Victoria’s Garden Journal
April 22, 2009
Composting was a BIG discussion for a variety of reasons and although I have always practiced it I did not realize how difficult it can be in Alaska.
Two factors contribute to the whole idea of composting being very frustrating in Alaska. The low temperature of weather delays the natural process. Not having enough of a source of carbon; newspaper, leaves, etc. can also be an issue.
We also do not have things like grass clipping since most people in the bush do not have lawns, nor leaves as most of us do not have large deciduous trees either.
Composting in the bush might solve an issue that we do have; landfill items like cardboard that many times are burned to keep it from filling them up.
We also tend to have lots of Nitrogen sources like food waste, fish parts and in my case chicken waste. (We must be careful in many areas to not attract wildlife like bears, wolves and eagles)
Jody Anderson of UAF is doing some good work, as is Mingchu Zhang, also of UAF with fish waste. This is a real issue for some of the hub towns that have a fair amount of fish processing. (In most cases I am hearing over 125 years of it and large volumes)
In speaking with Jody and Mingchu after the presentations we have created some ‘dead zones’ in our water ways due to many, many years of dumping waste. There is a regulation that has been in force for years that all waste must be ground to a certain size, I believe no larger than ½”by ½” but this is still of a concern.
The lack of strong enough water flow or tides to mix with the waste and wash it away seems to be part of the issue in the areas that have this issue.
In many areas the waste has come to feed halibut, and other bottom feeder species, nurseries where it hasn’t created ‘dead zones’, so it is a hard issue to monitor.
Work was done to see if using cardboard and fish waste can make for a good compost mixture that is workable.
Jody found out that a cardboard and fish mixture decomposes, but also quickly turns to an ammonia mixture if not kept dry enough and or turned enough. It does decompose but the smell can drive even the hardiest soul to another part of the state.
Tim Meyers also did some work with fish waste and chipped brush wood. He tells an interesting story of mixing the two, waiting I believe he said 2 weeks, and ending up with one MAJOR factory for maggot production that his chickens LOVED.
According to Tim the heat that the wood pile mixed with fish waste created such a source of protein with the maggots that he saved on food supplies for the chickens. The maggots could not stand the heat generated by this mixture and came up to the surface of the pile where the chickens had a feast.
Given we in Ugashik have a good source of fish waste due to a small processing plant in the village, I am excited about trying either of these method further.
If in time we can work out a completely decomposed and dried out product we would have something local to share with other villages. Getting the finished product to Pilot Point should not be an issue due to frequent travel between the two.
They used a small branch shredder to do the card board which might be more of an issue getting it up here but maybe something can be worked out.
Shipping in fertilizer is a big issue due to cost and even availability of it from an Alaskan source.
Our soil temperatures can be slow to raise quick enough to allow for typical fertilizer sources to be applied, break down and be available for plants to take up in the same year.
Fish waste compost looks like it breaks down fast enough to be of good use to overcome this issue.
Our fish waste in Ugashik is not an issue, much due to the low volume and excellent tidal action, but running an experiment with fish waste could be useful for long term. Another method we, Jody and I, discussed would be to dig a shallow ditch, dump fish waste, and cover with some fresh dirt. Letting it breakdown in place might be a way to prep soils where production is planned or is lying fallow that year. We might have to install a temporary electric fence to discourage any wildlife.
Overall it looks like composting in Western Alaska could get to be a big issue in the near future with some real ground breaking methods developed to deal with a number of issues.
Well hopefully I can get back on track a little with updates on all that was learned in Fairbanks.
Sorry for the disruption but the need to speak out on the Salmon By-Catch issue came up and the chance to lend our voices to the fight could not be missed.
Overall while in Fairbanks I was struck by the level of commitment of the people who farm in Alaska to wanting to be progressive in what they do. They have tried many things and are determined to keep trying and learning.
Although the need to import food is great, and I don’t see that changing for some time, it will not be due to lack of farmers and business people working to bring more and better food sources to all of Alaska.
Bryce Wrigley of Delta Junction presented an interesting project to help find another heating fuel sources for Alaskans that has much promise. Barley can be grown in here, more successfully than other grain crops, and is a pretty mature crop at this point. Growing more of it in the state would strengthen the farmers here without threatening the supply for food or animal feed sources.
Both links give you more information on the subject.
There was promising information passed along about the growing of a fruit tree crop either under high tunnels or out in a zone 2. In this case it is apples and Robert Wheeler of CES has been doing work to see if apple trees can be done commercially in Alaska. They had some good successes the first year that show that it is possible with pretty quick return of some crops.
