Thursday, June 30, 2016

SNRE profile: Mat-Su 4-H agent enjoys the outdoors

Growing up in Minneapolis, Lee Hecimovich became aware of 4-H through cousins and their friends who raised animals for the fair.  “I was always the city kid who longed for the country life,” she said.

Mat-Su 4-H agent Lee Hecimovich cradles one of her Icelandic lambs.
Angie Freeman Shephard and her daughter, Elizabeth, were discussing
sheep care with the agent.
She and her husband, Lan, moved to Alaska in 1987 when he was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks. Lee started volunteering with 4-H after their son, Quentin, joined a Cloverbud club as a kindergartner. She helped out with his club and camps, continuing that work when they moved to the Mat-Su Valley in 1990. For six years, she served as the county director for the Farm Service Agency in Palmer. The Extension and 4-H office was then across the street and she spent a fair amount of time there and at the fair volunteering.

At some point, she thought, Wouldn’t it be great to work in 4-H and be here all the time? A position opened up in 2001 and Hecimovich, who has a degree in resource and wildlife management, was encouraged to apply.

Hecimovich is now the longest-serving 4-H agent in Alaska. She coordinates an active program with help from committed volunteers. “I couldn’t do it all by myself,” she said. A variety of community experts teach classes like poultry showmanship, a sheep skillathon and a dairy goat clinic. Volunteers also lead a “pig camp,” a series of four workshops on raising pigs, workshops on butchering chickens and many more topics.

“I’m always amazed at the expertise in this state,” she said.

Although the district has a strong livestock committee and program, Hecimovich’s real passion is outdoor and environmental education. Last week, she taught a teen group at the Big Lake library about edible plants. She developed a workshop about how to encourage youth to do outdoor activities, which was based on the “No Child Left Indoors” movement. She delivered the workshop at a regional 4-H leaders conference (WRLF) and for the National 4-H Camping Institute. She and Fairbanks agent Marla Lowder co-authored a guide called “Alaska 4-H Camping and Outdoor Activities,” with information about setting up camp, building fires, safety and activities.

While her primary audience is 4-H, the agent reaches out to other youth organizations, offering workshops to Girl Scouts and FFA members, and to the school district through the Agriculture in the Classroom program. “I just need an audience,” she jokes. She has also planned outdoor youth activities at the annual Ag Appreciation Day at the Matanuska Experiment Farm.

She often teams up with Palmer agent Julie Cascio on classes for adults and youth about identifying and using wild berries and on edible wild greens. She also teaches emergency preparedness classes, an interest that developed naturally, she said, since her husband was a firefighter for the Anchorage Fire Department.

Along the way, Hecimovich earned a master’s degree in vocational education in 2005 from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She received a Distinguished Service Award in 2010 from the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents.

Hecimovich is happy she has a busy program but she would like to reach a more diverse audience. “I like the job but we’re missing a lot of the need here,” she said. She would like to connect with more youth from different ethnic groups, youth in foster care and others considered at risk, as well as get more site- based activities going at the Matanuska Experiment Farm.

She serves on several community boards, including the state FFA Board of Directors and the Mat-Su Borough Agriculture Board. Interests outside work include gardening, hiking, canoeing and, most recently, paddleboarding. She and her husband have a 40-acre farm in Palmer and raise Icelandic sheep for wool and meat. The Icelandic sheep, incidentally, started as her son’s 4-H project.

As an aside, Quentin is a SNRE alumnus, having received a master’s in natural resources management in 2011. He has had several state and federal forestry jobs since he graduated, but most recently started work as a U.S. Forest Service fire prevention technician in Moose Pass.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Peace Corps phasing out Master's International program

The Peace Corps has announced plans to end its Master’s International program at all U.S. colleges, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Erin Kelly, the first University of Alaska Fairbanks' first Master's
 International graduate (2009),  returns to El Salvador regularly to visit
the friends she made. Kelly works as an agriculture labor specialist for the
New York Department of Labor.
UAF received word in late April that the last group of students in the program would be enrolled in September. Current students, including those who will begin the program by September 2016, will not be affected by the decision. Under the arrangement, students begin their master’s degree at UAF, apply to the Peace Corps and, if accepted, volunteer for 27 months and then return to complete their graduate degree. The program serves as a training ground for Peace Corps volunteers.

Associate Professor Susan Todd, who coordinates the program for SNRE, received a letter from Peace Corps Office of University Programs, which said the Peace Corps reviewed the 29-year-old program and decided to end it because of the number of highly qualified applicants it already receives.

The Peace Corps Master’s International Program has been offered in Alaska through School of Natural Resources and Extension and the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development. SNRE started participating in 2004.

