Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sustainable agriculture in Alaska, part 1: background

Photo taken at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm circa 1925, showing a luxuriant growth of sunflowers. Photo courtesy Rasmuson Library Archives, Alaska and Polar Regions, Agricultural Experiment Station Collection, accession #68-4-142.

SNRAS and AFES, like the other land-grant colleges and experiment stations established by the Morrill and Hatch acts, were founded to provide science-based information to farmers: agricultural research and the science and economics of agriculture. For a hundred years, the Alaska station has been producing and testing northern-region varieties and providing solid information to help Alaska's farmers sustain the local population. Yet, even though it came close in the Tanana Valley in the 1920s and the Matanuska Valley in the 1930s, Alaska agriculture hasn't been able to sustain itself.

Historically, Alaska has never been able to feed its people entirely through home-grown agriculture, in part because the territory and state lacked the appropriate infrastructure, in part because of the unique climatic challenges posed, and in part simply a lack of faith that agriculture could succeed in an "ice box." There haven't been enough farms for the population, nor support for the industry. Alaskans have had to depend on hunting and gathering from wild sources, and on imports from Outside.

"Sustainability," like many other frequently used terms, could be in danger of becoming a buzzword—except that its meaning is particularly apt when applied to the longstanding needs of Alaska and especially of recent times, when fuel and petroleum price increases are driving up the costs of shipping and agriculture everywhere. Instead of being cheaper to ship food and farming supplies from Outside, it is becoming more feasible economically to develop and expand the local industry. The cost of petroleum (even in our oil-rich state), the concerns with climate change, and interest in green practices are combining to create a resurgence of interest in Alaska agriculture. "Sustainable agriculture" in Alaska faces the problems of small markets, few producers, minimal infrastructure, vast distances, and extreme climatic conditions; to succeed, environmentally sustainable systems have to be economically feasible.

Sustainable agriculture depends on native plants and animals where feasible, locally developed and grown food and other agricultural products, and locally manufactured value-added goods, doing this in a way that enhances environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which agriculture depends (for example, biodiversity, soil, water, air). First and foremost, of course, sustainable agriculture feeds and clothes people. It makes efficient use of nonrenewable resources, and depends as much as possible on renewable ones. It integrates, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls. It sustains the economic viability of farm operations and it enhances the quality of life not only for farmers but for society as a whole.

Researchers, students, and alumni at SNRAS and AFES are concentrating on both the ecological and fiscal aspects of sustainability, as are those at the Cooperative Extension Service (in 1988, Congress established the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, or SARE, as part of the extension service).

Research at the university includes investigations into market development, Alaska-grown food product development, new crops such as peonies, alternative northern livestock such as reindeer or muskoxen, propagation and nutritional characteristics of wild crops such as teas or berries, best growing practices for forages and other crops, light sensitivity for horticultural crops, controlled environments to extend the growing season, and other topics. Further posts in this series will profile the main approaches to improving the sustainability of Alaska agriculture.

Publications and links on the history of agriculture in Alaska and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station:
• "Alaska's State-Fund Agriculture Projects and Policy—Have They Been a Success?" (PDF), by Darcy Denton Davies. SNRAS Senior Thesis, May 2007, ST 2008-01.
•"An Interpretive History of Alaskan Agriculture," paper by Charles E. Logsdon. 1977, Alaska Alaska Historical Society (Kenai).
Like a Tree to the Soil: a history of farming in the Tanana Valley, 1903 to 1940, by Josephine E. Papp and Josie A. Phillips. Book published by SNRAS, 2008.
Matanuska Valley Memoir: The Story of How One Alaskan Community Developed, by Hugh A. Johnson and Keith L. Stanton. 3rd edition, July 1955, AFES Bulletin 18.
• "Throw All Experiments to the Wind": Practical Farming and the Fairbanks Agricultural Experiment Station, 1907–1915" (PDF), by Rochelle Lee Pigors. SNRAS Senior Thesis, December 1996, ST 2006-01.
General links and information on sustainable agriculture:
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (USDA website)
Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture
National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
SARE (national website)
• USDA's links and information access tools about sustainable agriculture

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