Friday, January 30, 2015

11th annual Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference set for March in Fairbanks

By Darcy Etcheverry, UAF Cooperative Extension Service

Where is the agriculture industry in Alaska headed? Are we on a pathway to providing a higher percentage of locally grown products to residents? Will Alaska soon be in a position to grow the industry toward export markets? Or will the focus remain on supporting smaller family farms that provide products locally? These questions have been asked since the advent of Alaska’s agriculture industry, and will be addressed at the 11th annual Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference. The theme this year is “Defining Our Goals.”

Phil Metzger
Alaska farmers and ranchers are here at an exciting time where local products are increasing in popularity. There appears to be growing demand for local foods from a variety of consumer, retail and wholesale markets. This could be the catalyst to increasing the impact of Alaska producers on the marketplace.

This year we are focusing on providing growers with information that will help you make decisions on how to manage and potentially expand your farming operation. Both of our keynote speakers have backgrounds in helping farmers manage their businesses. Phil Metzger comes to us from New York through Holistic Management International, an organization dedicated to sustainability of farms and ranches across the world. His workshop and conference presentations will be of value to farmers and ranchers of all experience levels. He will introduce the concept of holistic management, and work with producers to help them secure the progress they have made while assisting them with wise expansion. The tools he will present will make producers more confident in the decisions they are making to take advantage of new opportunities. Phil’s sessions are sure to be packed with energy and enthusiasm.

One key to a sustainable farm is profitable farm. Gina Greenway is a professor of business and accounting at the College of Idaho with a background in agricultural economics. She will assist Phil at the Holistic Management workshop, and will present about enterprise budgeting and developing niche markets during the conference. Gina has visited Alaska and is familiar with our agriculture industry. We are looking forward to having her at the conference to help guide the decision making process.

Jeff Werner is no stranger to Alaska agriculture. As a former researcher at UAF’s School of Natural Resources & Extension, Jeff has a strong background in controlled growing environments. He will be leading a workshop on growing vegetables hydroponically along with experts from across the state. If you are interested in commercial hydroponic production, join us for the four-hour workshop March 3.  Learn about structures, systems and plants with the basics of how these elements integrate in greenhouse vegetable production. Several types of soilless culture will be covered for vine crops and leaf crops. Although all of the information needed to start your own commercial hydroponic operation will not fit into a few short hours, the workshop should help you get started in the right direction. Jeff will be teaching with other hydroponic growers from as far north as Nuiqsut and as far south as Copper Center.

There will be plenty of presentations from producers about their particular operations and how they have been successful dealing with Alaska’s unique mixture of climate and geographic isolation. With the growing popularity of the Sustainable Agriculture conference, we have decided to offer concurrent sessions on March 4-5 so that attendees may choose between two topics at any given time. Sessions include: livestock, fruit, vegetables, marketing, managing a farm and sustainable practices. There will be breaks throughout the day to encourage networking across all focus areas.

Join us March 3-5 at the Westmark Hotel and Conference Center in Fairbanks. This will be an opportunity to learn more with your fellow farmers and join with policy makers to keep Alaska agriculture growing.

Contact Darcy Etcheverry at or 907-474-2422.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Peony growers' educational video posted on YouTube

Just in time for the Alaska Peony Growers' winter meeting in Fairbanks, SNRE has posted an educational video that trains farmers how to prepare soil and tissue samples for testing in a lab.

The 13-minute video outlines the exact procedures necessary for gathering and mailing soil and tissue samples. Featuring Research Technician Bob Van Veldhuizen, the video was filmed by Jeff Fay, Cooperative Extension Service media specialist.

"This is superb," said Professor Pat Holloway. "It is just what the growers need. It is clear, concise, very easy to understand and I'm sure it will be well received."

Monday, January 26, 2015

Rancher tries her hand at cashmere goats

After retiring from a career with the UAF Reindeer Research Program and  Large Animal Research Station, Sandy Garbowski is enjoying being at home caring for her own animals.

Goats at Willow Hill Farm.
At Willow Hill Farm north of Fairbanks, Garbowski raises cashmere goats, turkeys and chickens. The newest addition is Buddy,  a strikingly handsome, friendly burro adopted from Nevada through the Bureau of Land Management  National Wild Horse and Burro Program.

The burro is in charge of protecting the herd from loose dogs and other predators. At first, Buddy wasn’t sure what to think of the goats but he is so used to them now that he allows one to stand underneath him to munch hay away from the other goats. An Australian cattle dog helps herd the goats when it’s time to move them to different pastures.
Buddy the burro is in charge of protecting the goats.

Garbowski grew up in California and when she got to college started raising goats. “I always liked animals,” she said. “I wanted to raise fiber animals because I don’t like to milk.” Willow Hill has a couple of dairy goats and a couple of meat goats, but the majority of the herd is the kind that produces cashmere wool.

Any goat can grow cashmere but what are called cashmere goats have been bred to produce the soft, downy fiber in greater amounts. Willow Hill may be one of the only cashmere goat farms in Fairbanks, but there are a few others around the state. After combing the fiber, Garbowski sends it to a mill to be processed into raw fiber and yarn.

“I’m still waiting to see if the fiber sales will pay for the hay,” Garbowski said.

The 20-acre farm is set on a beautiful hillside off the Steese Highway. Originally, Garbowski raised horses and llamas, but when the last mare died she decided to get a few goats, and eventually found herself with a herd. The animals proved entirely different from horses. “There is the herd dynamics with goats,” Garbowski said. “Everybody has a different place.”

All the goats are named and will come when called. They handle the Alaska winters quite well, enjoying an insulated “club house” in the barn when it gets extremely cold.

“I just like animals,”Garbowski said. “I like the chores. I like looking out my kitchen window and seeing the herd of animals.”

One drawback is buying hay for winter feed because it is so expensive. In the summer, the animals can eat off the land. Another challenge is fencing. “Goats always want to be on the other side,” Garbowski said.

She separates the bucks and does this time of year to better control a spring arrival of kids. Her goal is for them to be born in late April or May. “In greenup the moms get better nutrition and it’s more fun to play with them when it’s sunny and green,” she said.

Garbowski looks forward to the day she breaks even or makes a profit. “I enjoy having the animals and working with fiber. I just haven’t quite figured out the costs to keep them versus the fiber sales. There are economies of scale. Maybe I’ll break even. Maybe I’ll make a fortune, but probably not.
“I love the animals so much; they’re my reason for getting up in the morning.”

Garbowski hopes to see more cashmere farms in the area. She said people who raise goats are generally willing to help each other and give advice to those just starting out. One note of caution she gave is that goats are herd animals and she doesn’t advise having a single goat as a pet.

She is creating a website,, but it isn’t live yet. Her email is

Friday, January 23, 2015

Peony conference set for Jan. 30-31 in Fairbanks

More than 200 peony growers from around the state will gather Jan. 30-31 in Fairbanks for the 2015 Alaska Peony Conference.

The theme is "Nurture Alaska's Blooming Peony Industry." The conference is hosted by the Interior Peony Growers and the Arctic Alaska Peonies Cooperative at the Westmark Hotel and Conference Center.

Pre-conference sessions are planned for Thursday, Jan. 29, with sessions on income tax issues, a new growers' school, managing risks and an intermediate growers' school.

Full days are set for Jan. 30-31, with an awards banquet at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 30. A post-conference session on how to interpret a soils laboratory analysis report will will be taught by SNRE Research Technician Bob Van Veldhuizen Sunday, Feb. 1 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

SNRE researchers will participate in a peony research panel Friday, Jan. 30 from 9:15 to 10 a.m. The conference will cover topics such as farm-based research, understanding insect life cycle, training the workforce, taking soil and leaf samples, organic weed management, choosing and preparing land, ordering peony roots, choosing commercial peonies, farm accounting and taxes, peonies from Europe and more.

The conference is $200. Register here.

UAF poinsettias provide color at governor's inaugural ball

The colorful floral extravaganza on display at the Fairbanks version of Gov. Bill Walker's inaugural ball Jan. 24 is on loan from the SNRE horticulture program.

Volunteers wrap up a poinsettia plant to transport from UAF to the Carlson Center.
Hundreds of beautiful red, cream and mixed poinsettias are being used to decorate the Carlson Center for the soiree. It is one of a series of balls the governor is hosting around the state from January to March.

Event organizers Hoa Brickley and Betsy Engle heard from friends about the poinsettias grown at UAF in the Arctic Health Research Greenhouse and approached Professor Meriam Karlsson about borrowing the plants.

"They look better than I expected," Brickley said. "I didn't expect big ones. This will be the first time we have decorated with poinsettias in January."

Karlsson and her students study the poinsettias for color, size, nutrients and light and temperature responses. They are used in research and instructional activities.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

New Alaska herb guide published

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service has published a comprehensive Alaska guide for herb enthusiasts.

"An Alaska Herb Garden” features information about cultivating, harvesting, storing and using herbs. The 74-page guide includes color illustrations, recipes and detailed information on 25 herbs and general information on nearly 40 more.

The guide is a collaboration between Extension and the Georgeson Botanical Garden. The garden’s director, professor Pat Holloway, wrote the section about cultivating herbs, which includes research conducted by the garden and by volunteers.

The publication is dedicated to Barbara Fay, a longtime gardener who taught community herb classes in Fairbanks for more than 20 years. She worked with Holloway on herb research at the garden and enlisted other gardeners to join her and tend the herb beds.

Fay’s notes and class materials formed the guide’s framework. Extension home economist Roxie Dinstel and two of Fay’s fellow herb enthusiasts, Virginia Damron and Marsha Munsell, provided information on preserving and storing herbs, edited the guide and tested recipes.

Holloway said the guide will be a great asset to gardeners and others interested in growing and using the herbs. She credits Fay.

“This is her idea, her baby,” she said. “She is the one who got us all riled up about herbs.”

Copies are $15 and available at Extension district offices or by calling 1-877-520-5211.


Monday, January 5, 2015

NRM grad student adapts to life in Togo

University of Alaska Fairbanks Master's International student Lauren Lynch began serving 27 months in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa, June 12. She is in the Centrale region of Togo near the border with Benin.

Lauren Lynch (in green dress) with her training host family at a Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony in August.

Lauren Lynch's report from the field:

My community has been very welcoming and incredibly willing to work. When I arrived, I was preparing myself to need to do a lot of motivating to convince my community to work on projects with me, but in reality people in my community have been convincing me to work with them. When I first arrived, the town environmental group, gardeners' cooperative, high school and women’s cooperative all approached me. Everyone was very welcoming and have had great project ideas.

I’m excited about the potential of my community as well.  We’re lucky to have two rivers going through the town and very good soil. As a result, gardening is huge in Kaboli.

I’ve been working on getting my garden ready for rainy season, clearing a little spot, making a compost and putting up my fence.

My host family is lovely. In Togo people live in compounds. They have a courtyard in the middle usually and then are surrounded by rooms for various family members. There will also be rooms for a kitchen, storage, latrines and showers in some compounds. And then in the middle of the courtyard, a lot of times there’s a tree and sometimes a well. Usually, compounds are made up of extended families. So maybe a husband and his wife or wives, his kids, sometimes some of his adult children’s families, sometimes his or his wife’s parents or siblings. 

My particular compound is actually made up of a lot of people who are renting rooms. There is one permanent family, who is my landlady. She lives there with her daughter, her sister and another little girl. In the next pair of rooms is her grandmother, two granddaughters and one of the granddaughter’s babies. Then, there’s a teacher’s family. He lives in a small village out of town, but he’s moved into town to work for the school year. There’s also three students. The youngest is in the equivalent of sixth grade and the oldest is the equivalent of a high school senior. ( My ville is fairly big, so a lot of kids from surrounding small villages move into town to go to school for the year).
We have a well in the middle of the compound which is great during the rainy season, but is dried up now that the dry season is here. It’s good for showering, but not for drinking or cooking. For drinking water, we use the neighbor’s well, which was done by an NGO and has the water tested every year. And then we have a giant mango tree which is a great spot to sit in the shade and chat or read or do laundry. Mango season is approaching and I am very excited about this.   

My two rooms are great because the volunteer who was here before me planted a passionfruit vine which has grown up over the fence in front of my window and keeps it really nice and cool inside.  The vine also produces a ton of fruit that my neighbors and I have been making juice with. And he also planted some moringa trees for me. Moringa is a really great tree; the leaves are really, really good for nutrition. I put them in my sauces when I cook. 

My host family has been wonderful to me. The grandmother who lives in the rooms next door to me taught me how to peel sesame seeds, and I spend a lot of evenings sitting on mats with her and the kids peeling sesame seeds for her to put in little baggies and sell the next day. And then another girl who lives in my compound has been taking me with her when she goes to sell flip-flops, goes to the market or goes to pick corn. That’s been a really nice way for me to get to know my ville. The kids like to come over and eat lunch with me and color or help me with whatever I’m doing.

Some types of food are really good. The two staples in Togo are fufu and pate. Fufu is really good.  It’s pounded yams. You boil them and then you put them in a big mortar. Two people pound it together with big pestles. Pate is corn flour that’s been cooked in water. You eat both pate and fufu with sauce. In my region, sesame sauce is really common. Okrah sauce, peanut sauce, tomato sauce and boma sauce (a local sort of spinach) are also common in Togo. You eat it with your hands and often share a bowl. I’m still learning to eat gracefully. People laugh at me because I can only swallow a small little ball of it at a time still. But it’s OK because then I remind them what happens when they try to eat spaghetti with a fork. 

I’ve started a few small projects so far. I have an environmental club at the high school which has been really fun. I partner with the biology teacher at the high school to run the club. We started the year out talking about broader concepts like sustainability and natural resources, but I’m more excited for next semester. We’re going to start our own tree nursery the week we get back. After that, groups of students are going to run the club each week. They’ve each chosen a topic that they’re interested in and are going to present on. For example, we have groups who are going to teach the other kids about food transformation and mushroom cultivation. Hopefully we’ll all learn some good stuff. 

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference called “Femmes Contre la Faim” or “women against hunger.” Twelve peace corps volunteers attended, each with a female counterpart. The first part of the conference was about food production and the second part was about utilization and nutrition. The best part was that each team at the end made an action plan for what they were going to do in their community. My counterpart and I are planning on running some trainings on using soy in cooking to improve kids' nutrition for the women’s group in town after the holidays. The conference was a really, really great way for me to start to work with some women in my ville. One of the challenges here is that men usually have a lot more control and autonomy within the community. Also, a lot of women have not had the opportunity to learn French, so it can be difficult to communicate with them. This was a wonderful opportunity and I’m thinking of working with a team of volunteers to organize it again for next year.

One project that I’m hoping to start with my counterpart and the gardeners' cooperative is an aquaculture project. They approached me about wanting a project which would help them in getting water for their gardens and raising fish at the same time. We’re planning to visit a similar project in Benin to learn a little bit more about how to proceed. 

Otherwise, I worked with a regional HIV testing campaign for a couple of weeks, and I’ve done a little bit of work with the girls at the high school. I also am going to be helping to organize an environmental camp called Camp Eco-Action for the summer. 

The language is one of the friendliest-sounding languages in Togo. It’s related to the Yiroba language in Nigeria, but in Togo my ville and a couple of small villages right next to us are pretty much the only places where it’s spoken. I’ve been taking lessons from a lady who lives down the street, but it’s coming slowly.   

Calpyso Farm finds successful methods for farmer school

There’s a lot more to farming than putting seeds in the ground and watching them grow. And now there is farmer school to teach the complexities of becoming a proficient, all-around agriculturist.
Harvesting is one of the joys of attending farmer training.

Calypso Farm and Ecology Center in Ester has been offering its farmer training program for the past three summers. Christie Shell, Calypso’s assistant director, said even though the farm has long had an internship program, people would spend a summer working on the farm and when it was time to leave they didn’t have the skills to start their own farm.

“Our mission is encouraging farmers,” Shell said. “This program includes the students in the decision making. Now when they leave they say they are ready.”

“We’ve learned a lot,” said Susan Willsrud, Calypso’s farm director.

When the school was in the pilot stage in 2012, activities were loosely scheduled but with time Willsrud realized that the better the plan the smoother things run. “We’ve been on a learning curve,” she said. “We keep a pretty detailed calendar. It’s hard to fit it all in.”

From the first week of May to the end of September, every single day is mapped to a T. Students learn planting, weeding, harvesting, composting, blacksmithing, farm planning, working with animals, sewing, cooking, metalsmithing, woodworking and more.

Visiting instructors help teach the wide variety of lessons. Only five people are accepted each summer and Willsrud guides potential students through a rigorous application and interview process to make sure they are a good fit. “I encourage them to take their time and make a decision after thinking it over seriously,” she said. Students find Calypso through the website or outreach to universities and high schools.

The small size is beneficial because it allows some flexibility to tailor the program for each person depending on what their interests and passions are.

“We had to learn how to tailor it, yet give them breadth,” Willsrud said. “So far, so good. They find their strong area of interest. We hope they gain the confidence and base level of skills to start an economically viable small farm. While not everyone will start a farm, every single person comes out knowing how to grow their own food.”

Part of the process is each student creates his or her own farm plan. “Some are tangible and some are pretend farms based on a specific place,” Willsrud said.

This type of school is growing in popularity, but until a couple of years ago there were very few. At Calypso, students pay $3,000 tuition, which includes room and board. Students come from all over; one even came from Ghana, West Africa. “We get a range of people, experience and ages,” Willsrud said. “It makes it interesting.”

While some students have farm experience, some have never even visited a farm. During the interviews, Willsrud asks potential students what role farming will play in their future.

For now, Willsrud and Shell want to keep the school at its small size. “We want to keep improving it,” Willsrud said.

“And we want to meet the needs of the participants,” Shell said. Another goal is to attract a more diverse audience, including young farmers, military veterans and people from various socio-economic backgrounds.

Calypso volunteer Kaiyuh Cornberg, who will attend the training program next summer, said it appealed to her because she’s not a classroom learner. “I love being outside and I really want to grow food in Alaska,” she said. “This is an on-the-ground way to create change.”

An alumnus of the program from Colorado wrote, “The farmers training program has taught me the ins and outs of what it takes to run a farm and a CSA. It has been a phenomenal learning experience and I think it is one of the best choices I have made to come to beautiful Alaska for a summer. Farming at Calypso has solidified my passion for environmental education and opened many new doors into the world of human ecology.”

While the program is probably filled for 2015, Willsrud encouraged prospective students to study Calypso’s website if they are interested in attending in the future.

Contact information:
Facebook: Calypso Farm and Ecology Center