Todd said that five SNRE students with the Master’s International program are currently serving in the Philippines, Paraguay, Togo and in Mexico. Another student will go to Malawi in 2017. Two other graduate students were accepted into the program this spring and will begin their studies this fall.

Altogether, 13 SNRE students have participated in the program. Students must attend at least two semesters at UAF before serving in the Peace Corps. Typically, they work on their research project in the country, then return to UAF to finish their studies and their thesis project.

“It’s contributed a lot to the school,” Todd said. In the classes, she said, students bring a global perspective. “They have that experience that enriches the whole program,” she said. “It’s been great.”

A second Peace Corps program, the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program, will continue at UAF. Under this graduate fellowship program, returned Peace Corps volunteers participate in internships in underserved communities and receive financial assistance while working toward a master’s degree. Affiliated programs at UAF include the Master of Science in natural resources management and the Master of Arts in rural development.

The Coverdell Program began in 2010, and four former Peace Corps volunteers who served in Mali, the Philippines, Panama and Sierra Leone participated in the program through SNRE. One SNRE graduate student is currently participating. He served in Sierra Leone but had to leave the country a month early due to the ebola epidemic. For his research project, he is developing a climate adaption plan for three or four Western Alaska communities.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

SNRE to offer new sustainable agriculture minor

UAF students visit the Northern Lights Dairy in Delta Junction as part of a
natural resources management field tour, which included agricultural sites.

Starting this fall, UAF students may earn a minor in sustainable agriculture through the School of Natural Resources and Extension.

Horticulture Professor Meriam Karlsson, who heads the SNRE Agriculture and Horticulture Department, said the university approved the new minor in May.

“It’s a good addition,” she said. “There are a lot of concerns and interest in food security, local production and the use of sustainable production methods. This is a trend nationwide, although the remoteness and environmentally challenging conditions make sustainable agriculture especially relevant to Alaska.”

SNRE already offers several agricultural classes as part of its natural resources management degree. Karlsson said many universities have degrees in sustainable agriculture and offering the minor is the first step in addressing the demand here. She said the multidisciplinary nature of sustainable agriculture has broad appeal and is expected to attract students from other areas, such as biology, geography, anthropology, northern studies and business.

The school used to offer concentrations in agriculture and forestry within the Bachelor of Science degree in natural resources management. In 2014, the degree was revamped, eliminating the concentrations. A minor in forest management was approved and available in 2015.

Karlsson said the sustainable agriculture courses teach an understanding of sustainability science in global and U.S. agriculture. Students learn concepts and techniques that are environmentally and socially sound, as well as profitable, for agriculture and food production.

Students wishing to receive the sustainable agriculture minor must complete a minimum of 18 credits. The required classes are Natural Resources Conservation and Policy, Principles of Sustainable Agriculture and Introduction to Natural Resource Economics. Students also need to complete three additional classes from a list that includes introductory plant and animal science, soils and the environment, environmental ethics and environmental decision making.

Agriculture was one of five fields of study offered at the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (now University of Alaska Fairbanks) when it opened in 1922.

Friday, June 17, 2016

SNRE Profile: Lola Oliver anchors Forest Soils Lab

Lola Oliver poses with one of the tools in her lab, an Agilent microwave
plasma atomic emission spectrometer.

Lola Oliver came to University of Alaska Fairbanks as somewhat of a lark in 1966 after studying two years at a community college in Wenatchee, Washington.

Her other college choices were Washington State University, which was too close to home, and Reed College in Oregon. Of the three, UAF sounded the most adventurous and also the most accommodating. Financial aid representatives told her, “Come on up and we’ll make it work out.”

They did. She had a work-study job while finishing off degrees in biology and English. As a graduate student, she started work in the Forest Soils Lab in 1969, becoming the supervisor two years later.

During the UAF staff longevity awards event on May 12, Interim Chancellor Mike Powers recognized Oliver for 45 years of service to the university, the longest-serving employee honored.

“The university is home,” she says, simply. She likes the work, the location and her co-workers. The university hosts what she describes as “a high percentage of thoughtful people.”

Lola Oliver poses gets congratulated by Interim Chancellor Mike Powers
during this year's staff longevity awards.
Her work goal has remained the same, to analyze the chemical and biological properties of forest soil and plant tissue. The technology has changed a lot since she started, however. “Everything was done by hand,” she said. “There was a lot of glassware and titration.” Soil analysis calculations were done on paper and the results graphed. Oversized manual calculators with cogs and wheels compiled results. The lab was located in the Forestry Building, where the State Extension Office is now.

Oliver helped acquire more sophisticated instruments for the lab, including a cavity ringdown spectrometer and an isotope ratio mass spectrometer, which are used for isotopic analyses, a different and more detailed analysis that is essential to environmental research. “You can tell a lot about what’s going on with plants by looking at analytical chemistry,” she said.

