Monday, March 28, 2016

Food bank distributes at Matanuska Farm

Pallets of food from the Food Bank of Alaska await distribution last Tuesday at Kerttula Hall.

The Matanuska Experiment Farm has become a distribution point for the Food Bank of Alaska. Starting Tuesday, the food bank began distributing foods to its community partners from the large Blue Room in Kerttula Hall.

Karla Jutzi, the development and communications director for the food bank, said it will distribute food to about 20 community partners at Kerttula Hall. The partners represent food pantries and meal programs from Sutton north to Trapper Creek. The food bank does not distribute foods directly to individual clients.

Jutzi said, “We really appreciate the partnership. I think it’s going to work out really well.”

The food bank’s partners are enthusiastic about the farm’s good access and distribution space.  It’s easier to unload pallets and load at the farm, Jutzi said. The food bank has another  distribution point in the Mat-Su that it uses on Thursdays. Last year, she said the food bank distributed 1.3 million pounds of food to its valley partners, including Frontline Mission, Palmer Food Bank, Mat-Su Food Bank and Big Lake Community Food Pantry.

The arrangement with the farm was worked out by Farm Superintendent Angie Freeman-Shephard and representatives of the food bank, which receives donations of food from retailers and wholesalers in the Mat-Su and Anchorage areas.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Fiber and qiviut workshops hosted at conference

The Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Anchorage featured full-day workshops on fiber and on qiviut production for the first time.
SNRE Assistant Professor Jan Rowell, who helped coordinate both workshops, said they were supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Federal State Marketing Improvement Program. The program provides funding to explore new market opportunities.
Qiviut-blended yarn was displayed at the Sustainable Agriculture Conference.
Carrie Hull of the Natural Fiber Producers Cooperative taught the preconference fiber workshop on Feb. 22. The workshop offered tools, practical experience and knowledge for fiber producers, mills and artisans. It provided a hands-on opportunity for participants to learn fiber sorting and preparation skills that allow them to classify and organize their yearly fiber harvest for production, to identify herd health and management issues and improve breeding decisions. Hull also talked about the qualities and characteristics of a good yarn and how to work with artisans or commercial mills to create a quality yarn.
Rowell said 23 individuals attended Hull’s workshop. “It was great,” she said. “She was just great.”
Wattum hopes to process fleece from two alpaca she is raising.
Copper is on the left, and Blizzard on the right.
Kate Wattum, who is opening a milling operation in Fairbanks, said the workshop was outstanding. It had lots of information about preparing, sorting and grading fibers, and it provided an opportunity to meet others from around the state interested in the developing fiber market.
“It was so much crammed into one day,” she said. “It could have been a week long.”
Wattum said the Coyote Trail Farm & Fiber Mill will process fiber from a variety of plants and animals, including alpaca, llama, muskox, yak, sheep, dogs, angora rabbits, cotton, flax and hemp.  The mill will be installed in Goldstream Valley this October.
Rowell said the goal of the quiviut special session was to bring representatives of different aspects of the qiviut industry together to share knowledge and to raise awareness of quality issues. Participants included producers, processors, retailers and artists who make products from the soft underwool harvested from muskox. Qiviut producers were invited to bring samples of their work and to talk about their successes and struggles.
 “There’s so many people getting into the qiviut industry in Alaska,” said Rowell.  “Now is a good time to get a snapshot of the industry.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

SNRE 2015 Highlights publication published online

The SNRE Annual Highlights publication has been published online. The publication includes short stories about some of the work, research and accomplishments of the School of Natural Resources and Extension in 2015.

Check out stories about 4-H leadership, agricultural academic offerings and research on climate change and LEDs. There are also stories on a new invasive weeds app, public lands surveys, the Refugee Farmers Market Project in Anchorage and Extension’s food preservation work. You can also download a PDF of the issue or see individual stories at

Thursday, March 10, 2016

SNRE profile: Steve Peterson solves computer problems

Steve Peterson

Steve Peterson has been interested in computers since he was 9 or 10. His parents bought an early- generation computer in the mid-1980s (maybe a Tandy) and they gave him a game called Mastertype.

Playing it involved typing single-letter commands at lightning speed to avoid collisions with asteroids. Through that, he became a keyboarding guru of sorts.

“You had to be very, very fast or the asteroids destroyed your planet,” he said.

Peterson’s interest in computers continued through high school in North Pole and college at DeVry  Institute of Technology in Kansas City, Missouri, where he studied programming and then switched to telecommunications management. After he graduated, he and his wife, Ana, headed home to raise their family in Alaska.

These days, as the information systems technician or “IT guy” for the School of Natural Resources and Extension, Peterson helps faculty and staff stay on top of the latest communications technology and challenges. He buys computers, installs software and helps coordinate videoconferences. He troubleshoots problems when people need help.

