Wednesday, May 1, 2013

UAF Experiment Farm history reflects saga of Alaska agriculture

Pictured in the drawing are the two oldest buildings at the University of Alaska Experiment Farm: the manager’s residence and the barn, both built in 1940. The farm was originally part of the Federal government’s agricultural station project in Alaska, which was begun in 1897 in response to the gold rushes at the end of the 1800s, and the incumbent need to increase Alaska’s agricultural industry.

The first agricultural station opened in Sitka in 1897, and the number of agricultural stations rapidly expanded, with stations being started at Kodiak (1898), Kenai (1899), Rampart (1900) and Copper Center (1903).  The city of Fairbanks (established in 1902) had the benefit of being situated in an area of great agricultural potential (the head of Alaska’s agricultural station program estimated that over 100,000 acres in the Tanana Valley could be developed), and the local Chamber of Commerce lobbied the federal government for its own station. In May, 1906, the U.S. government set aside 1,400 acres of land near the present site of the University of Alaska for a station.

Congress approved funds and a land transfer in 1915 to establish the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines adjacent to the agricultural station at Fairbanks. Additional funds were appropriated by the Alaska Territorial Legislature several years later and the college opened in 1922.  In 1931 all of the experiment station facilities were transferred from the federal government to the college. Much of the land that the university’s West Ridge facilities now sit on was once experiment station fields. There were even a few fields on the far side of the ridge near Smith lake.

In a 2006 “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner” article, Pat Holloway, professor of horticulture at the University of Alaska, said that the station was primarily meant to be a demonstration farm.  But, as with the other stations, it also worked to develop crops and livestock suited to Alaska’s conditions. Its work in developing crops for Interior Alaska and close proximity allowed it to help Fairbanks in times of need.

The book, “Like a Tree to the Soil,” relates that during the winter of 1915-16 there was a serious shortage of horse feed, and by spring, farmers had had to use their grain seed to feed livestock. The Fairbanks station, which had been raising grain for five years, had 1100 bushels of wheat, rye, barley, oat and buckwheat seed stockpiled by the spring of 1916, and it advanced seed to area farmers, on the condition that they repay in kind after the fall harvest. The loans were a lifesaver, and every farmer who received seed repaid their loan by January of 1917.

The station also worked with animal husbandry, raising its own horses, cattle and sheep. Not all of its experiments were successful though. Old photos in the UAF archives show yaks at the station. One of the photo captions states that they tried crossing yaks with Galloway cattle from Scotland to get an animal that could winter outside in Alaska. The experiment was disappointing, with “meat tough as ****!” Other photos show a similar disappointing experiment, crossing domestic sheep with wild mountain sheep.

The farm still provides research and demonstration projects in forest management, agronomy, animal science, horticulture, and resources management, and although recent budget cuts have impacted the farm’s programs, Alan Tonne, the farm’s manager, told me he was confident that it will survive.

Located on West Tanana Drive on the lower edge of the UAF campus, the farm has 260 acres of cropland and 50 acres of forest land used for demonstration projects and research. Farm facilities include two residences, a visitor center, barn, greenhouse, grain handling facility, small saw mill, feed mill, maintenance shop, and several storage facilities. The Georgeson Botanical Garden is located adjacent to the farm.


  •  "100 years of Agricultural Research in Alaska," in "Agroborealis," Vol. 3, No. 1, 1998
  • “Alaska History of Agriculture,” National Preservation Program for Agricultural Literature
  • Conversation with Alan Tonne, experiment farm manager
  • “Experimental farm celebrates a century,” Robinson Duffy, 6-25-2006, “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner”
  • “Like a Tree to the Soil, a history of farming in Alaska’s Tanana Valley, 1903-1940,” Josephine Papp & Josie Phillips, 2007, University of Alaska

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