Working with other scientists, including her supervisor, silviculture Professor John Yarie, she analyzes physical, chemical and biological soil and plant properties and processes in relation to tree growth and forest development. Most of her work now relates to the Bonanza Creek Long Term Ecological Research project. She analyzes decaying trees that were cut down in 1994 to study how their chemical properties change as they decompose over a 100-year period.

Lola Oliver, left, works on soils analysis during the late 1960s.
 Those machines shown are manual  calculators.
So far, the research has been going on for 20 years. A complete soil profile is also done every 10 years in about 100 soil pits. Additionally, she analyses soils and trees that are affected by artificial drought conditions created by the use of “rainfall exclusions platforms” and reducing winter snowmelt,— experiments meant to study how forests will respond to changing climate conditions.

Over the years, Oliver has worked with lab directors and principal investigators associated with the lab, and has been involved with all aspects of that research, administering funds, supervising technicians and helping with the field work.

With the retirement of one of her co-workers, Tim Quintal, she had to learn how to repair the machines, which has been challenging. He told her, “They can be fixed. You just have to know what to do.” She has somehow mastered that, sometimes with the help of phone calls to manufacturers’ representatives.

Along the way, she studied permafrost and earned a doctorate in geology from UAF in 2012, not because she wanted a different job, but because she was interested. She also built her own home, which still provides a reliable supply of work projects. Hobbies have included sewing, her two cats, gardening and travel, although she travels less frequently now.

She has been especially interested in traveling to areas with solar eclipses. Once it’s deemed safe to look at the sun, she said, “You look up and there’s a big black hole in the sky, with a silvery corona.” Eclipse travels have taken her to Australia, Mongolia and Ghana. She has also traveled to Tanzania, Egypt and India.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Alaska Tilth Project hopes to feed those in need

Megan Talley, left, and Joshua Faller pause for a photo in the Matanuska Experiment
Farm greenhouse. The pair founded Alaska Tilth in 2015.

By Steven Merritt
It is a unique turn on an established agricultural model, one that the organizers of Alaska Tilth hope will feed, educate and inform Valley residents on the region’s food production capabilities — and its future.

Megan Talley and her husband Joshua Faller manage Spring Creek Farm in Palmer, part of Alaska Pacific University’s Kellogg Campus. Through its programs, Spring Creek trains new farmers and gets students who might not have a farming background involved in agriculture.

“Taking a good look at food security, economic situations and how food can play a role in that is part of what we are trying to teach our interns and summer students,” Talley said.

The pair founded the Alaska Tilth program last year, a variation on the community-supported agriculture model that has partnered with a host of local agencies to get fresh produce to those in need. The program donated 3,000 pounds of produce in 2015, a number Talley and Faller hope will grow this year.

Traditional CSA programs — Spring Creek offers one — work as a subscription service. Buyers pay a set price for a share of a farm’s harvest and receive a weekly vegetable distribution during the growing season. The Alaska Tilth program works a little differently. Buyers can donate an entire share or contribute toward a share that is then distributed to local food pantries and other aid organizations. An Alaska Tilth contribution share is $600, and donations are tax deductible.

Talley said groups served in 2015 included MyHouse, the Palmer and Wasilla senior centers and the MatSu Food Bank.

Faller said Alaska Tilth’s partnerships with APU, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, the UAF Matanuska Experiment Farm and the state Division of Agriculture’s Alaska Plant Materials Center have created a layer of support for the program that has been rewarding.

For example, Talley said the plant materials center worked with Alaska Tilth last fall to harvest, clean and distribute some 900 pounds of potatoes that would have stayed in the field.

“They have the funding to grow it, but not to harvest,” Talley said. “The cool thing about this program is that people have come to us with these other pieces, like the plant materials center. That has been the spirit of the project.”

Along with distribution of fresh produce, Alaska Tilth partnered with the extension service’s nutrition educator, Winona Benson, who not only helped distribute the food, but also led nutrition education classes on preparing what was donated.

“We knew that we could grow the food and donate it,” Talley said. “But we wanted to make sure that people were able to get some education on preparing it.”

The program is poised to grow this year, Talley said. The Mat-Su Health Foundation has provided funding for a full-time program coordinator, and other partnerships are shaping up with organizations like Grow Palmer and NeighborWorks Alaska.

“We have seen a lot of mission-driven people who are working on food security and food quality in Alaska right now,” Faller said. “It has been a humbling and inspiring opportunity to get people working together and as a community.”

Both Talley and Faller said the mission of Alaska Tilth covers a range of health issues at the forefront of national discussion these days, like the climbing rates of obesity and diabetes. Alaska’s vulnerability in food security also is part of their message.