He likes the work.  “I enjoy computers and being the problem solver guy,” he says. He said he likes being able to save someone’s day when he figures out a solution or saves a file.

Peterson has been with the school since 2002, when it was then known as the School of Agriculture and Lands Resources Management.  He helped the school become an early leader with distance delivery of its classes.

In the earlier days, he spent a lot of time trying to keep up with the evolving hardware and technology. The rapid hardware changes have slowed down a little, but he continues to assess changes in technology as it evolves. 

Dave Valentine, the director of academics for the school, said Steve has been helpful finding online resources for backing up data and helping with smart classroom issues. Peterson is pretty patient, too, he said. “I think he tries very hard to help the technologically challenged.”

Peterson said his family life revolves around sports. He played basketball at North Pole High School and he now serves as head coach of the school’s varsity basketball team. The team includes both of his sons — one is a junior and the other a freshman. This is his third year of coaching, but his first year as the head coach. It’s been a challenge since the school plays much larger schools, including Lathrop and West Valley. To use a sports cliche, he is having a “rebuilding year” since the team is young and inexperienced. His wife is a team booster parent, who helps with fundraising. Other family interests include football, soccer and snowmachining.


Monday, March 7, 2016

Peace Corps volunteer and husband raise money for Fiji

Brooke McDavid plants mangroves with children on Fiji.

The following article was published in the News-Miner March 6 and is reprinted here with permission. It concerns Brooke McDavid, who earned her master's in natural resources management this past December, and her husband, Solo Nagalo. The couple met  in Fiji when she was a Peace Corps volunteer. The couple is hosting a fundraiser for Nagalo's home village, Vuya, which was severely damaged Feb. 22 by Tropical Cyclone Winston. The fundraiser starts at 8 p.m. March 11 at Ivory Jacks. There will be live music and kava will be served.

By David James
When Solomone Nagalo was courting his now-wife Brooke McDavid, a Peace Corps volunteer in his village in Fiji, he said, “I always asked about Alaska. She said ‘Alaska is a good place.’ I said, ‘How can I know if I don’t see Alaska?’”

Solo Nagalo and Brooke David are seen in Fiji before a kava ceremony.
Today, Nagalo lives in Fairbanks, which may seem unlikely, but not to a man fond of saying, “Sometimes I break rules.”

Nagalo, who uses Solo as a first name, was born on the island of Vanua Levu. Originally from the village of Vuya, he was taken away at age 3 by a man he refers to as his grandfather to the town of Seaqaqa where he attended school and learned to farm, fish and hunt. Though not a blood relative, his relationship with the older man was still considered familial in a culture where, as McDavid described it, family relations are “fluid."

“When a new baby is born in one family, that family is not one family,” Nagalo said. “It’s the whole village. It’s everyone’s child.”

In 2012, Nagalo returned to Vuya, where he spied the young American woman helping with sustainable development projects.

“The first thing I asked was if she could have a girlfriend,” he remembered. “They said the government says it’s not allowed, and I said, ‘Don’t listen to the government.’ I went to ask my uncle, who had been in America, ‘If you want someone to be your friend, how can you get him close to you?’ He told me, ‘Ask them, how are you? How was your day?’ So I invited her one night to drink grog at the place I was staying.”

Solo Nagalo and Brooke McDavid hike Castner Glacier.
Grog refers to kava, a popular beverage in the South Pacific brewed from the dried and pounded roots of the kava bush (kava, or Piper methysticum, belongs to the pepper family). It’s a powerful relaxant, Nagalo said. “It can make you so drunk you can’t even walk. It makes all your muscles weak. If you drink grog for many hours, some people, they can’t stand up. It’s really good. You should try it one day.”

McDavid, originally from West Virginia, added, “It’s the center of social life now. You all sit around the basin of kava on the floor, and there’s one person who passes the cup to everyone. You sit and talk.”

During that first visit, Nagalo was the only one in the group who spoke to McDavid in English, spurring a friendship that a year later blossomed into romance. Nagalo said, “I never thought about having her as my girlfriend. I was thinking, just like, taking care of her.” However, he also noted that, “I would bring her coconut, anything that she liked. I climbed a coconut tree every day because of her.”
Nagalo was living a largely subsistence lifestyle, working his small plantation in Vuya and fishing. The village headman had declared McDavid off limits to the local men but since he had only recently returned, Nagalo decided the rule didn’t apply to him.

A year-and-a-half after meeting, the couple eloped in a civil ceremony in January 2014. In Vuya, however, where many traditions still hold sway, the marriage was not considered valid. “We had to do a formal apology to the village for the elopement and for dating and not telling anybody,” McDavid said. “Then we had a village wedding in July.”

McDavid had already extended her two-year Peace Corps commitment, but last spring it came time to return to Fairbanks, where she wanted to finish her master’s degree in natural resources management at UAF. Nagalo, who had never been out of Fiji, came too.

The couple landed in Los Angeles. When they stepped out of the airport, Nagalo asked McDavid, “is the air conditioning still on outside?” Later, he saw his first squirrel and mistook it for a mongoose.
After that it was north to Fairbanks, where they arrived in May on a 45-degree day. “When I got to Fairbanks I opened the door and I breathed,” he recalled. “It was the first time I breathed cold.”

The couple headed out to Goldstream Valley where a friend had offered temporary use of her cabin. Upon leaving town, Nagalo, whose impressions of America mostly came from movies, asked her, “Are you taking me back to the village?”

They soon settled into their own Goldstream cabin. Nagalo did some construction work last summer then took a night job at Safeway. McDavid finished her degree in December and now works for the Department of Fish and Game.

Of his new home, Nagalo said, “I like Alaska. In Fiji I work in the sun for 24 hours every day. It’s so hot. Here, you want to feel warm, you go inside the house. You have the sun, it’s hot but there’s cold. It goes together. I was driving today. The sun was hitting the glass of my car. I can feel the heat. I was thinking, if this was in Fiji, you would be sweating.”

He enjoys hiking and wants to learn carpentry. He also wants to try fishing and hunting since these are things he grew up doing (because he grew up in Fiji spearing wild boar, a neighbor somewhat jokingly gave him a bear spear for use here). He also wants to earn his GED since like many rural Fijians he didn’t finish school. His English, which bears a melodic Island accent, is quite fluent despite being his third language (Fijian is his primary language, and he also speaks Hindi).

“For me it’s very hard to leave my family,” he said of being so far from Fiji, adding that other than that, “I just miss the ocean.” He doesn’t miss the heat however. Recognizing that this winter has been extraordinarily mild and he still hasn’t experienced severe cold, he knows his commitment to Alaska has yet to be fully tested, but so far he greatly likes being here.

“I know it’s different from Fiji,” he said, “but I’m gonna try.”

A village in need
Solo Nagalo’s village of Vuya was severely damaged when Tropical Cyclone Winston struck on Feb. 22. The Category 5 storm brought the strongest winds ever recorded in Fiji and caused at least 42 deaths throughout the country. Just weeks previously, the village had received electricity for the first time, and the infrastructure was wiped out. Nagalo and his wife, Brooke McDavid, will host a fundraiser starting at 8 p.m. March 11 at Ivory Jacks, 2581 Goldstream Road. Admission is free, and they will be offering kava. There will also be live music and a tropical drink special from Ursa Major Distilling. All ages are welcome. Donations will be accepted there, and can also be given to the Vuya Village Cyclone Relief Fund at
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks and is writing a series  for the News-Miner called Becoming Alaskan.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Women in Agriculture Conference scheduled March 19

Women farmers from Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington will gather at 31 sites March 19 for the 2016 Women in Agriculture Conference and practical farming advice.

Maggie Hallam grows 40 types of vegetables at her Cripple Creek Organics farm.
Alaska participants will meet at Room 107 of the Murie Building on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus and at the Kenai River Center in Soldotna. The event will run from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and will include speakers via videoconference and on-site activities.

This year’s event, “Power Up Your Communication, Power Up Your Farm,” covers your communication style and how you use it to manage, motivate and influence people. 

Keynote speakers will include Wendy Knopp and Michael Stolp with Northwest Farm Credit Services and Shelly Boshart Davis, a third-generation grass seed farmer from Tangent, Oregon, farmer from Tangent, Oregon, who will talk about how she developed her communication approach to improve her business strategies and increase sales.

More than 650 farmers participated in the annual conference last year at 27 sites, including 29 people in Fairbanks. Meriam Karlsson, a UAF horticulture professor and site coordinator, said attendees included peony growers, women who grew produce for farmers markets, students and others. Two women came from Delta Junction. Karlsson hopes attendance will be good again this year.

“We have a lot of women farmers in Alaska,” she said.

Washington State University sponsors the conference. Karlsson said organizers believe women farmers have distinct challenges, learn differently than men and appreciate networking with others. The conference is designed for women who have been farming for years, as well as new and aspiring farmers. Supporting spouses, students, interns or people who own an agriculture-related business are also welcome.

The $30 registration fee includes a light breakfast, lunch and conference materials. Student registration is $20. Scholarships are available for beginning farmers, college agriculture students, and 4-H and FFA members.  The scholarship deadline is March 11. Online registration and the scholarship application are available at

For more information about the UAF event, contact Karlsson at 907-474-7005 or or Heidi Chay in Soldotna at 907-283-8732, Ext. 5, or