Final Report for SW10-901

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $48,497.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Western
State: Alaska
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Stephen Sparrow
University of Alaska Fairbanks
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Project Information

Abstract:

Poor nutrition, partially as a result of lack of fresh, cheap vegetables, is common in rural Alaska. Many Alaska communities have stated an interest in food production but perceive that the lack of adequate soils inhibits gardening. Importing soil amendments and fertilizers is often prohibitively expensive. We were able to demonstrate, through work in a coastal community and a riverine community, that it is possible to easily and cheaply build high quality garden soils using locally available materials. We hosted workshops on soil building and construction of raised beds for vegetable gardening in Alaska. A DVD which demonstrates soil building and raised bed construction was produced and is available on-line. We are now getting the information we generated out to agricultural professionals, communities and gardeners throughout Alaska.

Project Objectives:

1. Determine the nutrient availability in local materials from distinct ecosystems in the state. Building Alaska Garden Soils from the Ground Up is primarily concerned with using local mineral and organic components to make and enhance garden soil for various communities throughout the state. The goal of the research component was to determine the nutrient availability in the local materials from distinct ecosystems around the state and examine the edible vegetative yield from these locally-produced soils. Educating communities about creating and maintaining soil with local components establishes a sustainable source for gardening in the community, thereby enhancing the local diet through affordable access to healthful foods and promoting preservation of the natural environment. Furthermore, the process of building and maintaining soil in riverine and coastal ecosystems will be visually documented and made available to various agencies and communities, all of whom can benefit from the information as a template for local garden soil development.

2. Demonstrate garden soil building techniques using local materials in two common ecosystems throughout Alaska: a riverine ecosystem and a beach ecosystem. The ability to create and maintain garden soil will potentially increase the availability of quality food in the community. This will help to address many of the nutritional issues plaguing Alaska communities, such as diabetes and obesity. The production of fresh, local vegetables will also allow the growers to keep much of their produce and decrease family food costs. Furthermore, gardens would promote the historic, community-strengthening act of sharing food resources with elders and other community members, thereby promoting health all around. Finally, the gardens could potentially increase employment if the community decides to dedicate more resources to local food production and hire a local gardener to care for the community vegetables, which would improve local economic structures.

3. Optimize locally available resources to build and amend soils for use in gardens. In general, the few gardeners in smaller communities do not consider amending their garden soils because of the high cost of shipping chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Teaching community producers how to amend soils with local organic materials will provide an increased yield for existing gardens and promote environmental conservation. Furthermore, as part of the project, the available nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in local organic soil amendments will be documented and made available to other producers in the state. Analysis of the soil will be accomplished through collecting soil samples from each research site every two weeks during the growing season. The results will provide a view of the optimized nutrient release through the biological processes in the soils.

4. Promote crop diversification by supporting local soil production for growers in areas that currently do not generally have gardens. Increasing the number of producers at the local level will diversify community food sources and specifically help those who have never grown food. In communities existing primarily on subsistence foods, supplementing the diet with a stable, locally grown food source not only diversifies the diet, it should also contribute to local food security.

Introduction:

Fresh food is often expensive or not readily available in much of rural Alaska and nutrition is often poor. As a result, health problems such as diabetes and obesity are common. Many Alaska communities have expressed interest in food production, but they perceive that the lack of adequate soils inhibits gardening. Most Alaskan producers confront related soil problems, such as thin root zones, nutrient-poor soils with low organic matter contents, and in some areas, problems with permafrost. Despite the high cost of shipping, some producers import all of their garden soils from outside Alaska via barge or air and are often unaware that many of the necessary soil components can be found locally.

Many Alaskans interested in food production have little gardening experience, therefore they are unaware of the benefits of using local, natural materials or of making and using compost. A successful garden should provide the appropriate materials and motivation to create compost.

This project was designed to address these problems by developing and disseminating information about the use of local resources as a way to build soils along with raised-beds and the use of organic sources of nutrients.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Leif Albertson
  • Paul Apfelbeck
  • Rick Bellagh
  • Izetta Chambers
  • Dr. Jeff Smeenk
  • Patrick Smith
  • Darren Snyder
  • Mary Stalker
  • Dr. Mingchu Zhang

Research

Materials and methods:

The research component of the project primarily focused on soil improvement methodologies in two different ways:

• First, we determined the nutrient content in local, natural materials with potential for use in soil building. Five producers surveyed their local areas for potential soil components and nutrient sources and then collected and sent the research team samples of the mineral, organic material and nutrient sources that were used for the soil building. Next, we compared nutrient availability in locally built and amended soils with synthetically fertilized soils.

• Secondly, we had producers compare the vegetable yield grown in both types of soil.

