Thursday, March 31, 2011

7th Sustainable Agriculture Conference

The 7th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference was held March 23 and 24, followed on the next two days by the Master Gardeners' Conference and preceded by workshops on small dairies, cheesemaking, and goat and sheep husbandry. The conference was sponsored by the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, the Alaska Division of Agriculture, the UAF Sustainability Office, the Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District, Western SARE, the Kenai Peninsula RC&D District, and the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. Below are some highlights of events and presentations at the conference.

Day One

The first session was an update on farming and gardening in Galena, given by Paul Apfelbeck, in which he described improvements in local methods of season extension and his website, Gardening at the edge of the treeline. The website has extensive links; information on specific vegetables, flowers, berries, and herbs; downloadable data sheets on the season's vegetables, flowers, berries, and "exotics"; a season gardening blog; and information on particular topics, such as warming soil, bottle heaters, compost, starts, and a root cellar. (Note: the website is still under construction, so a few pages are missing yet, but there is an impressive amount of information.)

Next, Emily Garrity of Twitter Creek Gardens in Homer gave a presentation on the history of her farm and how Twitter Creek and another farm in the area created a cooperative CSA for local residents.

Tim Meyers of Meyers Farm in Bethel gave a presentation on the large root cellar he built in 2010, describing its construction and performance over the last winter.

Charles Caster spoke briefly about his producer survey of Interior farmers; he got close to a 30% return on the survey and should have results available sometime in May or June.

After lunch, there were several sessions on funding possibilities and land sales, followed by a presentation on the new Alaska cheese regulations (see PDF on the state website), recommended parasite prevention practices for sheep and goats, cheese marketing in small-scale goat dairies, and raw milk regulations in Missouri. Pam Laker of Quackmire Farms near Fairbanks discussed her poultry operation (meat birds), and how she simplified her operation so that it would be easier on her back—less labor intensive.

A panel of speakers on food security and the future of Alaska agriculture was the last item of the day; Danny Consenstein, director of the Alaska Farm Service Agency; Mike Emers of Rosie Creek Farm; Susan Willsrud of Calypso Farm & Ecology Center; Tom Paragi of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game; Craig Gerlach of UAF Cross-Cultural Studies; and Amy Pettit of the AK Division of Agriculture were the speakers. Generally speaking, the panel was hopeful about the future of sustainable agriculture in Alaska, although they acknowledged some strong hurdles to overcome. Consenstein described the rise of small farms across the country, saying that some 40,000 large farms had gone out of business over the last five years, but around 140,000 small farms had started up in that same time. Small farms and sustainable agriculture is being recognized by the USDA as where more support should be provided, he said. Paragi talked about a study that he, Gerlach, and Alison Meadow had done examining the contribution of game to the Alaska red meat supply (published in an article in the current issue of Agroborealis--PDF). They estimate that about 15% originates in the state: 13% of our red meat comes from hunting, and about 2% is grown here (cattle, elk, reindeer, etc.). Willsrud said that while the trends are good and the potential for Alaska agriculture is great, it is a complex issue, particularly when the questions of access to food—and affordable food—for the poor or people off the road system are considered. Pettit described the growth in farmers' markets in the state: there were 13 in 2005 and now at least 30. We are in fact increasing production in Alaska in a sustainable way, which is good for the state. Gerlach pointed out that food security is both an urban and a rural problem, and is not only a matter of having enough food, but of having sufficient healthy, safe, and highly nutritious food that is appropriate to the traditions of the people who eat it. We need more farmers of all kinds, and to remove policy barriers that make it difficult to start farms. We need to engage more people to be on the land and to grow food. Reindeer have tremendous potential. Emers said how it was often difficult for him to see the big picture; he is a farmer and tends to focus on his farm's immediate needs. For him, a major issue is the practical question of how to keep costs low enough to earn money doing what he loves. Sustainable agriculture is the right thing to do, he said, but added that we don't yet have a true farm economy in Alaska. There is a big demand for local products, but the cost of supplying it at a price that people can afford is a significant problem for farmers in the state, especially because so much of the supplies and equipment must be shipped in from Outside.

