tours: students: university students, rehabilitation/alternative sentencing, adults with disabilities, sustainable programs at various colleges, the school farm (Dragon Farm) with curricula integration with school districts. Not all, of course, are required to pay a fee (but appointments are important—a farmer's got to get his work done!).

Bustos showed us a few slides of his early attempts to move from the traditional farming his father had showed him to season extension with homemade hoophouses using PVC pipe on rebar, but snow made them collapse. From there he progressed to a more ambitious solar panel/undersoil heating system (which he still uses for part of his cropping).

As part of a larger farmer training program funded by Western SARE, several sites were given funds to create six coldframes per site to meet the demand for 200 pounds of salad greens per week for the local school district. Santa Cruz Farm used donated solar panels to heat water; the pipes run under soil mixed with aged manure in coldframes and high tunnels to grow during winter. The water is kept in a buried tank insulated by soil and foam; the water circulates at night under the coldframes. There are two closed loops: one is the water loop, the other is glycol, to draw off excess heat during day and help reheat the water during cold nights. 

The farm is changing over from this system in the hoop houses to a Haygrove high tunnel system of a full acre under cultivation, using cover crops only in the summer (heat tolerant ones such as pinto beans, sunflowers), with rollup sides. Bustos uses cloth on wire hoops underneath the larger high tunnels for frosty nights.

Marketing with the Neighbors
Santa Cruz Farm does direct marketing to the Sante Fe School District and at the Sante Fe Farmers' Market (22.5 miles one way), with winter crops and coldframes providing food for school district lunches. 

Innovators take the initial risk in building or taking advantage of a market, and then the second group jumps on and the risk becomes that of saturating the market that exists. So the larger group (now friends if all has gone well) needs to get together and find ways to expand the market. ("The phase we're in right now," said Bustos.) Sharing information and ideas for marketing help everyone to create niches, keep from flooding the market with too much of one item, and provide customers with variety. 

The Sante Fe Farmers' Market Institute took 30 years to build the markets, working with the community, the market people, the legislature, the school districts, etc. It took five years to get the legislature to change the procurement code so that farmers could sell sell directly to school districts, (allowing the bidding process to consider local preference and not just lowest price). There were presentations to the kids, donations to the schools, and hauling legislators to see kids actually eating the greeneries before the Legislature realized that yes, the children would actually eat vegetables and locally grown food.

See also: SARE conference workshops: water cisterns

Thomas Grant becomes assistant research professor of sustainable forest management

Thomas Grant is pictured with his wife Corrie.
After a year and a half as a post-doctoral researcher with SNRAS, Thomas Grant has been appointed as an assistant research professor of sustainable forest management.

Grant earned his B.S. at the University of Denver, master’s at the University of Colorado and his Ph.D. at Colorado State University. His interests are plant and forest ecology, dendrochronology and dendroclimatology, plant successional dynamics, soil microbiology and plant/soil feedback.

His research and career have taken him to the Sevilleta LTER in New Mexico where he did repeated measuring of permanent vegetative plots, H.J. Andrews LTER at Oregon State University where he studied wood decomposition and the Denver Botanic Garden where he researched rare plant conservation and restoration. At the DBG he was manager of research and conservation programs and worked seed banking, restoration and rare plant conservation.

He has also researched the endangered skiff milkvetch which is unique to Gunnison, Colo. “That was the hallmark of my work,” Grant said, “crawling on the ground looking for plants" (sarcasm).

Grant’s doctoral research focused on how invasive species react to soil, specifically how interactions with microbes and nutrients the establishment and invasiveness of exotic knapweeds.

He conducted greenhouse studies of native and invasive plants in competition. Native plants were influenced by microbes, while the invasive plants didn’t care what other plants they were competition against. “They were influenced by different types of competition and if we understood it better we could manage it better,” Grant said.

As for his teaching philosophy, Grant said teaching is not unlike a comedy routine, but should include information you expect the students to value and remember. “I like to engage students in the subject and empower people,” he said.

His instructional experience includes teaching botany for botanical illustrators at the DBG and conducting a two-week intensive workshop in applied plant conservation for students from all over the world. At the University of Denver he was a biology lab instructor and at CSU was a teaching assistant. In the fall of 2011 he taught NRM 101 for SNRAS while the professor was on sabbatical.

