Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Field Day showcases Fairbanks agricultural research

Spend an afternoon in the fields of the Fairbanks Experiment Farm with researchers and learn about the agriculture-related science happening at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Fairbanks Research Field Day, 2-6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 30, is a free educational event for farmers, community leaders and the general public.

UAF researchers will cover topics such as vegetable, grain and oilseed varietal trials, cover crops, soil health, the small grains breeding program, greenhouse plant production, invasive species management and herbicide use. Guided tours of the Georgeson Botanical Garden will also be available. During the last hour of the event, juice and cookies will be served in the garden, during which researchers can answer questions.

The Fairbanks Experiment Farm was established in 1906 and has been managed by UAF since 1931. The farm has a long history of researching agricultural practices in northern climates to help improve the lives of Alaskans. Field Day is an event designed to share the knowledge created at the farm with the public.

Fairbanks Experiment Farm is located at 2180 W. Tanana Drive on the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Troth Yeddha’ Campus. Field Day is hosted by UAF’s Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension. Pick up a schedule and a program at the entrance to the garden, or view online on the Field Days website.

Please dress for the weather and be prepared to walk up to a mile. Children must be accompanied by an adult, and dogs are not allowed.

Accommodation requests related to a disability should be made five business days in advance to Laura Weingartner at 907-474-5211 or lgweingartner@alaska.edu. Language access services, such as interpretation or translation of vital information, will be provided free of charge to individuals with limited English proficiency upon request to Alda Norris, amnorris2@alaska.edu. UAF is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity employer, educational institution and provider and prohibits illegal discrimination against any individual: www.alaska.edu/nondiscrimination

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Laser may keep birds out of Fairbanks grain plots

By Laura Weingartner

The resonant, musical rattle of the sandhill crane in May signifies spring for many of us. But the birds can pose a problem for farms.

This summer, a green laser beam has been flashing across the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ farm fields to scare off the cranes and other birds.

In May 2024, a laser atop a tower at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm scans the fields using a pre-programmed pattern designed to scare hungry birds away from freshly planted grain. Photo by Kieran Gleason

Cranes have a taste for the grains and seeds that researchers plant in the fields, said Kieran Gleason, manager of UAF’s Fairbanks Experiment Farm. The fields this year have rows of barley, canola, sunflower, oat and wheat, all part of varietal trials, breeding programs and cover crop research.

To deter any birds looking for a snack, Gleason recently installed the laser. Shining from the top of a 25-foot tower, the beam moves on a preprogrammed path around the fields.

Wayne Ackermann, an employee of the Netherlands-based company that makes the lasers, said the birds likely perceive the light as a physical danger and deem the fields uninhabitable.

This new solution is an upgrade to previous bird-deterring strategies.

One such strategy used an air cannon to scare birds off with blasts of noise, a practice that wasn’t favored by the neighbors, according to Jodie Anderson, director of the UAF Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension, which oversees the farm.

At other times, research technicians sat in the fields and chased birds away from the research plots 18 hours a day. They even tried housing a dog team in the fields, but it was too easy for the birds to avoid the dogs, Gleason said.

Sandhill cranes travel thousands of miles to reach their summer breeding grounds, many passing through Fairbanks. Some stay here for the summer, rearing their young and fattening up on small animals, insects, bulbs, berries and seeds, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

But they aren’t the only birds that can make a meal from a farmer's livelihood. While cranes will eat the freshly planted grain in the spring and the standing grain at harvest, wild geese will eat the grain knocked to the ground in late summer, trampling plants as they go. Geese also like the sprouts. Luckily for farmers in the Interior, by the time crops sprout, geese have already traveled farther north, Gleason said.

Gleason will leave the laser running until all the research crops have sprouted and will reinstall it when the grain is ready for harvest.

The laser is still in its trial period, and farm workers have counted 30 birds in the field since installing it in mid-May. That’s more than researchers would like to see, since even a few birds can decimate the barley nursery, Gleason said.

Keeping birds off the grain means more plants for study. Close monitoring of these plants will help researchers narrow down varieties that do well in Alaska and could be used commercially for oil, feed and food. The work will also provide information on which crops are best for soil health and supply new seed for the breeding program.

Friday, May 3, 2024

Update on Permafrost Grown project

The Permafrost Grown team hosted a two-day workshop in April with its farmer-collaborators as part of the project's commitment to the co-production of knowledge.

IANRE faculty Glenna Gannon, along with colleagues Melissa Ward Jones (INE) and Toby Schowerer (IARC) organized the event.

The workshop included presentations on: climate and weather outlooks for agriculture in Alaska (invited presentation by Rick Thoman, ACCAP); understanding permafrost, how it forms and how its response to thaw varies; remote sensing techniques used in the project including use of drones, historical air photos and satellite imagery; and results from the first summer of the "Great Mulch Study."

The event also included several interactive activities that were developed to allow all participants to learn in-real time from one another. These included: an Alaska farmland valuation activity, an evaluation of co-production of knowledge related to researchers and farmers, and a permafrost degradation scenario game.

Project activities and results will continue to be posted to the Permafrost Grown website.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Barley harvest shows promise for summer trials

Interior Alaska is still under its winter blanket of snow, but inside the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station greenhouses on the University of Alaska Fairbanks Troth Yeddha’ campus, it’s harvest time.

Jakir Hasan, a research assistant professor for small grain crops breeding, gathered barley seeds from around the world — Canada, Russia, Egypt, Libya, Finland and France, among many others. He also included seeds from Sunshine barley, a hulless variety developed at AFES and released commercially in 2009. From these, he created about 5,000 new strains of barley, which he planted in the greenhouse in mid-December.

