Thursday, February 23, 2017

Keynote speakers address Sustainable Ag Conference

Keynote speakers  at the Sustainable Agriculture Conference, Wyoming farmer
Mike Ridenour, left, and National FFA president David Townsend
pose  with conference organizer Steve Seefeldt.

More than 130 people registered and attended the Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference, which ends today with half- and full-day workshops.

Arthur Keyes, the director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture, introduced a recorded welcome by Gov. Bill Walker on Wednesday, the main meeting day. Before heading the division, Keyes was a farmer in Palmer who developed a farmers market in Anchorage and a CSA to sell his produce. He said he once gave Walker, who was then running for governor, a two-hour tour of Palmer farms and introduced him to area farmers. Walker wanted to hear about their operations and their challenges. Recently, the governor hosted a reception with Alaska-grown foods, said Keyes.

“He is a friend of agriculture,” he said.

Governor Walker welcomed participants and said agriculture was good for Alaskans’ health and good for the economy.

Steven Seefeldt, who coordinated the conference with Darcy Etcheverry, introduced keynote speakers Mike Ridenour, a Wyoming farmer, and National FFA President David Townsend. Ridenour, he said, faces many of the same issues as Alaska farmers, including a tough ecosystem, distance from markets and a need for season extension.

Ridenour and his wife, Cindy, have a livestock operation on the high plains and grasslands of southeast Wyoming. They also raise vegetables in high tunnels and irrigated fields. It is a windy area, with gusts to 50 mph, and temperatures range from 30 below to 120 degrees. Special challenges also include hailstorms and mountain lions.

The Ridenours were both trained as chemists and did not know anything about agriculture or running a ranch when they purchased the acreage.

They started with a philosophy, he said. “It must be good for us and for our customers, the environment and must be profitable.” “As it turns out profitability can be somewhat elusive,”  he added.

Ridenour talked about their successes and failures and how they embraced a sustainable approach to the farm, which includes the use of draft horses and composted manure to amend the sandy soils. Their livestock operations are based on the cattle’s natural birthing schedule in late spring. That decreases the need for additional winter forage. They also use heirloom seeds, save seeds and do not use any broad-spectrum insecticides. They use organic methods but are not certified organic.

The use of high tunnels has allowed them to provide produce at a time when many other vegetable farmers cannot — early and late in the season. They also use heated sand boxes to grow transplants and row covers to keep plants warm.

Townsend spoke about the opportunities for youth in agriculture, and the approach supported by FFA, which promotes leadership, personal growth and career success among its 650,000 members. He also  talked about the importance of agricultural education and the opportunities FFA provides to apply knowledge through projects.

He had not been aware of where his food came from, he said, until he got involved with FFA. He persuaded his parents to let him grow tomatoes and cucumbers, which the family enjoyed.

"It was really cool to see that farm-to-table process," he said.

It also got him more interested in plant science, which he is studying at the University of Delaware. Some of the FFA members get opportunities to work directly with farmers through internships and jobs, which is a great way to introduce students to agriculture as a career. For instance, he said, his younger sister, who is a high school sophomore, works on a local produce farm.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Public invited to meet with national FFA officers at UAF

The public is invited to meet with national FFA officers Thursday at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

National FFA president David Townsend
An informal meet and greet will go from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in the Murie Building atrium and auditorium at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. National FFA President David Townsend; Josh Bledsoe, the chief operation officer; and Ben Meyer, the regional specialist for national FFA, will be in Fairbanks to discuss the role of agriculture and natural resources management education and opportunities in Alaska. They will give a short presentation at the campus event.

Townsend, 21, is an agricultural and natural resources, plant science major at the University of Delaware. He will also participate, with other FFA officials and Alaska FFA, in a check presentation Wednesday at the Fairbanks Community Food Bank.

Alaska FFA won $15,000 from Tyson Foods for having the best chapter participation in a national FFA Hungry Heroes Challenge to grow, harvest and collect foods for food banks and other organizations. All 12 Alaska chapters participated. The check will be donated to the Fairbanks food bank and shared with a Mat-Su food bank.

While in Fairbanks, Townsend will also speak at the Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference, which is hosted by Cooperative Extension and at Effie Kokrine Early College Charter School.

“Agricultural education is more important than ever, especially in Alaska where we are dependent on out-of-state food sources," said Sue McCullough, the president of the Agricultural and Natural Resource Educators in Alaska.