In the summer of 2012, Grant did a BLM fire history study in the White Mountains, particularly focusing on caribou lichen and forest regrowth after fire. “Age of the forest stand was the most important predictor of lichen,” Grant said. Although elevation, 700 to 800 meters, and aspect was also important.

For the BAKLAP project, Grant will help with the operational regeneration assessment in Fairbanks, Delta Junction and Tok areas and build a data atlas of forest research, a consolidation of forest research and resampling of priority projects.

“We need to understand how trees are influenced by climate and also understand insect outbreaks,” Grant said. “BAKLAP includes management and education. It’s exciting to have those ties. We want to take the information and make it useful, to help bridge the gap between us, industry and agencies.”

“There are a lot of opportunities to build relationships and sustain them.”
Thomas Grant in the field, summer 2011. (Photo by Glenn Juday)

Students tackle senior thesis research

Three students outlined their senior thesis proposals recently.

Melissa Dick
Melissa Dick's research is titled "Rapid Carbon Assessment of the Matanuska Valley using a Portable VNIR Spectrometer."

Her summary: Soil is the most basic and valuable resource for food, economy and ecology. An accurate assessment of carbon is important for nutrient management and carbon sequestration. Lab analysis is expensive and requires extensive soil sampling. Visible Infrared Spectroscopy (VNIR) is inexpensive and fast. The USDA-NRCS has calibrated VNIR techniques for a range of lower latitude soils. All latitudes need to be quantified and monitored. Understanding changes in land use could cause decline in carbon in soils. Loss of carbon contributes to atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Understanding current soil carbon levels is important for cold region soils to understand loss through land changes, agricultural management and future conservation plans.

Dick's objectives are to develop a reliable, quick VNIR method to test soil carbon in cropland and forest soils in the Matanuska Valley. It will require a method that can be easily used on local farms or regional levels and produce soil quality assessments for land management plans or decisions.

Dick said there is a growing body of literature on the use of VNIR spectroscopy to rapidly and inexpensively characterize soil for carbon content. Zhoa et al (2012) found that spectroscopy has demonstrated its capability to determine SOC content in the laboratory and in the field with a portable spectrometer.

Spectroscopy is rapid, timely, less expensive, non-destructive, straightforward and sometimes more accurate than conventional analysis (Rossel et al, 2005).

She will collect soil samples from pre-selected cropland and forest land, digging a soil pit at each site and sampling at intervals representing soil genetic horizons. Samples will be kept in a cool field moist state, scanned with a portable spectrometer and measured by dry combustion method. Results will be compared by VNIR spectra and LECO results, soil types and management practices. LECO results will be calibrated to VNIR readings using some statistical techniques: least square regression analysis, predictive equations or pedo-transfer function. Results will be put in an Excel format.

Katie Shink and Jacob Hakala

Katie Shink's title is: "Habitat Assessments and Relative Abundance of Lamprey Ammocoetes (Lenthenteron spp.) on the East Fork Andreafsky River, Alaska."

The summary: Lampreys are jawless, vertebrate fish existing on the Kenai Peninsula to the Arctic Coast and in the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Tanana River drainages. Two spescies occur on the Yukon River drainage: Arctic lamprey (L. camtschaticum) and Alaska brook lamprey (L. alaskensis). The project is significant because potential changes in ammocoete abundance have been detected. Shink would like to identify optimal habitat parameters and offer advice for management of commercial fishery and subsistence. Her objectives are to determine distributional gradient, identify optimal habitat zones and correlate habitat parameters to ammocoete abundance.

She anticipates a long-term monitoring effort that will reveal abundance increases toward the confluence and she expects a positive correlation between ammocoete abundance and dominant substrate. Sampling will be conducted in June and July, one site at the headwaters to the confluence of the Andreafsky River and the other around the weir site.

While lamprey are considered a nuisance species in the Great Lakes, they aren't necessarily the menace they are made out to be, Shink stated. They can grow as much as three feet long and sucker onto commercially valuable species. The population has been declining since 1997, Shink said. The meat is smoked and the skin is used for purses and other items. "I heard about a pilot study and I was interested to find out more about them," Shink said. "Initially I thought they looked like sea monsters."

