Thursday, January 28, 2016

SNRE profiles: Palmer ag agent thrives on variety

Steve Brown practices a crevasse rescue before an expedition.

Palmer Extension Agent Steve Brown has been going international with Chicken University, his popular signature course about raising chickens.

This past fall, he delivered his course to the residents of Yellowknife, the capital city of the Northwest Territories, and, earlier this month, to the people of Inuvik, more than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. He also taught workshops in both communities on gardening, season-extension techniques and growing vegetables in greenhouses.

Brown developed Chicken University seven years ago, after he realized that chickens were commanding hefty prices on Craigslist ­and that Mat-Su residents wanted to know more about raising them. Since then, more communities, including Anchorage, have allowed residents to raise chickens, and Brown has delivered the workshop in two dozen Alaska communities

Steve Brown poses with rhodiola at the farm.

Chickens have become popular, Brown believes, because they provide eggs and meat and they can be fed rather cheaply on feed and scraps. Their manure provides great fertilizer, which is useful to gardeners for soil building.

As the agricultural and horticulture agent for the Mat-Su/Copper River District, Brown offers a variety of programs about soils, gardening, greenhouse production, landscaping and other topics. He is also known for his geospatial expertise and has taught advanced GPS techniques to audiences that have included State Troopers, the Civil Air Patrol, other emergency responders and outdoors enthusiasts.

Brown became familiar with GPS while he served as an agent at Cornell University, which pioneered the use of the device in what is called “precision agriculture.” Precision agriculture uses the GPS on tractors and geographic information system (GIS) data. It allows farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer used and to cut gas costs because the fertilizer is delivered precisely, based on a computer model. Brown has worked with farmers who use precision agriculture in Kansas and in the Mat-Su area.

He is also working with a rhodiola growers’ cooperative to develop production of the medicinal plant, which is native to Siberia. He is working with the cooperative on a research grant to determine how and when to harvest the plants’ roots to get the highest rosavin content, which determines the plants’ value. Most of the rhodiola that has been harvested so far has been used in teas, which are thought by herbalists (and Russians) to improve endurance. So far, about 15 growers have planted 25 acres, which doesn’t sound like a lot, he says, but it is a high-value crop with promise.

Brown likes his office mates and the variety of work he does. Moving to the farm has definitely increased the number of people stopping by the Extension office, he says.

Brown grew up in Texas and earned a doctorate in environmental science at the State University of New York. He is a high energy guy. Since completing his first marathon on his 40th birthday, he has run marathons in 34 states, most recently in Arkansas and Alabama. “It’s a really, really great way to see the country,” he said.

A mountaineer, Brown has climbed the highest peaks in Europe (Mt. Elbrus), North America (Denali) and South America (Aconcagua). As part of a national 4-H mountaineering project, he carried a GPS beacon on Aconcagua and some 1,000 4-H’ers followed his progress online.

He serves as vice president of the Alaska State Fair board, editor of the Journal of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents and president-elect of the Journal of Extension board, which met in Alaska for the first time last year.

He is also serving on a 15-member committee to choose the next UAF chancellor. The committee includes faculty, staff and students. Forty-one people applied to become the next chancellor and he recently read all the applications and chose his top eight candidates. His picks and others’ will be evaluated to determine who gets a preliminary interview in February. The goal is to have finalists named and a new chancellor on board by the summer.

Steve has a fraternal twin, Hart, who is a middle school principal in Norman, Oklahoma. Of the two, Brown says he (Steve) is the “civilized twin.” His brother was the one who suggested they run their first marathon at age 40. Brown trained and his brother just showed up at the race start, and finished, lame, after about eight hours.  Later, the brother was honored at a surprise school assembly as an example of someone who works hard to achieve his goals.
Brown, a known practical joker, says he got it from his father. The family took Brown’s pet chicken, a 4-H project, on vacation when he was a teenager. His father wrapped the cage in a blanket and rode the tram to the top of Pike’s Peak, where he secretly released the chicken and announced to the other tourists that he was a professor and he had just discovered the “red rock cock,” thought to be long extinct.

His other hobbies include raising giant cabbages with his wife, Eva. Their entry placed ninth in last year’s Alaska State Fair but was unofficially named “prettiest cabbage” by a newspaper reporter.

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