“It is tied into a lot of different things,” Faller said. “One, so much of Alaska’s food is imported. We want to make sure those in need have food, and make sure it’s healthy. If we can help them with the tools to prepare it and even some of the skills to grow it, we can address some of that need.”
Plus, Faller said, the quality of Alaska produce can stand on its own.

“We have grown in a lot of different places, and Alaska has some if the most delicious carrots. It is amazing,” Faller said. “We need to continue to identify Alaska not only with fish and game, but also with produce. It’s also a good way to feed ourselves too.”

For more information on the Alaska Tilth program, contact Talley at 746-2714 or by email at
This article was reprinted with permission of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

SNRE Profiles: Heidi Rader teaches rural Alaskans

Tribes Extension Educator Heidi Rader talks about transplanting flowers
and vegetables during a visit to Arctic Village.

Heidi Rader planned to become a farmer when she graduated from college.

During high school and college, she worked a succession of jobs at Ann’s Greenhouses, Basically Basil and Calypso Farm that seemed to be leading to an agricultural career. For her master’s degree in natural resources management, she grew snap beans and lettuce, and studied high-tunnel production at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm.

Heidi shows some of the produce from her garden.
A few months after she graduated, however, she learned about a job with the Cooperative Extension Service and the Tanana Chiefs Conference that sounded appealing. The job, as a tribes Extension educator, was to help people with gardening, farming and food preservation. She liked the idea of applying and sharing research with the public.

“It was practical science,” she said.

Rader knew a lot about gardening and farming, but  needed to bone up on food preservation for the new job. Working with Extension home economist Roxie Dinstel, she learned basic techniques and how to use a pressure canner, make sausage and can salmon.

Since 2007, Rader has delivered workshops in nearly 30 villages and communities, including Arctic Village in the foothills of the Brooks Range, Shageluk and Holy Cross on the lower Yukon River, and Dot Lake near Tok. She teaches whatever a community requests from a list of workshops she has developed. They include topics like making jam, cooking fresh foods from the garden, seed starting, composting with worms, extending the growing season and even applying for grants.

Shortly after coming to Extension, she developed an online version of the Alaska Master Gardener Program to reach individuals around the state who couldn’t attend regularly scheduled sessions. This summer’s class filled a month before it was scheduled to begin, with a wait list of 15.
Although Rader likes teaching hands-on workshops, she’s also been motivated to find different ways to reach far-flung audiences. Two years in a row, while attempting to teach workshops in Minto and Circle, she was turned back by snowdrifts on the road.

She has experimented with different delivery methods with the Alaska Growers School, an agricultural training she developed in 2011 that teaches the basics of farming and ranching. It initially included training in Fairbanks and a practicum at Calypso Farms, but now consists of a series of weekly webinars and teleconferences. The sessions begin June 8 and will be geared to Alaska Natives and others affiliated with Native entities who want to start farming. The school’s focus and delivery method have shifted with various U.S. Department of Agriculture funding sources.

Rader is also developing a mobile app called Grow & Tell, which allows individuals in Alaska and other parts of North America to note where they are growing a particular variety of vegetable — and see what varieties others are growing and how well they have done. She is working with a Boston software company on the app, with funding from an Extension foundation.

It’s basically citizen science agricultural variety trials,” she said.

Some 30 to 50 Alaska volunteers are beta testing the app, which Rader hopes will be available to the public this summer. She received a 2016 Invent Alaska Award from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in May for her work on the app.

Rader says she picks up ideas wherever she goes, which leads to new projects. She started the Alaska Master Gardener Blog so people could communicate about what they were growing. A gardener in Tok posted an item about the garlic she grew. The popularity of that posting made Rader realize that others were interested in growing garlic. She has since developed a publication, “Growing Garlic in Alaska,” and a YouTube video on the subject.

Extension Director Fred Schlutt said Rader is always looking for better ways to do her job and is very focused on her work.

“Everything she does is always directed at her stakeholders, whether it’s the Alaska Native community or master gardeners,” he said.

Her gardening interests led to a cookbook she developed and published in 2012 called “Alaska Farmers Market Cookbook,” which features Alaska-grown ingredients. For the past year, she has coordinated work on updating Extension’s “Alaska’s Sustainable Gardening Handbook,” which is due out soon.

Rader is also an accomplished outdoorswoman who enjoys biking, climbing, skiing, kayaking and just about any activity outdoors, including gardening. She climbed Denali in 2009 and has attempted Mount Logan, the highest peak in Canada. She has also skied several long cross-country traverses in Alaska and has rafted in the Grand Canyon. For several years, Rader coordinated a skiing opportunity for youths in several villages and got donations of skis.

Her energy is seemlngly endless, which is good since she has two young daughters, Kinsey, 2, and Maeve, 3 months.

Heidi Rader surveys territory in the Arrigetch Peaks during a 2012 climbing
expedition. Photo by Krista Heeringa