Jacob Hakala's chose his topic, "Growth Rates of Siberian Larch in Interior Alaska," after studying two semesters in Sweden, where the tree grows prolifically. The Siberian Larch (Larix sibirica) is native to the taiga belt with a seed bearing age of 10 to 15 years. Larch has been a species of interest for reforestation in Alaska since the 1960s. There have been examples of 30 to 40-year-old mature trees with cones in Alaska. No study of larch's susceptibility to tree diseases in Alaska has been done. Larch seedlings suffer from moose browse more than native spruce.

While the economic value of larch in Alaska is unknown, in northern Europe the wood is used for railroad ties due to rot resistance. Up to 90 percent of the tree is heartwood and there is a thin cambial layer. It is known as the "tree of eternity." Very little research has been done in North America. Most studies deal with larch's response to climate change.

Hakala's objective is to determine if the growth rates of Siberian Larch are comparable to those of white spruce and lodgepole pine, allowing it to be considered for commercial production. He plans to provide the Division of Forestry with a description of production so the agency can determine what further research is needed and set up more plots.

His area of study will be three plots planted in 1989 in the Rosie Creek reforested area. One plot is 100 percent larch, one is mixed larch and lodgepole and one is mixed larch, lodgepole and spruce. Total acreage is 188. He will study the growth rate using Spencer tape, a wood core tool and the University of Georgia growth table. With calculated growth rates, foresters will be able to compare species.

The students will present their final papers by the end of fall semester.

Friday, April 12, 2013

OneTree tests new way to take photos of the forest

Zachary Meyers tries out the new drone.
The newest implement added to the OneTree toolbox is a Parrot AR Drone 2.0.

Zachary Meyers, OneTree's science education lead, tested the remote-controlled instrument for the first time April 12. "How awesome is that?" he exclaimed while operating the machine with his smartphone. He was impressed with its stability, due to it having a gyroscope inside it.

The Parrot will take aerial photographs and videos of the birch trees growing in the T-field, an area on campus where OneTree maintains research plots. "We'll be able to track the phenology," Meyers said. "This will give us an aerial perspective. We'll be able to program the coordinates and do exploratory surveying."

In May OneTree will begin hosting field trips for school children to visit the T-field. Meyers will teach the students how to use the data collected from the Parrot, not only at the T-field but at various schoolyard habitats.

"Hobbyists have been using these for a while for recreational purposes," Meyers said. "But now we can use it for scientific applications."

"It's photo documentation in a way that makes sense," OneTree Coordinator Jan Dawe said. "We'll be able to repeat the same flights over plots. It's a more streamlined way of doing documentation and we can compare to on-the-ground observations."

OneTree aims to provide K-12 students with positive experiences of science and nature. Students at participating schools explore plant anatomy and physiology, the scientific process and the annual events in a birch tree's growth. OneTree is part of the Boreal Alaska Learning Adaptation and Production program.

Jan Dawe observes while Zac Meyers flies the drone with his smartphone.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

MIP student adds extra year to Peace Corps service

Brooke McDavid planting mangroves with children in Vanua Levu, Fiji
Things are going so well for Master’s International student Brooke McDavid that after two years in Vanua Levu, Fiji, she is extending her Peace Corps service for another year and four months.

“There is so much happening that I am not ready to disengage,” McDavid said. “There are so many opportunities and people are so excited to try things. We are willing to work together and find solutions together.

“I love the lifestyle but at some point I have to make it back to Alaska.”

McDavid left UAF two years ago for Peace Corps duty. Upon her return here she will finish her thesis and earn a master’s degree in natural resources management.

Speaking to students via phone in the “Natural Resources Management in Developing Countries” class April 10, McDavid shared some of her experiences. When she arrived in Fiji she was told to spend three months just getting to know the people and establishing relationships. This proved very wise advice, McDavid said. “It helped me understand the culture and get to know the people.”
Her village is home to 500 people. While in the “getting to know you” phase, the village headman “adopted” McDavid. “Here relationships are just as important or more important than work. You spend a lot of time socializing and getting to know people.”

After six months she and a counterpart began working on a community needs assessment survey to determine what issues the community wanted to address. “I’m not here to push an agenda,” McDavid said. “It was important for them to create the agenda.”

She trained 10 people to give the survey and then a village development committee was formed. “It was a wonderful experience creating a vision, goals, and action plan for projects,” she said. The plan included governance, education, health and safety, the environment and standards of living.