FFA is a national youth education organization affiliated with Extension in Alaska. For more information about the FFA visit, contact Kevin Fochs, Alaska state FFA advisor, at or 907-707-9710, or McCullough at or 907-474-0958 ext. 33183.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sustainable Agriculture Conference begins Tuesday

Mike Ridenour of Meadow Maid Foods 
The Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference will take place Feb. 21-23 in Fairbanks with an eclectic mix of sessions that cover reindeer husbandry, farm management and processing of birch sap.

“If you want to grow food or raise animals, this is perfect conference,” said organizer Steven Seefeldt.

The conference usually draws more than 200 people, including farmers, ranchers, gardeners and others in the agricultural support industry. It is the state's largest agricultural conference.

The keynote speakers will be Mike Ridenour of Meadow Maid Foods in Wyoming, Steve Caccamo of Next Generation Maple Products in New York and National FFA president David Townsend. Ridenour will talk about challenges he faced starting and building his farm in Wyoming. Seefeldt said Ridenour and his wife, Cindy, who grow vegetables and raise grass-fed beef, face similar problems as Alaska growers, including cold weather and distance from markets. Caccamo's has experience fabricating commercial-quality, affordable sugaring equipment for small producers in the Northeast and now with OneTree Alaska. He will discuss steps to developing a viable birch sap and syrup industry in Alaska, and  Townsend’s topic is opportunities for youth in agriculture.
National FFA president David Townsend

The main meeting day will be Feb. 22, with keynote speakers, presentations on sustainable practices, farm management, meat and fiber production, and birch sap and syrup making. Full- and half-day workshops are scheduled on Feb. 21 and Feb. 23 on recent innovations in birch sap processing, woodlot management, improving soil with combusted biomass, soil management, farm risk management and financing, growing rhodiola, and gardening and farming in rural Alaska. A full-day reindeer husbandry course will feature university experts and reindeer producers talking about reindeer nutrition, handling techniques, parasite control and artificial insemination.

The Cooperative Extension Service will host the 13th-annual conference at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel. Agenda and registration information are available at For more information, contact Seefeldt at or 907-474-1831 or Darcy Etcheverry at

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

New Matanuska Experiment Farm director hired

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has hired Susanna Pearlstein as the new director for the Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension center near Palmer.

Susanna Pearlstein
Pearlstein, a postdoctoral researcher based at the Environmental Protection Agency in Corvallis, Oregon, will start her new job April 3. She will provide leadership and administrative oversight for the academic, research and Cooperative Extension Service outreach programs based at the farm, which is owned by UAF.

Pearlstein is excited about the new job. As an ecohydrologist for the EPA, she said she enjoyed working with community members. She served as the outreach coordinator and researcher looking at the effects of fertilizer management practices on groundwater quality. Pearlstein also wrote grants that funded agricultural research and she looks forward to finding new revenue and options for the farm.

“I’m inspired by the multiple opportunities at the Matanuska Experiment Farm,” she said.

Pearlstein has visited Alaska many times, including as a member of interagency hotshot crew that fought wildfires on the Kenai Peninsula in 2007. She enjoys cross-country skiing, beekeeping and hiking and is enthusiastic about coming to Alaska.

Milan Shipka, the director of the UAF Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, said Pearlstein impressed the hiring committee with her knowledge of the farm, her background and her enthusiasm.

“She’s got some really good ideas and brings new energy to the position,” he said.

Pearlstein grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended college in British Columbia and in Arizona. She earned her doctorate in soil, water and environmental science from the University of Arizona in 2015.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Registration open for sustainable ag conference

Registration is open for the Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference, Feb. 21-23 in Fairbanks.

The main meeting day will be Feb. 22, with presentations on crops, farm management, opportunities for youth in agriculture, birch sap and syrup making, and meat and fiber production. Full and half-day workshops are scheduled on Feb. 21 and Feb. 23 on birch sap processing, woodlot management, improving soil with combusted biomass, soil management, reindeer husbandry and gardening, risk management, and gardening and farming in rural Alaska.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service will host the 13th-annual conference at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel. Agenda and registration information is available at

For more information, contact Steven Seefeldt, at 907-474-1831 or, or Darcy Etcheverry, at

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Marketing expert promotes Alaska peony industry

Ko Klaver talks about the Alaska Grown labeling of Alaska peonies
 during the conference. Photo courtesy of Arctic Alaska Peonies

During his keynote presentation at the Alaska Peony Growers Association winter conference last Friday, Ko Klaver encouraged peony growers to keep planting.

