Building Alaska Garden Soils from the Ground Up: Local Soils Research and Demonstration Projects

2010 Annual 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

Building Alaska Garden Soils from the Ground Up: Local Soils Research and Demonstration Projects


Alaskan producers subsistence hunt and fish to save on the cost of meats and gather berries to save on the cost of fruits. However, having access to vegetables is very dependent on costly imports, and they suffer in quality through extended transportation. This project is designed to get Alaskans growing food in raised-beds and to motivate and educate local producers by teaching them how to build garden soils from locally available materials. The research component aims to provide the appropriate rates of local organic soil nutrient resources to support producers. The video product will promote greater community distribution where budgets do not allow face-to-face interactions.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Many Alaska communities have stated an interest in food production but perceive that a lack of adequate soils inhibits gardening. Most Alaskan producers confront related soil problems, such as thin root zones, nutrient-poor soils with low organic material contents and some issues with permafrost. Despite the high cost of shipping, some producers actually import all of their garden soils from the continental United States on a barge, unaware that many of the necessary soil components can be found locally.

1. This project will address these concerns and perceived gardening barriers during the two community workshops and the subsequent video produced.

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

2. Through this project, information about the use of local resources as a way to build soils or raised-beds, and as an organic nutrient source, will be dispersed. Furthermore, analysis of local organic resources should result in nutritive information that is applicable to soil-building and amending and to providing future compost feedstocks. Research outside the scope of this grant will also facilitate the use of fish compost as a soil additive, as it is a common resource in Alaska communities.

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

3. First, the research component will compare the nutrient availability throughout the growing season in locally built and amended soils with locally built and synthetically fertilized soils.

4. Secondly, it will compare the vegetable yield grown in both types of soil, using potatoes as the common crop.

Producers in five different locations, representing each “region” of Alaska, will build four raised-beds and will fill them with locally manufactured soils (with technical guidance). Two beds will be fertilized with local organic nutrient sources and two beds will be fertilized with conventional fertilizer. Using potatoes as an indicator crop, bi-weekly soil samples will be evaluated for nutrient availability and potato yield data will be collected. After soil data is analyzed, recommendations for further amendments will be given to the producers so they have a guideline for improving crop yields the following growing season.

The outreach plan of the project will be more involved than creating a “how-to” bulletin or providing web-based information. Because of the diversity of Alaska’s climate and cultures, face-to-face workshops in all interested communities would need to occur; however, the high cost of travel makes on-site workshops in every community impractical. A good solution for this issue is to hold two soil-building workshops in rural communities that will give credibility to the project and result in better acceptance in other rural communities. These workshops would be filmed and a video created,which would be available on CD’s, the Internet (in focused segments on a site like 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 interactions.

5. The outreach component of this project will also meet the Western SARE Subregional Conference goa:the need for education and outreach to producers.


Research Team (Jodie Anderson and Jeff Smeenk): got producer input to guide project direction, collected and paid out honorariums to the five producers, coordinated the nutrient analysis of the local components sent to us by producers, working to teach the producers how to build soils, recommending soil development recipe for the producers, answered producer questions as they arise and developed SOP for research planting, soil sampling, and harvesting

Five producers (Izetta Chambers, Rick Bellagh, Patrick Smith, Paul Apfelbeck, Mary Stalker): surveyed local area for potential soil components and nutrient sources, collected and sent research team samples of the mineral, organic material and nutrient sources that will be used for the soil and learned how to build soil with the materials sent to the research team

Professionals (Jodie Anderson, Leif Albertson, Jeff Smeenk, Darren Snyder, and Mingchu Zhang): changed location of the river ecosystem workshop from Tetlin to Bethel as Bethel has a larger participant group and more available and easily accessible resources (this took much more time than anticipated)and storyboarded the videos and the workshops

Work Left to Do

The timing of this grant was delayed due to a very slow turn-around in the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ financial office. We were unable to hold the Southeastern Alaska workshop due to the financial slowdown. The producers were unable to develop the raised-beds for use in the research next summer, so the producers will need to do this as soon as the weather will allow.

We also ran into communication problems between professionals and the village of Tetlin and discovered there were not river resources available for our use during the workshop in Tetlin. We then worked to resolve that Tetlin was not the most appropriate community with whom to work to satisfy this grant. Bethel was selected and a new Cooperative Extension agent for Bethel was incorporated into the grant as the other agent was removed.

Research Team: recommendations to producers on amounts of nutrient materials needed per bed, send out fertilizer and tubers, edit video, develop brochures and other outreach materials and collection and analysis of soils samples and harvest data

Producers: build four identical raised-beds (at least 3 feet x 6 feet x 10 inches), mix the local soil components (less the nutrient amendments) as recommended by the research team and fill each raised-bed with added nutrient treatments based on recommendations, manage all local crop management aspects, collect soil samples and harvest data, invite community members to view project (on-site, informal garden tours to highlight research project), send samples and yield data in to research team and host local informal tours of the five producer sites: Kotzebue, Galena, Minto, Naknek, and Juneau

Professionals: plan, hold and videotape Angoon and Bethel workshops and shoot the “classroom” video component

Research Team, Professional Team, and Three Producers: delivery of outreach, formal scientific presentations and posters

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

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 but could easily be applied to any stakeholders in the Western region. The research component will determine the nutrient availability in the local materials in five distinct ecosystems from around the state, and using potatoes as the common crop, examine the vegetative yield from these locally produced soil. 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 healthy foods and promoting preservation of the natural environment. Furthermore, the process of building and maintaining soil in river 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. All of these concepts are applicable to not only Alaskan communities but also other communities within the Western region of SARE.


Paul Apfelbeck

[email protected]
Participating Producer
PO Box 5
Galena, AK 99741
Office Phone: 9076562380
Mary Stalker

[email protected]
Participating Producer
PO Box 317
Kotzebue, AK 99752
Office Phone: 9074423208
Dr. Jeff Smeenk

[email protected]
Assistant Professor
University of Alaska Fairbanks
533 East Fireweed Avenue
Palmer Research and Extension Center
Palmer, AK 9964-6629
Office Phone: 9077469470
Rick Bellagh

[email protected]
Participating Producer
137 Behrends Ave
Juneau, AK 99801
Office Phone: 9073215933
Leif Albertson

[email protected]
Bethel Agent
Cooperative Extension Service
PO Box 368
Kuskokwim Campus
Bethel, AK 99559
Office Phone: 9075434553
Patrick Smith

[email protected]
Participating Producer
PO Box 67
Minto, AK 99758
Office Phone: 9077987355
Dr. Mingchu Zhang

[email protected]
Associate Professor
University of Alaska Fairbanks
172 Arctic Health Research Building
PO Box 757140
Fairbanks, AK 9977-7140
Office Phone: 9074747004
Darren Snyder

[email protected]
Assistant Professor
Cooperative Extension Service - UAF
1108 F Street Suite 213
Bill Ray Center
Juneau, AK 99801
Office Phone: 9077966281
Izetta Chambers

[email protected]
Participating Producer
PO Box 1070
Dillingham, AK 99576
Office Phone: 9078428323