One of the first projects McDavid tackled was working with the women’s group to create vegetable gardens. She taught organic principles, composting and crop rotation. The first attempt went awry when the money the group raised from selling bok choy disappeared. So the next go round included lessons on financial management and the group raised $200 to purchase supplies.

The project faded for about eight months. “I wasn’t pushing, “McDavid said. “I wanted to do things the community wanted to do.” After a dispute over land, the women’s group solved the issue by finding a new plot. “I was so proud of them,” McDavid said. “It’s an ongoing learning process for everyone, myself included.”

Establishing a locally managed marine protected area has been another challenge. In Fiji over 200 communities have established locally managed marine protected areas and the people in McDavid’s village agreed to try it. After only a couple of months they are already noticing more diversity in the fish population.

Moving pig pens away from the river was a solution for cleaner waters. “We talked about buffer zones and ridge to reef management,” McDavid said.

Starting a mangrove nursery has been a way to address erosion. Mangrove had been depleted as a source for firewood and the villagers are working to restore the habitat.

McDavid is working with local government departments and non-governmental organizations to create plans for a new town and she is writing a guidebook for community development planning.

Feeling respected as a woman in Fiji has not been a problem, though McDavid must wear dresses or skirts and sit in the back of the room for meetings. “Even if I don’t believe in it I follow it anyway,” she said. She believes she is treated differently than the local women because of her professional background and education. “I have something to offer them,” she said.

She is the village’s first Peace Corps volunteer so feels she had a blank slate to work on. The people are poor but not starving. Education and health care are lacking and there is disparity between urban and rural areas.

“The Peace Corps has made me appreciate the simple things in life a lot more,” McDavid said. “I have learned to slow down the pace of life and there is a huge sense of community, something I’ve never had before. It’s like a big extended family where everyone knows your business but we collectively work together to achieve things.”

She is so impressed with the sense of community that she said wants to have that the rest of her life, “whether it’s in Fairbanks or Fiji.”

McDavid will return to UAF in August 2014.

The view from Vanua Levu, Fiji.

Matanuska Experiment Farm to host birch tapping class

Birch sap runs into a bucket. (Photo courtesy Julie Cascio)
A good opportunity to learn birch sap tapping is coming to Palmer Saturday, April 20, actually two opportunities, one from 10 a.m. to noon and the other from 1 to 3 p.m.

UAF Cooperative Extension Service and UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences are hosting the workshops, to teach how to select the right trees, tap trees while caring for them and collect sap and cook it for syrup. The same course is taught at two separate times.
There will be free activities for youths ages 8 to 14 who come with an adult.

The cost is $10 per person. Handouts and taps will be provided. Dress for the outdoors. Registration and payment are required by April 19. Call 745-3360 or visit tinyurl.com/birchtreetapping.

Instructors are Valerie Barber, director of the UAF Forest Products Program, and Julie Cascio of CES Health, Home and Family Development.

The farm is located at 1509 S. Georgeson Drive.

Log cabin workshop coming to Nenana

Dr. Barber's last log cabin workshop was in Palmer. A new one is planned for Nenana.

Assistant Professor and Director of the Forest Products Program Valerie Barber will teach a log cabin building workshop in May for the Toghotthele Corp. in Nenana.

While the majority of students will be corporation members, there are a few slots open to the public for a cost of $1,200. The workshop kicks off May 2-5 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with log peeling, then continues May 6-24 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. The site is 307.8 Parks Highway. The end result will be a 16 x 20 foot cabin that Toghotthele will likely use as a visitors' cabin.

The sessions are for people interested in building or renovating energy-efficient, quality log structures in Alaska. Robert W. Chambers, world-recognized authority on handcrafted log home construction, will lead the sessions on how to build with green logs. Richard Musick of Fairbanks will be assisting. Basic procedures and techniques will be described and practiced to help even the novice get started with a project. Building an energy-efficient log home requires the highest level of craftsmanship to meet modern standards of airtightness, indoor air quality, safety, comfort and durability. Textbook is provided.

Instruction includes:

• Safety

• Chain saw use

• Maintenance

• Cutting demonstration

• Practicing notches

• Ripping and scribing logs

Robert W. Chambers has been building log homes since 1983 and teaching log construction since 1988. He is the author of the bestselling log home construction textbook, Log Construction Manual and the inventor of log construction methods, products and machinery. He holds U.S. and foreign patents for his log construction inventions.