Day Two

The first session on the second day was given by Petra Illig, who spoke about the market potential for the medicinal plant Rhodiola rosea. Illig is a founder of Alaska Rhodiola Products, a nonprofit farmers' cooperative established in 2009, whose mission is to develop and support a Rhodiola industry in Alaska. According to the website, there are around a dozen members so far.

Next came Jeff Smeenk, who works for the Cooperative Extension Service and also for the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, and has been doing a lot of potato cultivar research. He brought in potato samples. What was intriguing about many of them was that they were developed by saving potato seed (actual seeds, not so-called “seed potatoes,” which are tubers reserved for planting) and then selecting the plants that had tubers with qualities the researchers were looking for. The popular variety Magic Molly (a deep blue potato) was developed this way. Potatoes, he explained, are genetically quadriploid, and thus can have a boggling amount of genetic diversity in one plant. Planting tubers results in clones of the parent plant.

Mingchu Zhang, also of SNRAS, spoke about the use of compost and organic fertilizers on Aalska soils. The advantage of using compost, he explained, is that it holds nitrogen in the soil longer and continues to release it slowly over several seasons, thus reducing costs and extending the life of the soil.

The next session was on biodynamics, explained in a presentation given by Susan Kerndt of Wild Rose Farm, which is certified by the Demeter Association. Biodynamics was a precursor to organic farming, and is a sustainable agriculture practice in which one looks at the entire farm as an organism or a unified whole, and which builds the soil of the farm using manure and composting. She presented numerous photos of the farm's crops and compost-building. Demeter USA provides this description of biodynamic farming:
Biodynamic farming is a holistic and regenerative farming system that is focused on soil health, the integration of plants and animals, and biodiversity. It seeks to create a farm system that is minimally dependant on imported materials, and instead meets its needs from the living dynamics of the farm itself. It is the biodiversity of the farm, organized so that the waste of one part of the farm becomes the energy for another, that results in an increase in the farm’s capacity for self-renewal and ultimately makes the farm sustainable.…Biodynamic farming is defined by the Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard [PDF]. Sections of the Farm Standard include necessary elements of the farm organism, soil fertility management, crop protection, greenhouse management, animal welfare, and the use of the preparations.* Biological diversity within the farm landscape is emphasized, and requires that a minimum of ten percent of the total farm acreage be set-aside as a biodiversity preserve.
*The preparations referred to are described in more detail at the ATTRA website, as are links to research on the effectiveness of biodynamic agriculture.

Willsrud spoke next, describing the value of farm to school education and of school gardens, and talking about Calypso Farm's EATinG and Schoolyard Garden Initiative programs. She described a bill which would help school districts throughout the state partner with nonprofits to develop school gardens for food-growing and science education.

There were several discussions after lunch on rhubarb and small fruits. Ruby Hollembeck of Delta, who has been promoting the growth of the rhubarb industry in Alaska, has linked to a thorough rhubarb website,, and created a blog, Rhubarb or Bust ( [corrected 4/5/11 per Ruby's comment, below]. She spoke about marketing rhubarb and that growers could not keep up with demand. Danny Barney, one of the Agricultural Research Service’s Germplasm Repository curators at the USDA’s Arctic and Subarctic Plant Gene Bank in Palmer, described the gene bank's collection of rhubarb, currants (Barney’s specialty), raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and other interesting edibles (as well as peonies), much of which is grown out in the fields at the Matanuska Experiment Farm. Papa of Papa's Greenhouse showed numerous photos of the myriad varieties of rhubarb and fruits he grows (including apples). He recommended not starting a career in farming at the age of 80—a little earlier might be better.

A panel on root cellaring that included Tim Meyers, Paul Apfelbeck, Pete Mayo of Spinach Creek Farm, and Michele H├ębert of UAF went over how each built their root cellar and how well the cellars functioned. Problems encountered by the panelists or by members of the audience included condensation or slight bowing of walls due to soil pressure around the cellar.

1 comment:

Rhubarb said...

Great job on the write up for the SARE Conference. I am impressed with the SNRAS Science and News. GO SNRAS!

I created the blog but NOT the savor-the-rhubarb for correction.