This is exciting to me; especially for this area as we are a 4/5 zone and most likely can adapt things. If you have worked with orchard fruits much you are aware it can be a 5-10 year cycle before you get something that will return a crop.
I am on the notification list for this work and will be looking to see how the second year goes and if the varieties will be made available soon.
One young lady, Allie Barker, of Chickaloon Sustainable Homestead, shared with us her and her partner’s establishment of their homestead. They had settled in a wooded area of Alaska, Chickaloon, and were slowly and with much care clearing part of their land and making a life for themselves.
First building a basic house, making sure to face it correctly for as much passive solar as possible. They then built a solar panel up on a high tower as they are somewhat in the shadow of a mountain, also cold frames and a greenhouse.
I have to tell you that looking at all that wood, a small self-run sawmill, and located out here somewhere close to most of us and we would be in HEAVEN!!! Trees are just not part of the landscape this far down on the Alaska Peninsula and many other parts of Western Alaska. It isn’t just permafrost, which we really do not have here, but other factors like wind and soil.
It was fun to see all their projects, how they are working to live as much off their land as possible and contribute to the area and people around them. No one can say that there are not hard working young people who are out to make a difference. There seems to still be plenty of that here in Alaska.
There was a lot of general information on direct marketing and weed suppression. Both of these areas are of little concern right now for us but hopefully things will get successful enough soon to be of an issue in the near future.
When I look over what is still left to present I can’t combine them with this post so it will be short.
Tim Meyer and his entire set up
The three main areas I still want to share so stay tuned.
March 27, 2009
Hope the White House Joins Us!!
I read yesterday that there is a movement to have the White House get some chickens to join the kitchen garden that just broke ground.
Some like 66% of the farms in the US have chickens and more and more urban areas are allowing them in small numbers.
The Sustainable Agriculture workshop had a couple of segments on raising chickens both for meat and eggs. Also using the waste for compost was also an issue that was covered. (Compost is actually a difficult deal in our cold growing areas as we do not have enough time for it to break down to use in the first place and secondly it usually takes more than one season for it to be available in the ground)
There is actually a little bit of a history, at least 30-40 years ago, for chickens in this area. My belief is that there is probably history back into the 1800’s when the canneries were running in almost every village in the area and/or when missionaries were coming into the area, but I am not sure.
In Pilot Point there were at least one family that I have first hand knowledge from that use to raise both chickens and ducks for eggs and meat. Unfortunately when the elder that spear headed that effort died so did the raising of flocks.
This area was also greatly influenced in lifestyle by the block buster days of high salmon prices of the mid and late 1980’s, before farm salmon caused the catastrophic price fall. People made great improvements in their housing and general lifestyle. Most people in our area were able to join the modern world with well built homes, updated transportation, and the importation of more of their food. Families acquired freezers and as we’re are finding out now many skills of how to preserve food were not practiced.
People still hunt and put up the native berries and some of the local items.
When I arrived in the village about 6 years ago no one was doing much gardening and definitely no raising of chickens or small animals. Considering the pace of fishing in the summer I quickly came to understand why.
There is little time from when things thaw out in late May to early June before salmon harvest begins in mid to late June. Time to prep things just isn’t there.
About four years ago we had a family friend come up with her young son and he had always wanted to hatch chicks from the eggs. We did not have enough time to plan that but I did know we could order day old chicks through the mail and figured that might be almost as good a project for him while we were dealing with fishing chores.
Our chicken raising days had begun!
We now try and run between 70 and 100 laying hens and then feed out about 50 meat chickens each year. We have had pretty good luck getting the layers through the winter, if you do not count the spring bears breaking in to slaughter them or the fox getting into the house to think the flock..
The absolute necessity of a installing a hard wired fenced yard now fully upon us. We know that will need to be then circled with an electric fence to keep the spring and summer bears from feasting. All of this would have been done earlier if not for the time constraints followed by the costs of getting supplies up here.
At the workshop the discussion was on breeds needed that laid best in our cold temperatures. Also on which breeds we could raise for meat that would not just die at the drop at a hat. Meat breeds are bred specifically so that there is a lot of the natural behavior bred out of them. They do not strut around peck at stuff. They many times grow so fast their legs do not have the strength to hold them and they can die of heart attacks due to the stain of growing so fast. One breed ‘Redbro’ was named as one that might work well for the meat breeds.
Working with some of the layers that are known to tolerate cold temperatures well was also discussed.
We had a great presentation from Tim Meyers of Bethel on his operation. His background is in construction and is a great believer that we must look at returning to building as it was done years ago, partially under ground.
His chicken house is actually a 3 story barn with soil burmmed up around it so that only the top story is uncovered. He has been able to maintain a warmer coop during the winter keeping his layers producing closer to summer levels.
