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Harvesting Alaska: UAF Experiment Farm continues thanks to USDA grant

By Eric Ruble Photojournalist: John Thain - 3:56 PM May 7, 2017

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Experiment Farm is a staple of sustainable food production in Alaska. For 100 years, it has provided vital information to gardeners and farmers about how livestock and plants perform in Alaska’s harsh climates. Located on the west end of UAF’s main campus, the farm includes a herd of 60 reindeer, a botanical garden and greenhouses.

One of the farm’s principal roles is to perform variety trials of a number of edible and inedible plants. Researchers and volunteers usually plant and grow a selection of ornamental plants, like flowers, along with herbs, berries, fruits and vegetables. They publish their results so gardeners and farmers know what grows well in Alaska and what does not.

“In order for farmers to produce crops to feed Americans, they have to have research available that tells them which crops are the best to grow in their region,” said Dr. Milan Shipka, the director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, of which the Experiment Farm is a part.

He said the trials are particularly important now, since the growing season is getting longer.

“What we’ve seen over the last few decades is a growing season that used to average about 80 days now averaging over 110 days. That’s a big difference,” said Shipka.

A number of crops that used to not be able to be grown in Alaska are finding success at the farm. Shipka said sunflowers and canola have been grown on the property, and researchers are currently examining whether wheat can be successfully grown in Alaska.

“Wheat has not been a crop that has been suitable for Alaska, and one of our researchers is working towards selecting varieties that are suitable for our growing season here,” said Shipka.

For the last five years, a lack of funding has prohibited variety trials from taking place. However, the trials are set to resume this year thanks to funding from a USDA grant known at a Hatch Act grant. Katie DiCristina, garden manager at the farm, used to have three full time colleagues to help her before budget cuts led to the elimination of their positions. She said the revival of the trials is exciting news.

“It’s the number one thing people ask me about,” said DiCristina. “People want this. It’s very important.”

She said Alaska’s unique climates and growing conditions – such as prolonged daylight in the summer – make it difficult for gardeners and farmers to rely on findings from farms in the Lower 48.

“You can go through seed catalogs and look at how the cultivars are supposed to produce [and] how to grow them, but that information is not necessarily directly applicable to our conditions up here in Alaska,” said DiCristina.

The Hatch Act grant provides funding for the next five years. DiCristina said that allows for more thorough research.

“It’s really important that we do trials for multiple years in a row so that we can capture the changes from year to year. Some years are very cold, some years aren’t as cold. Some years have a lot of snow,” she said. “All of these things can affect the survivorship of the plants.”

The staff at the farm and volunteers will begin planting the first week of June. DiCristina gets a significant amount of help running the garden during the summer. A group of volunteers takes care of the large herb garden, and three UAF student workers help DiCristina with other tasks.

Shipka said variety trails enable the farm to continue its important service to Alaska’s agricultural community.

“Estimates are that over 90 percent of our food that we consume is imported into the state, so we play at least a small role in helping farmers in Alaska understand what it is they can grow in order to be the most profitable, which is a main component on any farm,” he said.

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