Thursday, January 28, 2016

SNRE profiles: Palmer ag agent thrives on variety

Steve Brown practices a crevasse rescue before an expedition.

Palmer Extension Agent Steve Brown has been going international with Chicken University, his popular signature course about raising chickens.

This past fall, he delivered his course to the residents of Yellowknife, the capital city of the Northwest Territories, and, earlier this month, to the people of Inuvik, more than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. He also taught workshops in both communities on gardening, season-extension techniques and growing vegetables in greenhouses.

Brown developed Chicken University seven years ago, after he realized that chickens were commanding hefty prices on Craigslist ­and that Mat-Su residents wanted to know more about raising them. Since then, more communities, including Anchorage, have allowed residents to raise chickens, and Brown has delivered the workshop in two dozen Alaska communities

Steve Brown poses with rhodiola at the farm.

Chickens have become popular, Brown believes, because they provide eggs and meat and they can be fed rather cheaply on feed and scraps. Their manure provides great fertilizer, which is useful to gardeners for soil building.

As the agricultural and horticulture agent for the Mat-Su/Copper River District, Brown offers a variety of programs about soils, gardening, greenhouse production, landscaping and other topics. He is also known for his geospatial expertise and has taught advanced GPS techniques to audiences that have included State Troopers, the Civil Air Patrol, other emergency responders and outdoors enthusiasts.

Brown became familiar with GPS while he served as an agent at Cornell University, which pioneered the use of the device in what is called “precision agriculture.” Precision agriculture uses the GPS on tractors and geographic information system (GIS) data. It allows farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer used and to cut gas costs because the fertilizer is delivered precisely, based on a computer model. Brown has worked with farmers who use precision agriculture in Kansas and in the Mat-Su area.

He is also working with a rhodiola growers’ cooperative to develop production of the medicinal plant, which is native to Siberia. He is working with the cooperative on a research grant to determine how and when to harvest the plants’ roots to get the highest rosavin content, which determines the plants’ value. Most of the rhodiola that has been harvested so far has been used in teas, which are thought by herbalists (and Russians) to improve endurance. So far, about 15 growers have planted 25 acres, which doesn’t sound like a lot, he says, but it is a high-value crop with promise.

Brown likes his office mates and the variety of work he does. Moving to the farm has definitely increased the number of people stopping by the Extension office, he says.

Brown grew up in Texas and earned a doctorate in environmental science at the State University of New York. He is a high energy guy. Since completing his first marathon on his 40th birthday, he has run marathons in 34 states, most recently in Arkansas and Alabama. “It’s a really, really great way to see the country,” he said.

A mountaineer, Brown has climbed the highest peaks in Europe (Mt. Elbrus), North America (Denali) and South America (Aconcagua). As part of a national 4-H mountaineering project, he carried a GPS beacon on Aconcagua and some 1,000 4-H’ers followed his progress online.

He serves as vice president of the Alaska State Fair board, editor of the Journal of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents and president-elect of the Journal of Extension board, which met in Alaska for the first time last year.

He is also serving on a 15-member committee to choose the next UAF chancellor. The committee includes faculty, staff and students. Forty-one people applied to become the next chancellor and he recently read all the applications and chose his top eight candidates. His picks and others’ will be evaluated to determine who gets a preliminary interview in February. The goal is to have finalists named and a new chancellor on board by the summer.

Steve has a fraternal twin, Hart, who is a middle school principal in Norman, Oklahoma. Of the two, Brown says he (Steve) is the “civilized twin.” His brother was the one who suggested they run their first marathon at age 40. Brown trained and his brother just showed up at the race start, and finished, lame, after about eight hours.  Later, the brother was honored at a surprise school assembly as an example of someone who works hard to achieve his goals.
Brown, a known practical joker, says he got it from his father. The family took Brown’s pet chicken, a 4-H project, on vacation when he was a teenager. His father wrapped the cage in a blanket and rode the tram to the top of Pike’s Peak, where he secretly released the chicken and announced to the other tourists that he was a professor and he had just discovered the “red rock cock,” thought to be long extinct.

His other hobbies include raising giant cabbages with his wife, Eva. Their entry placed ninth in last year’s Alaska State Fair but was unofficially named “prettiest cabbage” by a newspaper reporter.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Matanuska Experiment Farm soils testing lab to close

The University of Alaska Fairbanks will close its soils and forage testing lab at the Matanuska Experiment Farm near Palmer.

The Soil and Plant Analysis Laboratory is the only comprehensive soils and forage testing laboratory in the state that provides a detailed analysis as a commercial service to the general public and to agencies, according to Milan Shipka, director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. The lab supported soils research and soil analysis for gardeners, farmers, and a variety of borough, state and federal agencies.

Vice Provost Fred Schlutt, who heads the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension, said the decision to close the lab was based on the need to cut the budget due to reduced university funding.

“We’ve been faced with budget decisions that aren’t easy to make,” said Shipka.

An exact date for the closure has not been announced, but the lab stopped accepting soils samples last week. Shipka said the lab will finish analyzing the samples it has received. He said the lab will likely close in February or March but he is working with staff to determine what work needs to be done. One full-time employee has been notified she will lose her job.

The UAF Cooperative Extension Service is updating its publication on soils testing labs and locations and is developing similar information on forage testing labs.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Milan Shipka, 907-474-7429,; or Fred Schlutt,

Friday, January 15, 2016

SNRE profiles: Bob Van Veldhuizen retires

Bob Van Veldhuizen

As a teenager working on his grandfather’s Iowa dairy farm, Bob Van Veldhuizen shoveled cow manure onto an overhead track, which carried it out of the barn.

His grandfather told him, “If you don’t want to do this for the rest of your life, go to college.”

Heeding that advice, Bob enrolled in 1970 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where his father, Phil Van Veldhuizen, was a math professor. Don Dinkel hired the student at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm to work on horticultural projects. Duties included shoveling cow manure, which was sterilized and used as an ingredient in Dinkel’s soil mixes.

Fortunately, Bob Van Veldhuizen’s job duties expanded far beyond that during the 45 years he worked at the farm, including 10 years as a student and temporary worker and more than 35 years as full-time research technician.

Bob stands in a field of Bebral rye at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm.
He has worked on vegetable and fruit variety trials, forest reforestation projects, and soils and agronomic crop research. For the past 35 years, he coordinated fieldwork on agronomic research plots in Fairbanks, Palmer and Delta Junction. Working with SNRE Associate Professor Mingchu Zhang and graduate students, he has done everything from planting, harvesting and field clearing to lab work. He has also taught soils labs for the school for more than 30 years.

Van Veldhuizen says he liked everything about his job. “It’s challenging. It’s fun. It’s interesting.”

He has particularly enjoyed the research on agronomic crops, teaching soils labs and answering questions from individuals about soil fertility in different regions, from the panhandle to the Brooks Range. For the past three years, he has worked on soil fertility requirements for peonies.

Although Van Veldhuizen officially retired on Dec. 31, he hopes to continue working summers with Zhang on research relating to agronomic crops and soils. Red spring wheat cultivar crosses developed by a Washington State University doctoral student are still being tested to find the best cross that matures early and is shatter resistant.

 “We’re trying to finalize something,” he said.

They will also begin work with another WSU graduate student this summer on testing new Ingal crosses with Scandinavian wheat varieties.

Agronomists Van Veldhuizen has worked with include Frank Wooding, Charlie Knight, Steve Sparrow and, most recently, Zhang.  Over the years, he has helped with research on barley, wheat, rye, canola, mustard, triticale, bromegrass, quinoa and other crops. He and Professor Charlie Knight co-authored AFES Bulletin 111 about agronomic crop varieties in Alaska, and he and Zhang are completing an update to that bulletin. Bulletin 116, which will be published this spring and includes research-based recommendations for growing agronomic crops.

Zhang has worked with Van Veldhuizen for 12 years and says he is very dedicated and professional and does everything well. Students like his labs and he has been invaluable to the agronomic program. “As long as way we have a plan, he can make it happen in a flawless way,” said Zhang.

Retired SNRE Interim Dean Steve Sparrow, who worked with Van Veldhuizen for 30 years, also offered praise. “Bob was always a joy to work with because of his sometimes goofy, but often subtle humor, his strong work ethic, and his great knowledge of Alaska, soils, agriculture, forestry and other topics,” Sparrow wrote. “I would often see him in the lab or in the field early in the morning or in the evening after everyone else had called it a day. He is well known for his efforts to help students, even if it sometimes meant meeting with them in the hallway or after hours. He was certainly an asset to SNRE and UAF, and I hope he stays involved with UAF in some capacity even in retirement.”

Van Veldhuizen plans to continue work on a textbook for a beginning soils class focused on northern climates. He envisions it as a simple textbook for a distance-delivered class. He also hopes to do a little more gardening. He’s already agreed to speak at three conferences this winter, including a peony conference in Homer, the Delta Farm Forum and the Sustainable Agriculture Conference.

Bob Van Veldhuizen adds instructions for a soils lab.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

SNRE professor Lawson Brigham receives Polar Medal

Lawson speaks at the Safe and Sustainable Shipping in the Arctic Environment (ShipArc 2015) conference in Sweden last August. Photo courtesy of World Maritime University

The American Polar Society has awarded SNRE Professor Lawson Brigham its Honorary Member Polar Medal.

Brigham received the medal during the society’s 80th Symposium recently at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. A certificate from the society notes that the medal was in “recognition of your contribution to polar science and exploration and your support of the society’s mission to encourage polar research and education and to preserve polar history.”

John Splettstoesser, the chair of the society's Board of Governors, said the award was "long overdue."

According to the American Geographical Society, Brigham was recognized for his voyages as captain of the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea, which sailed from the southernmost Antarctic limit in the Southern Ocean to the North Pole in seven months in 1994, making it the first vessel in history to reach the extremes of the global ocean.

He was also honored for his work on the Arctic Council as chair of the council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment and in the International Maritime Organization for efforts developing the Polar Code, which was adopted in 2014. Brigham said the organization’s Polar Code provides new rules and regulations for ships operating in polar waters.

“It’s focused on protecting the Arctic people and the polar environment,” he said.

Since 1936, the society has honored 62 individuals with its Polar Medal for contributions to polar science and exploration. Other recipients include Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Admiral Richard Byrd. Brigham received the award Nov. 5 with eight other recipients.

Brigham doesn’t compare himself to those early explorers. "Our exploration aboard the Polar Sea was about research and understanding the planet," he said.

His recent work has focused on Arctic policy, specifically issues related to marine safety and environmental protection.

Brigham is a distinguished professor of geography and arctic policy. He graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1970 and earned a doctorate in oceanography from the University of Cambridge in 2000. He came to UAF in 2009 after a career as a Coast Guard officer, in which he commanded four Coast Guard cutters, including the Polar Sea on Arctic and Antarctic waters and six years as the Alaska director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

Brigham is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Arctic, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and was elected in 2013 to the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research. 

Captain Lawson Brigham poses with the Polar Sea near Antarctica.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Peony conference to take place Jan. 28-30 in Homer

The Alaska Peony Growers Association winter conference will take place Jan. 28-30 at the Land’s End Resort and Conference Center in Homer.

More than 25 sessions are planned. The keynote speaker will be Missouri peony grower Don Hollingsworth of Hollingsworth Peonies and the other featured speaker is Gay Smith from Chrysal USA, which develops and manufactures cut flower products.

Several faculty and staff from the School of Natural Resources and Extension will make presentations. Soils Professor Mingchu Zhang will talk about nutrition management and Research Technician Bob Van Veldhuizen will address nutrient cycling. Kenai Extension Agent Casey Matney and Janice Chumley of the Integrated Pest Management Program will talk about insect pests and understanding soil tests. Julie Riley, a horticulture agent from Anchorage, will speak about local and national media coverage of Alaska's cut-flower peony industry.

Four three-hour preconference sessions are planned on Jan. 28 — Overview of Growing Peonies, Growing Peonies as Part of Your Investment Portfolio, Intensive School for Beginners, and Your Legacy, Your Estate and Retirement. The conference will also include local grower panels, Web construction classes, and several sessions on field maintenance, including pest and disease management.

Preconference workshops are $35 each. The full conference cost for Thursday evening, Friday and Saturday, including the banquet, is $225 for Alaska Peony Growers Association members and $275 for non-members. There is also a $90 one-day registration fee. See the full schedule and more details at