His goal, he said, is to create strains of barley that Alaska farmers can grow for food and for animal feed, as well as to look for a strain of malting barley for local distilleries. “If we can provide the barley from our program, that’s a win-win both for Alaska barley and the Institute,” Hasan said.

In mid-March, the greenhouse is full of barley of varying heights and stages of maturity. Some plants are tall, green and strong with full heads of seed. Others are yellowing and stunted with small seedheads.

Hasan said he is focused on developing barley strains with traits such as a high grain yield and a strong stem to keep the plant standing upright. In addition, Hasan is looking for barley that will mature in the same window as Sunshine barley, which is about 70 days.

One of the promising strains in the greenhouse is a combination of Russian and Sunshine barleys. It is producing 80-100 seeds per head, well above the standard 40-60 seeds. It matured in 70-72 days, as well. He is also looking for plants that can grow taller than Sunshine, which is only about 2 feet tall, without their stems bending or breaking. About 3 feet is an ideal height, he said.

Early in the process, he weeded out the plants that simply did not thrive or seemed susceptible to disease. From the plants that are left, he will harvest the seeds from the best 400 lines and plant them in test plots this summer in Fairbanks. He will also plant some strains in Delta Junction. Each plot will consist of the seeds from a single head of barley.

While the greenhouse can showcase promising traits, he said, he won’t know if a strain is successful until it is grown in the field, with wind, rain and the Interior’s long days of sunlight factored in.

He will take the best 40 strains from the 2024 trials, plant them this winter and repeat the process until he has winnowed out the best three or four strains that look promising for commercial growers. Overall, he is two years into a process that he predicts will take no more than 10 years maximum from seed crosses to new varieties arriving in the hands of farmers.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Sapmi Boazu — A visit to the Sami Reindeer Husbandry Range of Finland

Jackie Hrabok, UAF's Northwest Campus assistant professor of High Latitude Range Management, hosted and led an international cultural exchange for the Alaska Reindeer Directors. Delegates were from Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island, the Kawerak Reindeer Herders Association and the Kawerak Environmental Department.

The goals of the two-week overseas experience Nov. 11-24, 2023, were to interact with the Indigenous Sami and learn about their livelihood as reindeer herders north of 69 degree latitude in Finland. They toured reindeer-specific facilities and had business meetings with key colleagues: commercial slaughterhouses and a tannery, Sami Education Institute Reindeer Husbandry and Applied Arts Departments, reindeer roundups, Kutuharju research herd, and the Finnish Reindeer Herders Association headquarters.

Delegates included Ed Kiokun, Nunivak Island Mekoryuk; Terry Don, CEO of Nunivak Island Mekoryuk; Nathan Baring, director of Kawerak Reindeer Herders Association; and Anahma Shannon, Director of Kawerak Environmental Department.

Delegates have returned home to Alaska with new ideas to increase workforce development, commercial meat sales, and value-added byproduct production, all stemming from the development of the Alaska reindeer industry.

If you want to learn more about Alaska's reindeer industry, check out Part III of Sun and Soil's podcast "Feeding the Last Frontier: A Reindeer Called Rhonda," which features Hrabok. She also lists several books that have excellent information on reindeer. Sun and Soil is produced by C.C. Clark and Noah Spickelmier. You can find it:

IG, FB, TikTok: @sunandsoilpodcast

YouTube: @sunandsoil

email: sunandsoilpodcast@gmail.com

website: sunandsoilpod.com

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Agrivoltaics debut at the 2023 Food and Farm Festival

Leaders in agriculture, farming, and cooking convened in downtown Anchorage for the 2023 Alaska Food and Farm Festival. Bookended by two bouts of heavy snowfall, the conference took place on the sunny reprieve during the weekend of Nov. 10-12.

Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension Co-Investigator Glenna Gannon and ACEP Researcher Savannah Crichton attended the festival to build community around a new project, Agrivoltaics: Unlocking Mid-Market Solar in Rural Northern Climates. With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and CleanCapital, the research team includes collaborators from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska Pacific University, and Renewable IPP.

Crichton opened the presentation with the definition of agrivoltaics: the co-use of land for both solar and agricultural production. In the Lower 48, solar farms consist of panels spaced close together, meaning that farming or animal grazing usually takes place underneath the panels.

In northern latitudes, the angle of the sun is much lower, meaning panels need to be spaced farther apart to prevent shading each other. Solar farms with this design, like the new 8.5-megawatt farm in Houston, Alaska, have ample room between panels for crop plots.

Utilizing the state of Alaska’s largest solar farm, the research team will monitor the responses of vegetables, grazing crops, and wild edibles. Crichton said that the same plot of land will sell clean energy to Matanuska Electric Association while also providing the community with fresh produce.

Gannon reviewed the overarching objectives of the research with the crowd: increasing food sovereignty and energy security in Alaska and other northern climates. By involving stakeholders from the inception of the project, community voices provide a grounded understanding of how agrivoltaics may be adopted and the anticipated barriers or benefits.

At the end of their talk, Gannon and Crichton shared a QR code allowing people to sign up for the stakeholder pool. They spent the next few hours engaging with conference attendees, explaining how their organizations or farms could participate and eventually adopt agrivoltaic systems.

From farmers across the state, there is a desire to adopt innovative, renewable systems that could also potentially boost their crop production. For communities, this means strengthening local food systems.

Agrivoltaics research will provide interested parties with agricultural yield data, PV performance data, and a techno economic analysis. These figures will guide the next generation of farmers, utilities, solar industries, tribal entities, and government agencies toward renewable, regenerative growing technologies.