We will be looking at modifying our present 12’x12′, with super insulation, coop to see if we can take advantage of the lessons Tim has learned.
Our hope is to have our layers, currently about 6 weeks old up and laying by the summer to assist all of us with the increased needs of all the fishing crews we take care of.
I am currently looking to secure a source of Redbro chicks to try along with normal Cornish X feeder chicks. Those will be arriving in late April, with a feed out time of around 8 weeks, and hope to use the new brooder for even more of the raising of due to higher temperatures outside.
We will see if what we learn can continue to be repeated in other villages, despite the cold temperatures, for another source of meat and fresh eggs.
March 25, 2009
After most of last week in Fairbanks attending the 5th Annual Alaska Sustainable Agriculture and Organic Gardening workshop I am still trying to process all I saw and heard.
First off Alaska is in the great position of having much more demand for its agricultural products than supply. Most of the farmers, and there is a full assortment of products produced, are making a great effort to extend their offerings to more of Alaska than just their immediate areas.
There are two main areas, basically between Anchorage and Fairbanks, where traditionally most of the agriculture is done. This looks to be changing as a number of issues come forward such as food security, food costs, lack of variety, etc. More on this later.
On Monday, prior to the start of the conference, a couple of tours and a workshop were offered. A large group of us took off first thing for Chena Hot Springs, a geo-thermal operation that offers everything from lodging to hot house grown tomatoes and lettuce!
A VERY interesting place overall, as is the owner. He has more ideas, some of which people think are crazy, than life span left even if he gets to 120 years old. Personally I think it is worth anyone who is interested in alternative energy making the trip. He has already done a number of things, like low temperature geo-thermal power, that others said were impossible. The neat thing is he is willing to share his successes and failures with anyone who is interested. I will be passing his contact information and some of his ideas onto a variety of people for consideration.
The center is working with the University of Alaska on the hydroponics growing of produce. The lessons they are learning are being shared with anyone who wants to tap in. I am now signed up to get updates and information on this project as it matures.
Most of Alaska agriculture is still not making use of the tools to extend our current season for growing let alone doing a year around greenhouse. This is not a reasonable project for the “bush” villages as of yet, given our high cost of energy. There are a number of projects being considered for use of waste heat from generation plants and other sources that could well make this viable in the near future.
Lessons we can learn from this operation at this time is more in the varieties they have discovered that work well with our lighting and day length issues. Also, IF a community wants to attempt a year around facility, some of the things NOT to do.
Another great place for many issues we face with trying to live in many parts of Alaska. Some of the issues this facility is researching will come back for making outbuildings doable in many of our areas. More of this will be discussed when I review greenhouses and raising chickens in the bush.
March 18, 2009
I heard as I was leaving Anchorage for Fairbanks, known for it’s cold weather, glorious Northern Lights and hot summers that they were also getting a ‘cold snap’. I had brought my one piece snow suit thinking it was probably overkill but……guess not
I arrived to -28 without wind chill on Sunday night right before midnight.
Met one of the presenters I especially wanted to hear in the airport waiting for our luggage. We got to talk over all sorts of ideas for growing in the windy, cooler conditions we both face just getting to the hotel.
We spent Monday touring a local hot spring resort that is ground breaking in energy production. They use the geo thermal heat, from a local warm water, 160 degrees, source to run their operation, heat greenhouses and various other operations.
I can tell you the wind blew and the zipper, plastic, on my suit froze white in a less than 5 minute walk. Also all the windows on the van, despite being plenty warm inside froze from condensation of our breath – on the inside windows! None of us wanted to know how cold it was!
In all this there were a number of things that look like we can easily apply them to our village lives. We got information on LED grow lights, extending the growing season even without heat and using our fish waste for compost.
Today, Tuesday, was spent hearing all sorts of presentations from the growing of apples in a zone two (colder than even Ann and our area is) to egg production year around.
I was able to make some connections for possible project assistance in our villages, probably the hardest thing I have found in Alaska as we do not have an extensive coop extension service like in other state.
I was able to meet people from various agencies that do not usually even pay attention to our parts of Alaska.
I am thrilled to say there is another representative from the Bristol Bay area, a young lady who just graduated from Dartmouth who is assisting her tribe to get a new greenhouse and how they might use it to extend their season attending the conference too.
The western villages are starting to be heard and we have to thank all of you for part of that voice.
I will get into more details when I return but so far the workshop has been excellent.
Oh yes, it warmed up to only -14 today:-)
Editor’s Note: We will be adding Victoria’s reports to this page as she sends them. Subscribe to this tread to receive alerts of new posts.