The outreach component of the project involved meeting with gardeners in rural Alaska and providing web-based information. Because of the diversity of Alaska’s climate and cultures, fact-to-face workshops in all interested communities would be optimum. However, the high cost of travel makes on-site workshops in every community impractical. Our solution was be to hold two soil-building workshops in rural communities (Angoon in southeastern Alaska and Bethel in western Alaska) to give credibility to the project and result in better acceptance in other rural communities. These workshops were filmed and a video created and made available on DVDs and the Internet (on YouTube) and delivered to agriculture professionals as a teaching tool. The video product will promote greater distribution to communities where budgets do not allow face-to-face interaction.
We instructed gardeners in different locations on the advantages of using raised beds to warm soils and provided instruction on their construction using readily available materials. Producers in different locations, representing different regions of Alaska, built raised beds and filled them with locally manufactured soils (with technical guidance) and compared them to raised beds filled with commercial garden soil.

Research results and discussion:

We found each collaborator went about their soil-making in different ways, from using all natural, local amendments to using a combination of natural amendments and compost. Most of them were successful in building nutritionally well-balanced garden soils (nutrient analysis document attached to the 2011 annual report). While we were unable to statistically compare vegetables yields grown in soils built totally form local materials vs. synthetically fertilized soils, producers reported yields as good in the soils built from local resources, indicating it is possible to easily and cheaply make high quality garden soil in remote communities in Alaska using only locally available materials.

At Angoon, an evening garden soil workshop was attended by 12 community members. The soil there was already rich in organic matter, but it required addition of sand to improve drainage. The project team helped the community build up the soils at a garden site formerly used by the school and then used for the new community garden.

At Bethel, a soils class was presented at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskowim campus; a soil building workshop was held at the Bethel Community Garden; and a “garden chat” was recorded and a talk show held at the local radio station. The team was able to see some unique and innovative homemade soil-building techniques by a local gardener who uses local peat and fish wastes to make garden soil. A film in which tundra and river resources available for garden soil building was produced there.

A DVD was produced and made available on the Internet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJWpOXxNbJo&feature=youtu.be) for communities, gardeners and agriculture professionals throughout Alaska. The video explains the basics of soil science and the importance of understanding basic soil principles for building and maintaining good garden soils. It explains the basics of building good garden soils using local resources in Alaska; shows how to build raised beds, which are important in cold soil regions of Alaska; and explains the importance of long-term soil maintenance and of using proper soil supplements to produce high quality, high yielding garden produce in different regions of Alaska. Various methods, including a blog on the School of Natural Resources Management and Agricultural Sciences website, are being used to publicize the video.

Research conclusions:

This project has resulted in development and dissemination of information to help various stakeholders, including rural communities, gardeners, extension agents and state agency personnel, learn how to develop and maintain good garden soils, using local resources, throughout Alaska.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

A DVD was produced and made available on the Internet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJWpOXxNbJo&feature=youtu.be) for communities, gardeners and agriculture professionals throughout Alaska. The video explains the basics of soil science and the importance of understanding basic soil principles for building and maintaining good garden soils. It explains the basics of building good garden soils using local resources in Alaska; shows how to build raised beds, which are important in cold soil regions of Alaska; and explains the importance of long-term soil maintenance and of using proper soil supplements to produce high quality, high yielding garden produce in different regions of Alaska. Various methods, including a blog on the School of Natural Resources Management and Agricultural Sciences website, are being used to publicize the video.

At Angoon, an evening garden soil workshop was used to demonstrate soil building techniques using local materials. At Bethel, a soils class was presented at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskowim campus; a soil building workshop was held at the Bethel Community Garden; and a “garden chat” was recorded and a talk show held at the local radio station. The team was able to see some unique and innovative homemade soil-building techniques by a local gardener who uses local peat and fish wastes to make garden soil. A film in which tundra and river resources available for garden soil building was produced there. The film was incorporated into the DVD that was produced (see above).

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

An economic analysis was not planned as part of this project and many of the benefits as a result of this project will be difficult or impossible to measure from an economic standpoint. However, new, successful gardens could potentially increase employment if communities decide to dedicate more resources to local food production and could result in employment through the hiring a local gardeners to care for the community gardens. Also, supporting local soil development may also lead to more successful growers in rural communities. Successful growers may choose to sell their locally produced food, which could establish a new market within the community. This type of market would provide a healthful, low-cost alternative for others in the community to purchase good quality instead of relying on vegetable imports from the local store (if there is one at all).

Farmer Adoption

Producers who were directly involved in this project have readily adopted the methods they learned and are now using raised beds and using garden soil made from or amended with local materials. It is too early to determine if the information generated by this project will be widely adopted in Alaska, but considering the demand around the state for knowledge about local food production, we believe it will be widely accepted and used.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

Information on availability and quality of local soil building resources in other communities, especially those in other ecosystems, would be helpful for determining the widespread adaptability of the knowledge generated by this project.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.