Klaver, a floriculture marketing expert and the industry liaison for the association, told attendees, “The opportunities for peony growers in Alaska are phenomenal.”

He pointed to a map that shows the locations of peonies grown around the world. Many are grown in temperate areas, but Alaska stands alone as a peony producer at 60 degrees latitude.

“You’re still in a unique position,” he told those gathered. But that might not last. “There’s a lot of ambitious people out there,” he said, “Most of them have a Dutch last name.”

Alaska can supply peonies from July to August, at a time other locations do not.

“That is your niche,” he said. “That is your opportunity.”

He noted that it’s possible that other northern locations, such as Iceland or Scandinavian countries, could get in on the market so it’s wise for Alaska to take the lead and develop its market now.

Klaver said there were around 200,000 peony roots in the ground in Alaska in 2016 and that number is expected to grow to 250,000 this year. He urged growers to continue planting, with the idea that Alaska can easily provide more to the world market, which is currently dominated by Klaver’s place of birth, the Netherlands.

The Alaska harvest numbers aren’t complete for the 2016 season, but the 2015 season brought sales of around 70,000 stems, which sold for $3 to $7. Each plant takes several years to develop stems and produces an average of eight buds when mature. By comparison, the Netherlands sold about 120 million peony stems in 2016. Klaver believes that Alaska can produce and sell at least 3 million stems annually in the future. “The market is there,” he assured growers.

Klaver said only about 20 percent of the cut flowers sold in the U.S. are produced domestically.

Klaver urged growers to work together to improve their storage and shipping methods and to seek economy. Buyers want a reliable supply of peonies in good condition. By getting things in place now, such as larger coolers, growers will be ready for a much greater supply of Alaska-grown peonies.

Growers attended the annual peony conference for information on the latest research on soils, pests and on growing peonies, and advice on varieties, marketing and shipping. They also networked with other growers. Around 30 growers attended a school for beginning growners on the first day of the conference.

A couple sitting at my table had attended the beginners school, and they have planted about 60 roots so far. “If they come up, we’re in,” said the grower, who is from Soldotna. If they do well, they may plant two acres.

SNRE Emeritus Professor Pat Holloway said that, as of 2015, 69 growers could be considered commercial peony growers, with 500 or more roots planted. There were 147 individuals who had fewer than 500 roots or were starting the planting process.

The School of Natural Resources and Extension has had a significant role in Alaska peony research. Holloway planted the first experimental field of peonies at the Georgeson Botanical Garden in 2001 and she spent more than 15 years experimenting with varieties and growing methods. Although she retired in 2015, she still conducts annual surveys for the association.

Other researchers from SNRE continue with peony research. During the conference, Mingchu Zhang presented information about his research involving micronutrients and plant nutrition, and retired agronomics researcher Bob Van Veldhuizen led a post-conference workshop on soils. Information by State Horticulture Specialist Steven Seefeldt was also presented.

Conference organizer Ron Illingworth said that more than 125 people attended, including beginning and experienced growers and others who are considering planting peonies. An additional 25 presenters also attended.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

SNRE professor honored for peony research

Mingchu Zhang poses with the Growers Cup Award he
received from the Alaska Peony Growers Association.
Pat Holloway photo

The Alaska Peony Growers Association has given University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor Mingchu Zhang its Growers Cup Award for his research supporting the peony industry.

Members of the statewide association gave Zhang the annual award during its winter conference, which ended Sunday at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel.

Ron and Marji Illingworth, North Pole peony growers and conference chairs, said growers vote on the award, which is given to an individual who provides key support to the peony industry. Zhang has presented regularly at the conference on his research relating to plant nutrition, fertilizer and soils needed for optimum peony growth. He gave a presentation this year on peony micronutrient deficiencies and leaf color.

“He’s been very much connected with us for quite a few years,” said Ron Illingworth.

UAF Emeritus Horticulture Professor Pat Holloway, the first recipient of the award, said Zhang is a dedicated researcher who has written and participated in several grants that have helped “decipher the complexities of plant nutrition for peonies.”

“He’s worked one-on-one with growers from Fairbanks to Homer,” she said.

Dr. Zhang is a professor of agronomy and soil sciences with the School of Natural Resources and Extension. His research has focused on nutrient management, soils, and peony, forage and agronomic field crop production.

Illingworth said more than 125 people attended the conference, which focused on growing and marketing peonies. Most were Alaska growers or individuals considering growing peonies, but the three-day conference also drew growers from California, New York, Oregon, Washington and Arkansas.