In April 2006, the International Log Builders Association presented Chambers with the Grand Achievement Award, which has been awarded only three times in the ILBA’s 30-year history. He is a consultant for log home owners, log home companies, builders and developers throughout the world, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Latvia, Russia, Finland, Scotland, England, Ukraine, Greece, Romania, Dubai, South Africa, Oceania, Brazil and Chile.

Richard Musick has worked for the last 13 years building custom energy efficient log and frame homes. He owns Ventilation Solutions, a company specializing in heat recovery ventilators and air filtration systems. He has taught more than 20 log home building classes around Alaska.

For more information, contact Barber at 907-746-9466.
This cabin was built during a workshop at the Matanuska Experiment  Farm in 2011.

Extension celebrates spring with community classes

Registration is open for 13 community classes offered April 22–26 in Fairbanks as part of Extension Week.

All classes are free except for composting with worms, which is $10. Classes will include memory fitness, raising chickens, cooking with whole grains, using a GPS, texting safely, social media and more. See the complete schedule and class descriptions here.

The classes will meet in the UAF Cooperative Extension district office at 724 27th Ave., on the south side of the Fairbanks Community Food Bank building. For more information or to register, call 907-474-1530.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

SARE conference workshops: water cisterns

Tuesday morning: Water cisterns and rainwater collection
with guest speaker Billy Kniffen, Texas A&M University

Billy Kniffen, retired Texas AgriLife Extension Service agent, got a good laugh out of his audience early on, when he said: "I acknowledge that Alaska is bigger than Texas. That's hard to do." That admission out of the way, he went on to give a thorough review of rainwater collection and why it's important, not only in the Lone Star State but worldwide.
"When the well runs dry we will know the worth of water." —Ben Franklin
Billy Kniffen at the 2013 SARE conference during the afternoon session of a two-part all-day workshop on water conservation, rainwater catchment, and cistern installation. CES photo by Taylor Maida.
A major driver to current interest in rainwater catchment and water conservation is climate change and desertification. Kniffen showed how the continent over the Ogallala Aquifer is in drought—but so is Alaska, even though it may not feel like it. Alaska has wildly different climatic regions (Interior, Southeast, Arctic Coast, Aleutians, Southcentral) but looking at the overall temperature and precipitation over time, the state is showing a trend toward a drier, hotter climate.

Although the part of Texas where Kniffen is from can experience torrential rainfall in the space of an hour, on an annual basis it is drier than the Interior, which is itself just above desert-level precipitation (9-10 inches/year). Despite that, he and his family are able to live year-round off of collected rainwater.

Kniffen showed his audience a map of Alaska with the incredible variety of rainfall and precipitation in the state. Using the example of Fairbanks, he provided a chart of precipitation levels: April through September in rain, October through March in snowfall, which builds up to melt that can be captured.

Kniffen showed a photo of a petroglyph, a cloud dancer with stalk of corn. Over the tens of thousands of years of humans living in North America, he said, there have been many peoples and nations, but we don't know much about them—their civilizations have gone extinct.

Asked Kniffen, "Are we going to be extinct if we do not take care of our resources?"
"Water is the oil of the 21st century."—Andrew Liveris, chief executive, Dow, August 2008
Watersheds, the water cycle, and water supply

Institutions using collected rainwater are garnering good publicity as well as good use from the sustainability of it. Rainwater collection for fire departments!

Kniffen went on to talk about the difference in land before typical development and after:
  • In predevelopment, the evapotranspiration cycle from plants, where the plants take up water from the soil and breathe it out from their leaves, is uninterrupted. The soil has roots, compost, and humus to hold water and filter it. Leaves may catch rain before it hits the ground and it evaporates from there. Water slowly penetrates the ground, recharging the soil and aquifer.
  • In post development, the soil has been stripped away, there are no plants, nothing to prevent rain from striking the ground (leaves), nothing to slow the stormwater to allow deep infiltration to the soils below and recharge the local aquifer. Runoff then has to be managed and is typically mixed in with sewage systems and treated as waste.
Low-impact development mimics the predevelopment environment, relying on design that treats water as a valuable resource. Design principles that are crucial for moving from a stormwater paradigm to a rainwater paradigm include conservation and restoration, among others. 

What is a watershed? Simply put, water flows from the top of an area and moves down, shed through the landscape.

There are two methods to sustain water supply: increase supply, or reduce demand. The climate is not generally increasing the supply of fresh water, although eliminating use of fossil fuels, planting trees, and changing landscaping and city design could alleviate this. Conservation reduces demand, but restoration of the watershed to a more natural environment also conserves water. All rainfall is valuable. Vegetation plays an important part in filtering water on the landscape, trickling eventually into streams, to rivers.

Passive collection of water includes not just cisterns: spreader dams, stock tanks, ripping, berms, and basins also hold or delay water. There is also the effect of low impact development: bioretention, or groundwater recharge through landscaping, such as constructed wetlands or rain gardens, shallow depressions that capture water when it rains, hold it there for a time and release it back into the ground. The plants in these gardens help filter the water, hold it, beautify the area, and provide vegetables or flowers.

Constructing a system: considerations

The basic rule: You will collect: .6 gallons per square foot per 1 inch rainfall. Alaska's rain intensity is highest in Fairbanks: 1 inch per hour (higher than Juneau): .01 gallons per minute per square foot.
  • there are 90,400 drops in a gallon of water
  • there are 86,400 seconds in a day
Each gallon has more drops in it than a day has seconds. Consider how many gallons your roof could collect in a good downpour, and then how many days that represents.

There are roughly 3 inches of water in 18 inches of snow (dry Interior snow). The winter snow load is your first catchment of the season.

The two most import things in collecting rainwater (or snow melt): have good filtration and keep sunlight out.

Filtration is a must: pollen, mosquitoes, etc. can turn the water septic. Products to pre-filter are fairly cheap, such as basic screens. Some are very thorough and expensive, and come from countries like Australia and Germany, so one is paying for long-distance shipping. However, a new US company in Texas is coming on line. To ensure that rainwater is safe for human consumption, the most common method of sterilization and disinfection of microorganisms is ultraviolet light using a 5 micron filter; other methods are reverse osmosis, chlorination, or ozone.

Some systems use water diverters: the first rainfall washes the roof off before starting to fill the collection tank. First flush down the pipe cleans out pollens, bird debris, leaves, etc. 
  • dry line vs. wet line. Dry line: does not go to the ground, enclosed, enters rain barrel at top. Wet line: underground or on the ground, goes into the barrel at top.
  • collection tanks: polyethylene, galvanized metal. Bigger ones use a liner, food grade material. MAKE SURE rain barrel is a food grade quality plastic.
  • cisterns: durable and watertight material; size where it goes and how much you will collect and need; cost ranges from $.50 to $2.25 per gallon collected (cost in shipping). Cisterns come in various shapes and sizes, including crates, pillows, barrels, concrete. Some cisterns are enormous.
  • catchment surface and pump stations. Kniffen described legal situations in other states where water landing on the ground or rooftops became property of the state, and elaborate catchment traps had to be set up by landowners. Pumps and auxiliary catchment surfaces may be useful for long distance distribution and dual-purpose shelter/catchment arrangements.
Other items and uses:
  • pump and pressure tank, water gauge, or gravity feed
  • for distribution: drip irrigation, water garden and bird baths, wildife and livestock water, sprayer tanks, sprinklers with pressure, house use
  • overflow pipe: filtration
  • 75-watt solar panel 12-volt battery to charge pump
In Alaska, protection from freezing is vital. Kniffen had a few suggestions on the cistern and the collection tank: locate indoors, bury below frost line, insulate tanks (1 inch of blue foam = 1 foot of soil in terms of insulating quality), circulate/aerate, winterize, heat with elements or resistant tape, put water barrels in greenhouse to keep warm, etc.

Kniffen was an enthusiastic speaker, seeing many possibilities for rainwater catchment in Alaska. Interestingly, while his talk drew mostly on his work in Texas, he borrowed from an Alaska CES publication on household water cisterns translated from Norwegian by Nils Johansen and Richard Seifert. Interest in these systems in the North has been around for a long time!

More resources and publications:

Kniffen's full workshop PowerPoint presentation is available here, 292 pp. (pdf), plus his conference presentation, Rainwater Harvesting for Farmers, 117 pp. (pdf).

Drip irrigation movie with Billy Kniffen.

Kniffen is the vice president of the American Rainwater Catchment Association and helped organize the Texas Rainwater Catchment Association. He recommended several resources during his talk, including: